Sleep is the ultimate regeneration for our bodies and minds, and is essential for all aspects of our lives. It not only affects our mood and energy levels, but also our immune system, hormones, cardiovascular system and even our weight.
What happens to your body when you sleep?
When we sleep we give our brains and our bodies a chance to actively recover and repair themselves.
The glymphatic system in our brains clears away waste products and harmful proteins that accumulate during the day. Sleeping also stimulates the growth of new nerve cells and allows them to reorganise to help our brains work efficiently. This helps with our memory function by tidying up information, deleting what we don’t need and converting short-term memories to store in our long-term memory. The effect of this decluttering is improved focus, concentration and decision making.
Other cells in our bodies are restored as well, for example our muscles start to repair, tissues regrow, and hormones are released to help us control blood sugar and hunger. All this regeneration helps our physical performance as it prevents us from overeating, reduces our risk of developing type 2 diabetes and helps us make better food choices while also helping tired or injured muscles repair through the production of protein and the release of human growth hormone.
Finally, activity in the parts of the brain that regulate emotion increases while we sleep which can help improve our emotional stability during the day.
How To Improve Sleep
It might be surprising to learn that although 40% of the UK population report they have issues with their sleep, there's very little awareness of just how common sleep problems are.
There are many ways to improve your sleep, some simple and some requiring more thought. However, the first step is to determine the causes of poor sleep. Very often, sleep problems are caused by a combination of factors and not just one alone. By working on some of the key triggers many people find that they improve the quality of their night’s rest.
Causes Of Poor Sleep
Back and neck pain that keeps you awake can sometimes be caused by your mattress or your pillow. Check if your pillow is the right height - your spine should be in a straight line, too high or too low puts strain on your neck.
Spending all day in front of a screen can cause neck and shoulder pain, so regular mobility exercises or yoga can help. The best solution to back pain is often to move more, even if it is uncomfortable to start with. Walking short distances several times a day or trying basic yoga movements daily can reduce stiffness.
With many more of us working from home, your desk layout can have an impact. Make sure your screen is at eye level, and your forearms are at right angles to your upper arms when typing. Adjust your seat height and either put your laptop on a box and use a separate keyboard and mouse, or invest in a second screen to help your posture and avoid strain.
According to Ofcom, the average British adult checks their phone every 12 minutes and 37% check their phones in the five minutes before they turn their lights out.
However, using digital devices can make it harder to sleep as the bright lights replicate the effect of daylight on your brain. The blue light emitted by phones, tablets and computers are thought to be particularly disruptive to sleep, which is why most devices now have “night mode” where the brightness is dimmed or a red tint is applied to the screen. Blue light blocking glasses are also becoming popular to reduce the effect of screen time before bed. Ultimately, the best solution is to put your phone out of reach for an hour or so before you go to bed.
Stress and Anxiety
While stress is a cause of sleep problems, you need to find and resolve the underlying issues leading to that stress. Work, relationships, major life events can cause short term issues but usually, once these are overcome, your normal sleep patterns will resume.
Long term stress and anxiety are different and can be extremely debilitating. While medication is necessary for some sufferers, alternative routes are more sustainable long term with fewer side effects.
When work spills over into the rest of your life it can cause problems with sleep. In most jobs it can happen from time to time, but with working from home on the increase and the expectation that we are all connected 24/7 it can be difficult to switch off. Try to wind down for a couple of hours before you go to bed and avoid checking your emails in the evening so that you don’t spend all night fretting about a disgruntled client. If you are still struggling, book a meeting with your boss and try to get to the bottom of the issue.
Many people find that drinking caffeinated beverages in the afternoon and evening can seriously affect their sleep at night. For some people it is just coffee that is the culprit and others find that tea and fizzy drinks can also cause a problem. Try switching to decaf, herbal tea or just water after lunch. Don’t be tempted to swap your night time cuppa for a glass of wine or whisky though as alcohol also disrupts deep sleep.
While fresh air and exercise can often contribute to tiredness and give you a great night’s sleep, exercising too close to bedtime can actually cause insomnia. Dehydration could be part of the problem, or your core temperature may still be high, or it could be that your brain is still alert due to the hormones which are released to give you energy during physical activity. It can take a few hours for your system to fully calm down and relax.
Your bedroom itself can affect your sleep. While it is nice to be cosy when you get into bed, if you are too hot during the night it can be disruptive. Likewise, being too cold can keep you awake, so invest in a hot water bottle if you have chilly feet.
Some people find it hard to sleep if it is too light or too noisy. What’s more, if your bedroom is cluttered or if you use it for work then it can be tricky to relax.
Whether it is you or your partner who snores, it is a significant problem for many couples. The snorer themselves can have disrupted sleep caused by sleep apnoea, and their poor partner can struggle to fall asleep because of the noise. Nasal strips or mouth guards can help the snorer, while ear plugs remain the best option for the suffering partner.
Hot flushes and night sweats can play havoc with sleep patterns, plus increased anxiety and changing hormones can make a good night’s sleep a distant memory. Supplements and herbal remedies can often help, or consider speaking to your doctor about HRT.
Some simple changes to your evening routine can sometimes be enough to improve your sleep patterns. Switching off digital devices, having a hot bath, reading a book or listening to soothing music can help you nod off. Try following the same routine at the same time every day so that your brain becomes accustomed to it.
There are many relaxation techniques which can help you drift off to sleep. Often the simplest are the most effective; for example, try focusing on your breath as you breathe in and out slowly and deeply.
Mindfulness and Meditation
A step on from breathing exercises, mindfulness can take many forms. It doesn’t have to be cross-legged on the floor, any moment where you are still and present will help. Some people like colouring in or concentrating on music and others use a meditation app to help them achieve stillness.
Spending time outdoors
Fresh air is an enjoyable and free way to improve your sleep. Think how tired you feel after a day at the seaside, with the salty breeze in your face. If you can spend some time outside every day, preferably in the morning it can really make a difference.
With an estimated 10% of the population taking some sort of sleeping tablet regularly, pills remain a popular and effective remedy for poor sleep. They are particularly effective in acute situations where someone is unable to sleep because of a traumatic event, and they desperately need short-term help to re-establish a healthy pattern.
It is, however, easy to become dependent on the pills, and finding an alternative while you investigate a long-term solution to the root of the problem may well be an option.
There are many alternative remedies available, from herbal sleeping tablets to nutritional supplements such as magnesium. Many people swear by lavender oil, while others find that Bach Rescue Remedy works wonders. The new kid on the block, CBD oil, not only helps to reduce anxiety to help you drift off more easily, but it also aids deep, restorative sleep so that you feel more rested the next day.
Before you reach for the vitamins, look at your diet and see if you can improve the nutrients that you are eating. Avoiding highly processed and sugary food can often help as can avoiding eating right before bedtime. Try snacking on foods such as bananas and almonds contain magnesium, a mineral known for helping relaxation and reducing fatigue.