Your Doctor

The Importance Of Sleep - And How To Improve It

Sleep is crucial in maintaining your physical and mental health, and supports many facets of healthy brain function. Whilst there is often an emphasis on the importance of sleep in children and adolescents as it helps support growth and development, good sleep is important for all of us and here is why:-

1. Quality of sleep: The average person needs around seven to nine hours of good quality sleep a night. One or two nights of poor sleep won’t harm you, but if it goes on for weeks, there can be serious side effects such as difficulty in concentrating, mood swings and risk of an accident or injury if you are too tired to drive or look after yourself properly.

2. Sleep wards off diseases: Research has shown that getting good sleep can help in the fight against diseases such as heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Having less than five hours of quality sleep a night over a long period of time can seriously increase risk of disease. Sleep deprivation can cause high blood pressure and possibly cause increased inflammatory processes which could lead to heart disease for example.

3. Increased sex drive and fertility: It’s not only mental and physical health which can be improved by sleep, but also sexual health. Those who do not get enough sleep generally have less libido than those who do. Males who suffer from Sleep Apnoea (lack of sleep caused by periods of breathing cessation) often have lower testosterone levels than those who don’t. For women, regular lack of sleep reduces the secretion of reproductive hormones, meaning they may be less likely to fall pregnant. 

4. Mental Health: If you think about a time when you were tired, you may find you were irritable and moody due to lack of sleep. Imagine this going on for a prolonged period. A constant lack of sleep can lead to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Surveys conducted on those with depression discovered that many sufferers often had less than six hours sleep per night. 

5. Weight Management: Having less than seven hours sleep a day has been linked to weight gain, higher risk of obesity and weight disorders. Sleep deprivation causes a drop in the levels of leptin - a chemical in the body which makes you feel fuller, and increases ghrelin - a chemical which increases hunger meaning you are more likely to overeat when you have a lack of sleep. 

HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP 

1. Consistency is key: Help to regulate your circadian rhythms (also known as the body clock) by sticking to a sleep schedule which allows for at least eight hours. You should try and stick to this even on weekends to make your body adjust to getting the same amount of sleep. Separate activity time from sleep time and avoid bright lights and screens before bed. Waking up to sunlight in the morning can improve circadian rhythms. Try keeping a sleep diary to see if there are any obvious problematic patterns.

2. See a professional: If your sleep deprivation is extremely bad and affecting your daily life, be sure to see your GP for help and advice on the situation. They might provide sleeping tablets for short periods of sleeplessness or stress. They may investigate the possibility of sleep apnoea or look at other reasons for your insomnia. 

3. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol and cigarettes: All of these things can affect your sleep pattern. Eating big meals, especially if they’re spicy, can cause indigestion which may cause discomfort when trying to get to sleep. Try not to eat a large meal for at least three to four hours before going to bed. If you are hungry, the optimum time to have a light snack is 45 minutes before bedtime but it is often best to avoid snacks prior to bed if possible. Caffeine and nicotine stimulate the body, meaning they take hours to wear off. Although alcohol can make you feel tired at first, it can disrupt your sleep later in the night as it is a stimulant as well.

4. Sleeping Environment: Ensure your bedroom is the right temperature and free from noise so that your sleep is not disturbed. If you have a partner who snores, you may want to try sleep remedies such as earplugs to block out the noise. Using ‘white noise’ apps or machines produce soothing noises which may help you sleep if you are struggling or listen to mindfulness sources or meditations.

5. Bedding: Make sure that your pillows and mattress are comfortable. It is recommended that you change your mattress every eight years or so. Make sure to wash your bedding regularly otherwise unwashed bedding can cause skin conditions and allergens which could cause sleeping difficulty and have other side effects.