There are some people that fall asleep right away, and sleep through the night without any trouble. If you are one of those people, consider yourself one of the very lucky ones. For the rest of us, it is not as easy. Many times we are left wondering what can we do to better our sleep? And what is it affecting in our daily routines when we don’t get enough? Well, if you are as desperate for the answer as we are, then continue to read on. We have teamed up with Dr Maja Schaedel, Clinical Psychologist & Co-founder of The Good Sleep Clinic to answer all of our sleep questions, to let us know why it so important, and what it has to do with our physical health.
Maja tells us that sleep is incredibly important for almost all areas of our physical and mental health. She tells us that without sufficient sleep, our mental health suffers, but also there is now evidence to suggest that we need sleep for our physical health. If we are consistently sleep deprived this can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, obesity, and cancer.
When we are sleep deprived, it affects our exercise in several different ways. Firstly, if we haven’t slept well, we feel less like exercising. It is understandable that we avoid physical activity when we are under slept, however this then leads to a vicious cycle as exercise is one of the main ways we build up “sleep pressure”. This is one of the main elements to good sleep. It is the pressure that builds up throughout the day and leads to tiredness which then leads to falling asleep, and staying asleep during the night. If we don’t have sufficient sleep pressure, then our sleep that night will suffer. This means that exercise is a key element in ensuring we protect our sleep quality.
Maja also lets us know that we are under-slept, we become exhausted after 30% less exercise than usual. This means that if you normally run 10km before getting tired when you are under-slept you will become tired at 7km. This means that our exercise performance deteriorates when we are sleep deprived.
In addition, we also know that good sleep leads us to make better food choices with a lower calorific intake. We also know that good sleep leads to us burning more calories than when we are sleep deprived. On top of this we know that when we have slept well, we have more motivation to exercise and we can work out more intensely.
Is sleep as important when we’re growing up, now, or later in life?
Sleep is important throughout all stages of life but how much sleep we need, and how much we achieve, changes depending on our age. We need a huge amount of sleep when we are babies, sometimes as much 18 or 19 hours of sleep a day and this then gradually reduces as we get older. By the time we are adults we can expect between 6 and 10 hours, with the average being somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. When we get into older age we may still need as much sleep as when we were younger but it is harder to achieve, as the quality of our sleep deteriorates. We also find that our circadian rhythms change throughout our lifetime. Circadian rhythms regulate our sleep-wake cycle and these change throughout our lifetime. We tend to start out as morning larks by waking early when we are toddlers and then once we hit adolescence, we don’t become tired until a lot later in the evening as our circadian rhythms are pushed much later in the evening. As we venture into adulthood, we tend to revert back to our designated chronotype – this is whether we are a morning lark, night owl or somewhere in between which is largely determined by our genes.
What is a common amount of sleep? Is there a thing as 'too much' sleep?
On average adults gets approximately 6.5 hours of sleep a night, however if you take away electricity, light, technology the sleep habits of adults change and they start to get almost 9 hours of sleep a night. This tells us that our daily lives can often get in the way of getting good sleep. Many sleep experts say that between 7-8 hours of sleep is what we should be aiming for. This is certainly a good goal to have, however it is not always possible or recommended to focus on getting a certain amount of sleep. This is because we can find that worrying about sleeping can actually have a negative impact on sleep so although you may be trying to achieve the “right” amount of sleep, this can actually make sleep harder to achieve if it leads to insomnia. Everybody is different and for some people they do just do not need as much sleep as others.
What causes broken sleep patterns? Say, waking up throughout the night and not being able to fall back asleep.
There are many reasons why we wake during the night, for example restless legs, sleep apnoea, needing the loo to name a few, but the issue we often find with sleep is the difficulty getting back to sleep after waking. Our sleep is normally made up of 4 or 5 sleep phases, each of which lasts approximately 90 minutes long and each sleep phase usually consists of some light and deep sleep. At the end of every sleep phase our sleep is often very light and vulnerable to waking. It is actually very normal to wake at these points, but we run into difficulties when we struggle to fall back to sleep. One of the reasons may be due to sleep pressure.As soon as we wake, we start to build up sleep pressure and by the end of the day we hope to have enough sleep pressure to ensure we easily fall asleep and also stay asleep. If we tend to struggle to fall asleep OR we wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep, this can reflect that we do not have great enough sleep pressure. Another reason we may struggle to fall back to sleep is that our mind has become engaged in our thoughts – we sometimes call this a racing mind. Often this can be exacerbated if we are going through a period of stress.
Is there anything in particular you shouldn't do/eat before bed?
In order to fall asleep we need a few things to happen – we need our core body temperature to drop, we need our heart rate and breathing to slow and we need our level of melatonin - the sleep hormone, to rise. It can be helpful to engage in relaxing activities before bed, such as reading or watching TV. It can also help to eat a couple of hours before bedtime so that your body is not having to metabolise food just before bed. We know that alcohol can make you sleepier initially but generally it tends to have a negative impact on the quality of your sleep so it can be helpful to reduce your alcohol before bedtime or perhaps by drinking earlier in the evening.
What can cause you to have vivid/weird dreams?
The content of our dreams is influenced by many different things, such as activities you have done in the day and unprocessed thoughts. Dreams tend to occur mostly during Rapid Eye Movement Sleep or REM sleep. This sleep occurs mainly in the latter half of night or in the early hours before waking. If you sleep for longer in the morning, you may have more opportunity for dreaming. This phenomenon occurred last year during lockdown when it was observed that the nature of our dreaming changed, our dreams became more “vivid” and more prevalent. This was thought to be largely due to our sleep habits changing with many people having the opportunity to sleep a little longer in the mornings when working from home and without needing to go out to work.
What are 5 steps you can do to switch off, relax and get a good night’s rest?
If you're having trouble sleeping where should you go? Who should you contact?
If you struggle with sleep then you can always go to your GP and they may be able to refer you to a Sleep Disorder Service. The Sleep Charity have a sleep helpline www.thesleepcharity.org.uk you can call if you are struggling. In addition you can go to The Good Sleep Clinic for advise on treatment for Insomnia.
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