The importance of sleep and how it impacts on physiological and neurological systems are becoming more deeply understood. Sleep scientists (yes that’s a thing) around the world are studying the ways in which sleep both positively and negatively effects our lives. Their findings are a cause for great concern for those who are not getting enough sleep.
Few people truly recognise just how important sleeping is. Poor sleep hygiene, as it’s known, has the potential of shortening your lifespan, along with correlating strongly with obesity, metabolic syndrome and impaired physical performance (Dedhia 2017).
How sleep affects our mental health
In addition, the quality of sleep is an indicator of general well-being and irregular sleeping patterns have been shown to impair or diminish the quality of a person’s life. Poor sleep hygiene is associated with heightened states of anxiety, stress and depression (Scott et al 2017).
Other negative outcomes associated with poor sleep include:
· Impaired memory
· Impaired learning capacity
· Increases states of anxiety, stress and depression
· Increases chances of developing obesity
· Reduces the size of a males testicles thus adversely impacting on reproductive capability
· Could increase susceptibility to Alzheimer’s
· A mere one hour of sleep deprivation can significantly increase one’s risk of suffering a heart attack
· Sleep loss has been shown to impair immune system function
· Short sleep duration is linked to increase risk of cancer
How to sleep better?
Abstain from caffeinated or sugary drinks for a minimum of 6 hours before bed time. Why? Because caffeine can continue to stimulate the brain for up to 6 hours after ingestion.
Avoid bright lights – including ‘screen time’ – for a good hour or two prior to tucking up. Bright light can adversely impact on how the brain regulates sleep hormones and, so I read, can trigger wakey wakey time – something we want to avoid before fluffing up the pillow.
Avoid strenuous physical activity at least 2 to 3 hours before boarding the sleep train. Exercise induces a heightened arousal state which may delay feeling relaxed for sleep.
Impose a strict zero tolerance attitude on napping throughout the day. Yes there is evidence out there in favour of napping; some studies have shown that it can boost mood and increase cognition. However, for light sleepers or people who struggle to sleep napping can impoverish the quality of our sleep.
Maintain a routine and rigidly stick to it. Apparently, according to the sleep scientists, we can train ourselves to sleep not only better but more deeply. One of the best ways to do this is establish a routine and avoid breaking it. Contrary to popular best sleeping practices advice, even if you are not tired you should still observe your routine.
Resist the temptation to hit snooze and don’t make a habit of lying in. Yes it’s probably not going to hurt once a week – say as a Sunday morning treat – but sneaking in extra Zzzzzs can disrupt sleep cycles.
It is good practice to create an environment conducive to inducing a restive ‘sleepy’ state at least an hour before entering the Land of Nod. For example, let’s say you habitually climb into bed dead on 10pm, at 9pm you would ensure that all devices are turned off, lights turned down, maybe a bit of soft music playing in the background and you might begin reading a pleasant book – not a Stephen King slasher flick – or engage in a relaxing activity: Pilates, light Yoga or meditation. A body scan meditation can help your mind and body relax to help settle you ready for sleep. Most people find they fall asleep before the end of the meditation!
From the research, sleep hygiene has been shown to be imperative to our mental and physical wellbeing. Hopefully this blog has offered you not only the science but the tools to begin making positive changes to enhance and cultivate a restful sleep.
Suggested Reading List
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
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Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success by Shawn Stevenson
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For more on the importance of sleep watch this excellent video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MuIMqhT8DM
About the Author
Laura Allen is a Psychologist, Counsellor and Coach specialising in the connection between mindfulness, the body and mental health. Her research has focused on the impact of mindfulness on the brain and the physiological systems. In addition, Laura teaches and practices mindfulness alongside guest lecturing.