The importance of sleep
Why on earth are there not 54 hours in a day? Who can get everything done in 24? Well, to squish it all in, I guess the yoga class is the first thing to go. Sitting down to eat remains a fanciful notion. And sleep? Pfft, who needs it? Go to bed a smidge later, get up a little earlier, and watch me smash through the to-do list!
That’s the way it works, isn’t it?
You are busy. We get it. Most of us are. But one of the most important things you can do for your health is prioritise sleep.
Skimp on sleep and you may find yourself in a world of trouble. Without it, you risk:
- Insulin resistance
Insulin action is decreased in those sleep deprived.1
- Compromised immune function
This includes making you more susceptible to the flu, or to developing chronic conditions, including cancer.2;3
- Brain fry
Cognition, focus, memory, learning and rational thinking are affected.4;5
- Weight gain
Even in our kids!6 Sleep deprivation can mess the hunger and satiety hormones.7
- Mood and behavioural dysfunction
There is increased susceptibility to anxiety, depression and irrational behaviour (think about an over-tired toddler. Not fun).
- Enhanced aging and a shorter life
And one could hypothesise, a life of less clarity and quality.5
Lack of sleep should not be seen as a badge of honour. Without sleep you are less productive, less able to make rational decisions, and it can affect relationships.
Let’s look at why amount and quality of snooze time is a worthwhile investment.
Part 1: Quantity
It seems 7-8 hours of sleep each night is optimal for adults. Teens it is 9-10 hours, and for littlies it is more again with 9-12 hours recommended. Despite what people say about not needing sleep, this is only true for a tiny minority.
Back in the cave-dwelling days we were likely to wake more often, or for an extended period throughout a night, and often went to sleep just after sundown. You don’t have to be a mathematical mastermind to figure that is more recline time than we give ourselves now.
Siestas are practiced in many countries, and even being introduced into certain working environments. The 20 minute power nap can really stoke the cognitive fire!5
Part 2: Quality
In an attempt to get enough hours sleep, you are in bed by 10pm and rising at 6am. But how deep was that sleep? Are you rested when you wake?
Ideally, on most days we should feel refreshed, casting back the covers and bouncing from bed to embrace the day.
There are many factors that contribute to reduced quality of sleep. Factors that even take place at the start of the day before!
If you find you do not fall asleep easily, wake and cannot get back to sleep, toss and turn throughout, or wake up foggy, dragging yourself from your bed, here are a few things to consider.
- Melatonin and the circadian rhythm
Melatonin, our major sleep hormone, acts as an antioxidant offering plenty of health benefits. It works in opposite with the stress hormone, cortisol – melatonin assists us to sleep, cortisol helps us wake.
Simply, as one rises the other falls. Melatonin is lowest in the morning, increasing later in the day; cortisol is at its peak early in the morning. This is part of the circadian rhythm, an internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle over 24 hours.
Ignoring this innate rhythm messes with sleep plus many biological mechanisms, even at a cellular level.
Tip: Melatonin production is impacted by light exposure, including the light emitted by screens. Turn off and get away from screens at least 30-60 minutes before bed and let melatonin levels rise.
2. Blood glucose fluctuations
Consumption of sugar and stimulants encourages the production of stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol. The rapid rise and fall of the levels of these hormones throughout a day are reactionary, largely preventable, and can impact sleep the following night.
By stabilising energy and blood glucose levels – and the subsequent release of adrenalin and cortisol – we allow melatonin to rise throughout the afternoon and evening preparing you for bed.
Tip: What you consume at the start of the day can even impact your quality of sleep the following night. Have a good breakfast of protein, fat and fibre for longer lasting energy. This avoids blood sugar highs and lows and the subsequent release of stress hormones and desire to reach for the sweet stuff.
Sleep – you’ve got to get some
Do your darndest to get a good nights rest each night, considering duration and quality. Here are some ideas on helping make those precious supine hours matter:
Routine and night-time light and noise exposure
As mentioned above, turn off all screens and electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, if not more. Attempt to be asleep by 10-11pm – every hour of lost sleep after midnight can be worth two hours of rest and repair in sleep prior to midnight.
Be mindful of light entering the room and noise. Wearing an eye patch and plugging up the ears can help.
Focus on consuming mostly real, whole foods. The Mediterranean diet is a good guide, and has been associated with adequate sleep duration and reduction in insomnia. Eating more of these foods will bump out the highly processed and ultra-processed stuff that can contribute to poor sleep, and offer an array of other health benefits at the same time!
Reduce intake of added and free sugars, highly refined sources of carbohydrates, alcohol, and stimulants such as caffeine – they havoc wreak on blood glucose levels.
If, how and when you consume such food and drink matters. This is something to be mindful of throughout the day.
Caffeine, for example, is best to have no later than noon (for most and depending on how quick you metabolise it). Or opt for something with less caffeine, such as green tea.
Honour yourself, not the idea of yourself
We all feel better for sleep – the deeper the better, with 8 hours a common optimum amount. Only an incy wincy tiny portion of the population can legitimately thrive on less than 6 hours sleep a day (though it may hurt to hear that!).
Give up glorification of less sleep and get some solid snoozing, so you can be the best version of yourself – at work, home and play.
Of course, there are other factors that could affect sleep duration and quality. These include stress, eating too late and overeating, hormonal status, restless leg and twitching, anxiety or depression, medications, allergies and more. If you are having long-term issues with sleep, please seek out a healthcare professional and to work out the root cause and solutions to a better night sleep.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- Broussard, JL, Chapotot, F, Abraham, V, Day, A, Delebecque, F, Whitmore, HR, & Tasali, E 2015, ‘Sleep restriction increases free fatty acids in healthy men’, Diabetologia, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 791-798.
- Hahn, J, Günter, M, & Autenrieth, S 2015, ‘Abstract # 1665: Impact of sleep on innate immune cells’, Brain Behavior and Immunity, vol. 49, no. Supplement, p. e43.
- Hui, L, Hua, F, Diandong, H, & Hong, Y 2007, ‘Effects of sleep and sleep deprivation on immunoglobulins and complement in humans’,Brain Behavior and Immunity, vol. 21, pp. 308-310.
- Killgore, WD 2010, ‘Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition’, Progress in Brain Research, vol. 185, pp. 105-129.
- Scullin, MK, & Bliwise, DL 2015, ‘Sleep, cognition, and normal aging: integrating a half century of multidisciplinary research’, Perspectives On Psychological Science: A Journal Of The Association For Psychological Science, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 97-137.
- Morrissey, B, Malakellis, M, Whelan, J, Millar, L, Swinburn, B, Allender, S, & Strugnell, C 2016, ‘Sleep duration and risk of obesity among a sample of Victorian school children’, BMC Public Health, vol. 16, no. 1, p. 245.
- Schmid, SM, Hallschmid, M, Jauch-Chara, K, Born, J, & Schultes, B 2008, ‘A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men’, Journal Of Sleep Research, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 331-334.
- Lovato, N, & Lack, L 2010, ‘The effects of napping on cognitive functioning’, Progress in Brain Research, vol. 185, pp. 155-166.