Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health and your quality of life. The way you feel while you’re awake depends in part on what happens while you’re sleeping. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy metabolism and maintain your physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps to support growth and development.
Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information. Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you’re well-rested! Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level, so sleep deficiency results in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase your risk of diabetes.
1. Sleeping tablets
Sleeping tablets aren’t the best way to support healthy sleep function as they have a high addiction risk, and they often stop working if taken regularly. Furthermore, sleeping tablet do not treat the problem, only masking a symptom of poor health.
The main types of sleeping tablets are in a class of medicines called benzodiazepines. In the past, sleeping tablets were commonly prescribed. However, they have been shown to have problems and side effects, and are now not as frequently prescribed.
2. Light and darkness
The natural balance of these in our lives stimulates our sleep cycle and is called The Circadian Rhythm. They also regulate other essential drivers like behaviour, hunger, thirst, metabolism, hormones and body temperature. The intake of light into your retina is the cue for your biological clock to kick in. In darkness we produce Melatonin, an important neurotransmitter secreted in the brain to initiate natural sleep cycles. Bright street lights, the TV, phones, even the LED light from the alarm clock can disrupt sleep patterns, especially it you’re sensitive to them. How bright is your room? If light from outside is a problem invest in some heavyweight window shades or heavier curtains with a light-cancelling backing. Remove LED clocks, or face them away from your body. An Integrated Practitioner can treat and improve melatonin levels using specified nutrients and botanical extract formulas.
Near morning your body’s melatonin production should drop to daytime levels in response to resting time and light increase. Your body temperature will naturally drop at this time too in a natural circadian rhythm. If you have an under-active thyroid gland causing a slowed metabolism, your body temperature may drop too low during sleep and natural rest and cell regeneration does not occur. (We have a blog about morning temperature testing to check if this is happening to you here).
Stress hormones from the adrenal glands such as cortisol can cause melatonin irregularities and fluctuations too. Have you ever noticed that it’s harder to get a good night’s rest when anxious or worried? If the business and stress of your life are contributing to lack of quality sleep, daytime treatment and management are an excellent way to promote daytime energy and night time rest.
4. Being the wrong kind of busy
Adopt a wind-down session: “If you’re short of personal time then you probably need a break between work and home,” says psychiatrist Georges Alcaraz. “Go to the cinema, play sport, or set aside 10 minutes to try something new. Allocate a space for recreation during the day so that you don’t feel cheated in the evening. Avoid upsetting your biological rhythm. For example, be consistent with your eating patterns. If you eat early, you’ll go to bed earlier, too.”
By slightly increasing your body temperature within an hour of bed you can help yourself get a better night’s sleep, says Michael Perlis, associate professor of psychology and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. A 2008 study by researchers out of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience found a slight increase in skin temperature before bed helps people shift into deeper stages of sleep. Of course, you should also follow the standard advice of keeping your room cooler than body temperature too, since the body’s heat level decreases when you’re snoozing.
6. Shift work
Irregular schedules and shift rotations are difficult to adjust to; many scientists believe the body never really can. Your body clock will always know that you’re supposed to be asleep when you’re actually working. Other people feel they are able to condition themselves to the different routine, but will often suffer other circadian rhythm changes in their hormonal or nervous systems as a result.
7. What not to take
There are some pretty common culprits that interfere with sleep. Alcohol is a common self-treatment, as many people will have an alcoholic drink – or ‘night-cap’ – to help sleep. Alcohol actually causes broken sleep and early morning wakefulness – best to be avoided just before bed! Other problematic substances include:
Caffeine; present in tea, coffee, some soft drinks such as cola, and even chocolate. It is also in some painkiller tablets and other medicines (check the ingredients on the medicine packet). Caffeine is a stimulant and may cause poor sleep.
Nicotine; is actually a stimulant, so smoking is not recommended (for multiple health reasons!)
Street drugs like ecstasy, cocaine, cannabis and amphetamines can affect sleeping patterns days and even weeks after their usage.
Some medicines interfere with sleep; diuretics (‘fluid tablets’), types of antidepressants, steroids/anti-inflammatories, beta-blockers for the heart, some weight loss tablets, painkillers containing caffeine, and some cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine.
8. Sleep preparation
“A good night’s sleep is prepared for in advance,” says sleep specialist Professor Damien Leger. “It’s about giving your brain a signal to sleep by gently lowering its activity levels and reducing the noise, light and temperature.”
Setting the scene is key: “It’s important to tell your body that night-time is coming,” says Dr Guy Meadows from the Sleep School in London. “So don’t check your emails or Facebook while getting ready for bed.” This preparation should even start earlier in the day. “Tiredness is often seen as a sign of weakness, so we try to override it,” he says. “If you feel tired, you’re likely to reach for a coffee or tea to keep you awake. Drinking either after 4pm isn’t a good idea.”
9. Recognise the signs of fatigue
“Listen more closely to your body so that you don’t miss the chance to get to sleep,” says sophrologist Catherine Aliotta. “In order to do that, you have to learn to recognise signs of fatigue such as tingling eyes and difficulty concentrating.”
What time of night do you first yawn? When is it hard to get off the couch?
10. Bedroom happiness
Think back to the nicest room you have ever slept in, what did it have in it that was soothing, made you happy, gave you relaxation and joy? Apply those same things to your current sleeping space, to try and improve your sleeping habits. The environment you are in has been shown to have a large impact upon healthy sleep habits for a variety of reasons.
If you work at home, avoid working out of your bedroom; a general rule is to separate bedroom or sleep area from work space. If you have a television and computer in your room, then try to keep them in a cabinet that can be closed so you can effectively turn them off and store them out of sight.
11. Sleep apnoea
This sometimes occurs in people who snore, most commonly in obese people. In this condition the large airways narrow or collapse as you fall asleep. This not only causes snoring, but also reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to the lungs. This will cause you to wake up in an effort to breathe properly. You may wake up many times each night which may result in daytime tiredness.
Hormonal fluctuations like menopause can make a huge difference, wreaking havoc with your emotional and physical state and disrupting sleep enough that they can produce insomnia symptoms. Because menopause happens over time, sleep problems are sometimes transient, or reoccurring, or chronic and severe. When our body has ups and downs of estrogen and progesterone the entire body’s chemistry is thrown off. The severity is particularly bad for those with a poor metabolism. These physical responses disrupt daily and nightly activity. To compound these problems, the worse your sleeping symptoms are, the more intense your daytime changes will become! Moodiness and extreme fatigue are common symptoms. Hot flushes, night sweats and anxiety when not properly treated will wake you up and disrupt sleep so badly that chronic insomnia is often touted as ‘normal’ during menopause. Proper hormonal regulation of thyroid and reproductive hormones will drastically relieve most menopausal symptoms which in turn will alleviate your insomnia.
Perimenopause can start up to 10 years before actual menopause, causing isolated instances of symptoms that start a poor sleep pattern. Insomnia can become symptomatic of more serious sleeping disorders in post-menopausal women. Statistics show that post-menopausal women develop sleep disorders more severely than any other time in their life, such as restless leg syndrome and sleep apnoea.
Sounds are important to most people when sleeping and unusual noises can easily wake you. Do you seek a silent room? Do you need to hear some noise? Do you sleep near a busy highway or airport? These types of things can make a bigger difference than you think. Need some noise? Maybe invest in a white noise machine. Many models offer an assortment of background noises from the ocean to trains and more. Or you could invest in a small fan for some affordable white noise. Need silence? Make sure televisions are turned off, close your door and windows, try earplugs or if you’re near a busy street try moving your bedroom to the room furthest from the street.
14. Relaxation techniques
These aim to reduce your mental and physical activity before going to bed. Relaxation techniques may help even if you are not anxious, but find it difficult to get off to sleep. There are a number of techniques. For example, progressive muscular relaxation has been shown to help promote sleep. This technique consists of tensing and relaxing various muscle groups in sequence.
15. Daytime exercise
Regular daytime exercise can help you to feel more relaxed and tired at bedtime, and may help you to sleep better. If possible, do some exercise on most days. Don’t do exercise near to bedtime if you have insomnia. Even a walk in the afternoon or early evening is better than nothing. However, ideally, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on five or more days a week. Moderate exercise means that you get warm and slightly out of breath. You do not need to go to a gym! Brisk walking, jogging, cycling, climbing stairs, heavy DIY, heavy gardening, dancing, and heavy housework are all moderate-intensity physical exercises. Normal actions as part of living or work don’t count!
And that’s it for our list! If you’re having sleeping difficulties, please always remember that that we’re here to support you as well.