Why is sleep so important in your life? What things affect sleep? Is there a set number of hours of sleep, that every person must have each night? What will happen if I don’t get enough sleep? What things can I do to improve my sleep?
In this article I will try and shed some light on some of these questions listed above and other information. One thing I will mention straight away is that from my own experience there seems to be a lack of awareness and insight into ‘sleep’ and how this impacts upon the general health and wellbeing of sleep. From my own experience of how lack of sleep impacts upon an individual was first brought to my own attention in the film ‘invasion of the body snatchers’. I’m not saying that aliens are cloning humans beings, but more so about how it impacts upon the humans in regards to depriving themselves of sleep: They become very lethargic, unable to make decisions, look physically withdrawn, unable to concentrate, lack of physical energy, complain of aches and pains, blurred vision. Does any of this sound familiar?
I guess all of us now and again will demonstrate some of these symptoms after a very bad night’s sleep (noisy neighbours, childcare responsibilities) or lack of sleep (got in late from a night on the town or stayed up late to watch your favourite tv programme). These symptoms start to become a concern and even can be classified as a ‘sleep problem’ when it goes beyond ‘2 weeks’. For example you wake up too early in the morning or even wake up during the night. Your head is racing with thoughts that seem to stop you from actually falling asleep in the first place. According to NHS Choices:
“One in three of us will suffer from poor sleep; with stress, computers and taking work home often blamed. Also regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy.”
So it’s easy to see how important it is to get a good night’s sleep as it gives you the rest that you need to function properly as well as being a vital part of your health and wellbeing. When you are actually fast asleep dreaming as your sleeping certain things are happening that you may not be aware of such as your brain is actually processing and storing memories (that can lead to the emerging of new ideas the next day); lead to a restoring of mental and emotional wellbeing, (as your mind can unwind and de-stress) and on a physical perspective it fights illness and even the body repairs itself (focuses its energy and effort of healing from physical injury).
In regards to how much sleep an individual needs, varies from person. The old wives tale that everyone needs approx. 8 hours of sleep per night is untrue. Some people can function fully on 4 to 5 hours sleep whilst other individuals need 9 to 10 hours’ sleep. Also events in your daily life can also impact upon the amount of sleep you need. For example illness physical exercise, childcare responsibilities, pressure in your job, general life stresses. It is really important to also point out that having good quality sleep is more important than the actual amount of sleep you actually have during the night.
As mentioned a little bit earlier there are a number of things that can directly impact upon sleep if not contribute to an individual getting a sleep problem:
Your bedroom environment: an uncomfortable bed, a room that is too hot/cold, or even too much light (natural or man-made) being let into the room. The external environment that is sometimes beyond your control can affect sleep. For example you live next to a main road, train traffic or even your unfortunate enough to have noisy neighbors.
Stressful life events: caused by work pressures, family responsibilities, or a particular traumatic
event that happens in life. For example bereavement, divorce.
Physical health: illness, injury or long term health contributions. For example, high temperature, uncomfortable pain, can make it difficult to fall asleep if not stay asleep. Unfortunately at times our asleep is indirectly impacted upon by our partner. For example if they snore, move around in your sleep, or get up to use the toilet during the night.
Mental/emotional health: The way you feel has been linked to impacting upon your sleep. For example if you are feeling stressed, anxious or worried you find it difficult to switch off as your mind just seems to be racing. When an individual is feeling depressed, they might find that it hard to wake up in the morning and may find that they oversleep.
Routine: One aspect a lot of individuals overlook is something known as ‘Routine’. A number of individuals struggle to establish any form of routine in their lives (especially if they are unemployed or retired). This can lead to lack of regular activity, staying up late, or even not getting up in the morning and staying in bed.
For some individuals there may be things in their lives that disrupt their ‘normal’ routine on a more regular basis. For example if your job role involves shift work or you have young children. One factor that can have a temporary affect an individual’s routine maybe staying overnight in a hotel or even jet lag caused by a long haul flight.
After all this discussion, you might be thinking what can you do to improve your sleep? Well here are a few suggestions:
Bedroom furniture: Try and keep the temperature in your bedroom to 18’c. Use extra blankets if you are feeling too cold or open a window/turn off heating if you find yourself feeling too warm. Many bedroom manufacturers suggest replacing your pillows every 3 to 5 years and your matters every 10 to 15 years.
Light level: To make the room as dark as possible, use thick curtains, black out blinds, or even a
sleep mask. Turn off all electronic devices that may give off light.
Noise level: If you are struggling to manage noise, choose to buy a pair of ear plugs or even move your bed further away from where the noise is coming from (the window or through the wall).
Bed time routine: Have a hot bath or shower 2 hours before sleep. Avoid watching t.v or using your computer at least one hour before bed, to allow your brain to become less stimulated. Also avoid eating food and drinking 2 hours before bed to allow time for it to digest properly in your stomach.
Alcohol: Alcohol all though may help you fall asleep, it can lead to you waking up (to use the toilet), keep you in a light sleep during the night or you may wake up thirsty and dehydrated. Try and limit how much alcohol you drink and if possible avoid drinking alcohol 6 hours before bed. If you are drinking in the evening a glass of water between drinks will help to hydrate your body to some degree.
Smoking: When you smoke, your body release nicotine into the bloodstream that actually stimulated the body making you more alert. So if you find yourself smoking close to bedtime you are more likely to find it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. Try and avoid smoking 1 hour before bed time and If you do wake up in the night, avoid the need to smoke.
To help promote sleep, here a few simple methods that you can put into practice:
Spend less time awake in bed. If you find that you not asleep within 20 minutes, get up and go into another room and so something relaxing.
Give up trying to fall asleep. The more you try and force yourself the less chance you have of actually falling asleep. What will make this worse is if you start clock watching as this will only increase your sense of worry/urgency to fall asleep.
The old counting sheep can work or even counting backwards from 1000. Something as simple of repeating a neutral word (sleep) over and over to yourself can even promote sleep.
Progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercise or even listening to a guided meditation are all great ways that can be put into practice.
As you come to end of my article, I hope you have gained a understanding and realisation of the importance of sleep within your life and more importantly how to sleep better. What’s more try and put some of these things into practice tonight? Sweet dreams, sleep well!!