Sleep is something we all take for granted until we start having trouble sleeping! We then fret and worry – Why can’t I get to sleep? Why do I keep waking up? Why can’t I get back to sleep again? The more we worry about it, the worse it gets and then we end up in a spiral of worrying and sleepless nights.
Why is sleep so important? Also, how can some people famously like Margaret Thatcher exist on 2 – 3 hours sleep per night yet you need 10 hours? Let’s take a look at some facts about sleep, dispel a few myths and look at ways of sleeping better – not necessarily longer!
Why do we need to sleep?
Sleep is as important to the body as nutrition. During the time at night we are asleep our bodies have a chance to heal and recuperate from the stresses and strains of the day. Studies have shown that when our bodies do not get enough sleep our immune systems become weakened leaving us more open to lifestyle related problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Psychological effects of sleep deprivation can include mood swings, depression and memory loss.
The technical bit!
Sleep is the subject of much research carried out all over the world. Scientists are slowly discovering more about the subject. It is now accepted that there are 2 types of sleep:
1. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – this is the type of sleep in which we dream. During REM the brains neocortex and emotional centres enter a state of high arousal. Paralysis also occurs in the anti-gravity muscles of the body. The body expends large amounts of energy during this phase. Within an adults normal sleep pattern around 25% (decreasing to 20% in the elderly) would be REM. Dreaming in this phase is the deepest trance known. It is thought that this phase is related to our instincts.
2. Non – REM sleep that is also known as slow wave sleep (SWS) – this is the phase of sleep where the body heals and grows. Substances ingested in the awake state are synthesised to form proteins. Growth hormones are secreted to help repair general wear and tear to the muscles and tissues. The brain neurones are refreshed with sugars to restore energy within the brain and the immune system is boosted.
What can I do to improve my sleep patterns?
It is important that you try and indentify the possible causes of your disturbed sleep patterns. These could be:
- Working late in the evening
- Carrying out activities late at night which keep your mind working
- Watching television
- Emotional issues – worries, arguments near bedtime
- Job related stresses
- On-going worries – financial or family issues
- On going health problems causing pain and discomfort
- Eating large meals late in the evening
- Drinking alcohol
- Drinking large amounts of caffeine
It is sometimes helpful to keep a diary for a week or so about your activities during the day, what and when you eat and your sleep patterns. If you then look back over this, sometimes you can see patterns forming – you can then address the issues and hopefully a better sleep pattern will be established.
You can also try some of the following:
- Don’t eat large meals late in the evening. Some people say that a snack before bedtime helps them sleep. If this is you, try to avoid food that is difficult to digest (cheese) or are loaded with sugar (cake). Try instead complex carbohydrates such as toast or oatcakes. Keep it small!
- A milky drink may help as it contains L-tryptophan which is proven to have sleep inducing effects.
- Avoid alcohol near bedtime. It can help get you to sleep but then affects the metabolism causing you to wake a few hours later.
- Avoid large amounts of caffeine after 6pm as it acts as a stimulant
- Nicotine has much the same effect on the body as caffeine so also should be avoided for 4 – 6 hours before bedtime
- Avoid strenuous exercise before bed – it doesn’t tire you out, it wakes you up!
- Create a peaceful, uncluttered environment in your bedroom. It should be a place of rest and relaxation. If possible avoid television and computers being in the room.
- Have a warm bath before bedtime using essential oils in the bath.
- Gently massage relaxing aromatherapy oils (more later this month) into your tummy (it holds the solar plexus which is the site of emotions) and big toes (the head in reflexology).
- Use an aromatherapy room spray or oils on your pillow to create a relaxing aroma.
- Don’t use too many essential oils – they can have the opposite effect and wake you up!
- Relax and meditate before bedtime
- Try to stick to a routine and go to bed at the same time