The importance of sleep
Rest is invaluable. The importance of sleep should never be underestimated and yet, so many of us deny ourselves the recommended 7 hours. With work and all our other commitments, more and more of us are finding that we are increasingly tired during the day. This may well be down to a lack of sleep. Quality sleep, not just a power nap after work.
You can of course book yourself a relaxing spa weekend in Yorkshire to unwind, but nothing compares to an uninterrupted night’s sleep. The time that you spend in bed affects your mental and physical health dramatically and not getting enough sleep can lead to some serious problems. As such, we have created this guide detailing the importance of sleep and all of its benefits.
How important is sleep?
Somewhere along the line we started neglecting sleep. We ate into our time dedicated for rest and recover with work obligations, our family and social lives and everything else that we do. Much of this we simply cannot avoid. But we are sacrificing our natural cycle for something else. Now, millions across the world sleepwalk through their day both physically and mentally.
Jules Sowder is a publisher and the brains behind Better Sleep Better Life, a site offering advice on everything from snoring to the right mattress. Jules spoke to us about the importance of sleep:
“Quality, sufficient sleep plays an essential role in promoting an individual’s physical health and emotional well-being. Through the years, extensive research has been conducted on the importance and benefits of sleep. According to Better-Sleep-Better-Life.com, these studies demonstrate that when people are deprived of much-needed sleep over a period of time, they are at risk of developing chronic, even life-threatening, health conditions. In addition, lack of sleep can impair the activities of daily life, including working, learning, driving, and social interactions.”
Getting the right about of sleep is vital to survival. Getting the right amount of hours in bed allows you to focus, make better decisions, keeps you healthy and happy, all of which come together to create a greater quality of life. Sleep is so much more than downtime and at no point should we dismiss it for other ventures.
The benefits of sleep
More and more of us are focusing on how much we can fit into our day. Driven by our jobs, a healthy lifestyle and an active social life, we are eating into the night and sacrificing our sleep for other pursuits. But no one can argue against the benefits of sleep.
It improves your memory
Having enough sleep allows us to be more productive and make fewer mistakes the following day. It is part of the reason why children should be getting the most sleep, as their brains are developing the fastest and they are in education. A report from America found that mechanisms in the brain get to work at night to help shape memory. If you miss half a night’s sleep you can seriously impair your memory and alter the behaviour of your brain cells.
Sleep energises you
Waking up well-rested and with a clear head is a brilliant feeling. But many of us can’t remember the last time that happened. Instead, we sleep-walk through our mornings. Some head straight for a cup of coffee first thing to give them that energy boost to get them through the day. In reality, you might just need an earlier bedtime. Having a full night’s sleep will leave you feeling productive, active and positive.
Sleep can make you slimmer
A lack of sleep has been linked to people gaining weight. Anyone who sleeps less than 7 hours a night is at risk of putting on some extra weight, which can lead to an increased risk of obesity and the inevitable health problems which come with it. This is down to the reduced levels of leptin (a chemical that makes you feel full) in a sleep-deprived person’s system.
You feel happier
If you put all of the benefits of sleep together it comes as no surprise that getting more of it will make you happier. A lack of sleep can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. But a good deep sleep allows your brain to spend some time balancing all of the chemicals and hormones necessary to improve your mood.
Sleep fights off disease
As soon as you drift off your body gets to work boosting your immune system, recharging your batteries and repairing cells. Having a full night’s sleep means that you are giving it time to get the job done properly. This is why you will notice that those who are ill will spend more time asleep. Rest equals recovery, after all.
In reality, the list of benefits of sleep is endless. From minor improvements, to drastically improving your mental wellbeing, consider the pros when you start ‘just one more’ episode of your favourite show in the evening.
How much sleep do I need?
The Sleep Council was established in 1995 as an organisation looking into how we can all adopt healthier sleeping habits while raising awareness for a good night’s sleep. Lisa Artis was kind enough to give us her thoughts on sleep and how much we should be getting:
“There is no magic number for sleep, and while everyone’s requirements are different (some of us cope far better on less than others), there is a fairly general consensus that around seven to nine hours is the average. If you’re getting a little less, there’s probably no need to worry about it, but a lot less could lead to problems.
“Research has found that those who frequently get fewer than six hours a night are at significantly increased risk of stroke and heart disease, with evidence that not sleeping enough may ramp up the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, releasing hormones that speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure. Not only are there increased health risks with routinely sleeping less than six hours but it also impacts on attention, concentration and memory. Sleep really is the answer to feeling and looking your best.”
Napoleon famously declared how much sleep people should be getting: “Six hours for a man, seven for a woman and eight for a fool.” This, of course, is flawed. It also comes from a time where little if anything was known about sleep. Ultimately everyone is different. People are built as individuals, so while someone might be able to function on minimum sleep others simply cannot get through the day without at least eight hours.
The NHS recommends the following:
- Adults: 7-9 hours
- Children: 9-13 hours
- Toddlers and babies: 12-17 (this can include nap time)
An odd night here and there isn’t going to cause substantial health problems. If you are travelling, working or have a social event one evening you might fall below the recommended hours, but try to ensure that this doesn’t become a regular occurrence.
If you find yourself nodding off during a spa weekend in Yorkshire, it might not just be quality of your massage. Sleep Debt is the hours we are missing out on being added up. For instance if you are missing an hour of sleep a night you will have to make up 7 hours the following week. This can quickly add up and get out of hand. To combat this some people might decide to take a nap straight after work or during the afternoon. Although this will make you feel alert for a time afterwards, it doesn’t give you the benefits of an actual night’s sleep. Others will choose to sleep in during their time off from work, but this can through your cycle out of sync. Bad sleeping habits like this can have a negative effect on your health in the long and short term.
How to get a good night’s sleep
There is something so satisfying about a good night’s sleep. You are well-rested and revitalised for the next day. But when you are rolling around your bed in the early hours of the morning frantically trying getting to sleep, it feels like the most impossible task. A lack of sleep is now considered to be a national health risk and can seriously affect your body and mind. But changes to your daily routine can really help you get a good night’s sleep.
Fall asleep and wake up at the same time
Otherwise known as your circadian rhythm, understanding your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle is one of the best ways to get a good night’s sleep. It might sound confusing, but in reality, it is just a matter of falling asleep and waking up at the same time.
Set yourself a strict bedtime and a wake-up time and stick to it. Say for instance you want to get in eight hours of sleep, then fall asleep at 11.00pm and wake up again at 7.00am. Use these times every day throughout the week, even the weekends. It will become a routine, but if you lie-in on a Saturday or Sunday it could throw it all out the window. Sticking to these times will set your internal clock and optimise your sleep quality.
If this is new to you, then try and get into bed in advance of your bedtime. It might take a week or so for your body to adjust to this, so you might find it hard drifting off at the desired time at first. Just stick with it and eventually it will come naturally.
Turn the lights off
Exposure to light is one of the biggest reasons why people find falling asleep difficult. When it is dark your brain produces and distributes more melatonin, a chemical that makes you feel sleepy. It is why you will notice that you are increasingly tired during the shorter winter months. With developments in technology and our evening habits, we are increasingly exposing ourselves to more and more artificial light. But there are steps you can take to improve this.
If you are just not a morning person, try and get as much sunlight as possible. Walk to work, drink a coffee outside or enjoy your breakfast in front of a bright window. Do the same during your lunch break, or take a walk outside to help keep you awake for the afternoon stint.
During the evening you should switch off all your bright screens between 1-2 hours before your bedtime. Most phones, tablets and laptops now have brightness and night time settings which are more sensitive to your eyes, but for optimum sleep try to dim all of the lights way before you tuck yourself in. If you are someone who has devices on in your room make sure you turn them off at the switch, or at least cover them. The charging or standby light on the television and your phones can be particularly disruptive, so cover it up before bed.
Get some exercise
It can be as little at 10 minutes a day, but exercise does dramatically improve your sleep quality. People who take part in regular exercise feel more awake during the days and have an increased amount of time spent in deep stages of sleep. But it does take time to really instigate the effects, sometimes weeks or a month depending on how often you exercise and how vigorous it is.
That said, exercise before bed can interfere with your sleeping. The rise in body temperature, stimulus from the activity and your sped-up metabolism that all comes from being active can be disruptive. Avoid it as close as three hours before bed.
Change your diet
Your diet has a massive effect on your quality of sleep. There are foods you should avoid at any point in the day, but particularly in the build up to bedtime and the evening. Some are more obvious than others, like drinks that are high in caffeine and sugary foods. Others, like big meals late at night, can keep you awake. Alcohol, refined carbs and anything that is spicy or acidic can also disrupt your sleep pattern. There are some snacks that make sleep a little easier. A small turkey sandwich, milk, yogurt and bananas are all okay later on, in moderation of course.
Many of us will just lay down in bed and expect to drift off immediately. This works for some fortunate people, or unfortunate if they are so exhausted they cannot keep their eyes open. If you find yourself tossing and turning after 10 minutes in bed then get out, get up and do something. Avoid bright lights and avoid anything that overly stimulating, just spend some time distracting yourself. We asked The Sleep Council’s Lisa Artis for her top tips on getting a good night’s sleep:
“To get a better night’s sleep try following the three Rs – routine, relaxation and the right bed! Routines that are associated with sleep signal the brain that it’s time to wind down – think a warm bath, having a milky drink, reading a book or listening to soothing music. Try to keep similar hours too. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time, all the time, will programme your body to sleep better.
“Make sure your sleeping environment is restful. Your bedroom should be kept for rest and sleep and it should be neither too hot, nor too cold; and as quiet and dark as possible. Make sure the room is gadget-free and your bed is comfortable. It’s difficult to get deep, restful sleep on one that’s too soft, too hard, too small or too old.”
As we have said, everyone is different. Of course, there will be someone out there who claims to be living on five hours of sleep a night and while this might sound impressive, consider what this is doing to their body. The health benefits of getting a good night’s sleep are unquestionable and hopefully, after reading this article you fully understand the importance of sleep.