We’ve all been at that stage in our lives where we have sacrificed sleep in the name of a deadline. Anyone who has been in post secondary school can tell you that with 100% certainty. We sacrifice sleep in order to study for a big exam, or finish that big project. We pay for it later, but you have to do what you have to do right? Sometimes life would be easier if we didn’t have to sleep at night wouldn’t it? Why is sleep so important?
Have you ever heard of this term “sleep hygiene”? The goal of sleep hygiene is to make sure that you have a quality sleep at night, and are able to be alert during the day. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Let me ask you this….when was the last time you woke up from sleep feeling rested?
It is estimated that approximately 50% of the population doesn’t get enough sleep. How much is enough? Research suggests that we need about 8 hours of sleep a night. It isn’t enough to have those 8 hours though; it’s more about quality than quantity. In order to have quality sleep, you need to progress through 4 different stages of sleep. The stages range from light sleep to REM sleep and back. Stages 3 and 4 of sleep (deep and REM respectively) are the most important ones, and the ones that provide the most benefit.
There are many things that can affect your ability to get restful sleep at night. The most common issues affecting sleep are electronics and caffeine. Playing with electronics at night can cause delayed release of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is released naturally in our bodies when we are exposed to low light. Blue light emitted from electronics inhibits the release of melatonin. This affects your ability to fall asleep. The next most common reason is caffeine. Now I know, you love your coffee. I too am a lover of java, however it is important to be mindful of what time you consume caffeine. The closer you are to bedtime, the more caution you should use with caffeine. One other problem that can affect sleep is adrenal fatigue. (See my blog post on adrenal fatigue for more information as to what that is.)
Okay, so you aren’t getting a decent night of sleep. Why is that important?
Sleep does a number of things to help your body. It first of all impacts healthy brain function. In children and teens it helps with growth and development, which is why kids need to get more sleep than adults do. When kids are deficient in sleep, it can alter parts of their brain making them more prone to mood swings, depression, lack of motivation, and can negatively impact their grades. In adults, sleep helps to improve learning, can help you with decision-making, and can impact creativity. Secondly sleep impacts the ability of the body to heal itself. Sleep allows your body to heal and repair heart tissue. Studies have shown that deficiency in sleeping can increase risk for heart attack and stroke. Sleep also helps to hormonally regulate our bodies. It helps your body respond favourably to insulin, which as we all know affects the blood glucose levels. It also affects leptin/ghrelin balance. When you are well rested, your body releases more of a hormone called leptin. Leptin helps to control feelings of hunger. When you are sleep deprived it will release higher levels of ghrelin (a hormone that increases feelings of hunger).
When we sleep, our body releases growth hormone. This helps to promote normal growth and development in children, and helps to promote muscle growth and tissue repair in adults as well as children. Sleep deprivation can affect your ability to heal following an injury, or just after a tough workout.
Probably the most well known affect of sleep deprivation is its affect on the immune system. Sleep deprivation is known to inhibit our immune system, which makes us more susceptible to the cold and flu.
So combine the symptoms mentioned above with the ones we already know like lack of concentration, you can see why sleep is kind of important.
The question now remains, what can be done about it?
There are a few strategies that can help to improve your quality of sleep
Avoid caffeine close to bedtime. I recommend that if you are going to drink coffee, that you drink it before 2pm. If you are particularly caffeine sensitive, don’t consume any after noon.
Exercise. I know, this one seems a little backwards. Exercise helps to fatigue you, which can help you be able to fall asleep easier.
Don’t take excessive naps. I am a huge advocate of napping, however when dealing with sleep hygiene issues they can be counterproductive. If you need to nap, try to keep it under an hour so as to not disrupt your sleep cycle further.
No big meals before bed. This is actually for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that eating a big meal before sleep can cause indigestion, which will keep you awake. The second reason is that when you eat food you inhibit the release of growth hormone. Growth hormone is primarily released during sleep, so eating can affect how your body heals at night.
Limit the use of electronics before bed. Blue light emitted from electronics will inhibit the release of melatonin, which you want your body to be able to produce.
Keep your room dark. Your body releases melatonin in response to low light. If you need some light in your room, try a dim night-light. Avoid using anything that emits blue light.
Try your best to adhere to a strict sleep schedule. Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day will help your body develop a healthy circadian rhythm.
Sleep disturbances can be complicated in some cases. Some people have genuinely tried all of the above strategies and had no luck. In many cases however, the fix required to improve quality and quantity of sleep could be very simple. So if you find that you are “sleeping” a full 8 hours and waking up exhausted, or not able to get enough sleep at night, give some of these strategies a try. You might wake up refreshed as a result.