How to Improve Your Sleep and Your Health
Humans have a habit of trying to “power through” without sleep, or to survive on as little as possible. We prioritise other things, and the importance of sleep is often ignored or underestimated. But it is vital for health and wellbeing in myriad ways.
We spend roughly one-third of our lives sleeping. During sleep, the body slows down and gets a break from the daily onslaught of stressors. Yet many processes remain active, including those involved in growth, repair and recovery.
Why is sleep important?
When we are sleep deprived, we feel it both physically and mentally. Brain function and productivity are impaired. Energy and stamina are low. The immune system suffers.
Poor sleep quality has been linked to an increased risk of chronic disease development, including high blood pressure, heart disease and dementia, as well as mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Specific benefits of sleep
- Sleep promotes healthy hormone production and activity. Growth and stress hormones, along with hormones that control appetite, are regulated during sleep.
- The brain uses sleep as an opportunity to clean out the metabolic byproducts that have accumulated during the day. This eliminates waste that could damage brain cells and impair nerve function.
- During sleep, the brain organises information it has taken in throughout the day and makes connections. This is what leads to those “aha” moments upon waking.
How much sleep is healthy?
Most people function optimally with 6-8 hours of sleep. However, it depends on the individual, and it is important to listen to your body, and if you feel you need more sleep, to stay in bed a little longer.
Our circadian rhythm, or the sleep-wake cycle, tends to follow the rotation of the planet and responds to light and darkness. It is therefore ideal to sleep when it is dark and wake when the sun comes up.
Now, that isn’t feasible for many people, so an adequate sleep period would be from around 10.00 pm to 6.00 am. However, this will change based on how north or south you live, where the sunrise and sunset does not follow the same diurnal patterns as at the equator.
How to improve sleep
- Stick to a consistent bedtime.
- Shut down electronics, especially devices that emit light (smartphones, computers, etc.) and opt to read a book instead.
- Set a comfortable temperature in your bedroom. The optimal temperature identified by research is around 18-19°C. However, judge for yourself what temperature makes you comfortable and relaxed.
- Limit the amount of liquids, including water and tea, that you consume before bed to avoid waking to go to the bathroom.
- Don’t engage in stressful activities before bed, including checking work emails. Non-emergencies can be dealt with the next day.
- Exercise or rigorous physical activity earlier in the day will aid sleep.
- A warm bath before bedtime will relax the muscles, and can also induce sleepiness, especially when salts and lavender are added.
The effect of diet on sleep
There are some foods that are associated with improved sleep quality, falling asleep faster and a longer sleep duration. These include kiwis and tart cherries.
An old remedy for sleep is milk, especially warm or malted milk. Milk may contain small amounts of melatonin that makes you feel sleepy. Of course, if you have allergies to milk, or lactose intolerance, you should avoid this.
Nuts have been shown to promote good sleep because they contain minerals like magnesium and zinc. They also contain a small amount of melatonin. In addition, nuts contain a healthy dose of fats and proteins to stabilise blood sugar in the evening and prevent you from waking because you are hungry.
There are also foods to avoid, including stimulants such as sugar and caffeinated beverages before bed. Although alcohol is often turned to as a sleep remedy, it in fact leads to poor quality sleep.
Overall, you should leave at least three hours between eating and bedtime, to prevent issues such as indigestion and acid reflux. If it is difficult to eat earlier, opt for lighter, easily digested foods such as soups, purees, fish and protein smoothies.
Sleep is important for both physical and mental health. Poor quality sleep over the long term can lead to chronic health issues. Simple habits such as exercising and eating well during the day, and following good sleep hygiene at night, can improve sleep quality and overall wellbeing.
Dr. Jason Culp - Research & Development Director