Why we need sleep
I used to think of so many more things I could be doing rather than sleeping and saw it as a waste of time.
But in truth sleep is vital, it enriches the brain in multiple ways, this is when you actually store memories of what you have learned that day and if you are not sleeping properly these memories are not made.
Not only that but being awake is catabolic (which means breaking down) and being asleep is anabolic (which means rebuilding). There’s a whole range of benefits that sleep brings to you, including the rejuvenation and growth of the skeletal and muscularly systems. Put simply, it means that sleep rebuilds you and will keep you youthful! It also builds a stronger immune system, boosts your metabolism and increases your physical and mental energy levels. You will never live life to the full or have the body you want, unless your prioritise your sleep!
A few of the topics that we look at in this article are:
- Circadian rhythm
- Caffeine effects
- Blue light rays
- Bedtime routine
- Sleep sanctuary
- Black out
- Training and its effects
- Alcohols effects
- Bed time routine
Harmful Toxin Removal
When you sleep your body goes through a waste removal process, getting rid of all the bad things such as toxins and dead cells. If you don’t have enough sleep, this will start to get back up, as the body will not have time to produce new cells and allow you to live your life optimally.
You know what it’s like when the bin collectors are a day behind because of a national holiday, the rubbish piles get bigger!! Now imagine that in your body, these waste piles getting bigger and bigger due to a lack of sleep. The inability of your brain to be able to remove harmful waste products is believed to be one of the foundational causes of Alzheimer disease.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” The reality with this saying is that it will bring that day closer, as the less you sleep the less your life span will actually be. That is something you should seriously think about. A more accurate saying would be “burning the candle at both ends”.
Diabetes & Blood Sugar
Studies have shown that just one night of sleep deprivation can make you as insulin resistant as a person with type 2 diabetes. It doesn’t stop there, it also directly translates to ageing faster, a decrease in your libido and storing more body fat. This is just one night, now combine that to the weeks and months, for some possibly even years of inadequate sleep.
Sleep helps manage your blood sugars levels. I have my markers checked every 6 months in order to keep my health optimal. The first time I did it, my blood sugars were extremely high, although I ate well. The feedback from the doctor was to reduce sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks, bread and all items with sugar. These were all things that l didn’t consume in the first place, therefore leaving me slightly confused. However, over the next few months I focused on improving my health and especially my sleep. I then had my blood sugar levels checked again and found that they had gone back to normal, not because my diet had changed but due to sleeping better. There was me thinking my blood sugar levels would be extremely good as I ate well, but it was not the case, put quite simply it was not my diet, but sleep deprivation.
Lack of sleep can stop you losing weight and even fat
Something that really jumped out at me was a study published in the Canadian medical association journal, which showed that sleep deprivation is directly related to the inability to lose weight. I bet that’s grabbed your attention now!?
With just 24 hours of sleep deprivation there is a 6% reduction of glucose reaching the brain. Due to this reduction your brain starts to crave simple sugars and making you want to eat things like sweets, chocolate, bread, crisps and well anything to get that quick rush of glucose back to the brain as quickly as possible. That is why good sleep can reduce your craving for things like this.
Sleep deprivation makes you dumber
Fatigue related error is directly linked to sleep deprivation, a decreased cognitive function and you may also be more forgetful. Have you ever walked into a room and forgot what you went in for or forget a simple task you were meant to do. It’s not because your normally forgetful, it may simply be because you are sleep deprived (tired).
Not enough of a reason to improve your sleep? One of the main causes of car crashes is due to human related error, usually due to fatigue impacting your judgement and reaction time.
So how does it all work
Circadian rhythm is a natural internal process that controls our sleeping and waking cycles over an approximate 24hour cycle, (our body clock).
When the sun comes up, we want to be awake and when it’s goes down, we should be sleeping.
It’s your body’s natural clock and it functions through the release of hormones at specific times in order to wake us up in the morning and to help us fall asleep at night.
So let’s first check out some of the main hormones that play a role when it comes to our Circadian rhythm and help us get a better understanding of how the works.
Melatonin is the star of the show, it is a hormone that is released into the body/bloodstream when it’s time to start shutting down and going to bed. It doesn’t make you fall asleep, but it produces better conditions for you to do so. For this reason, it is also known as ‘the hormone of darkness’.
It begins with cells in the eye which are called photosensitive retinal ganglion. They detect if it is day or night time and send signals straight to the brain. When night time is signalled, it then decides to release melatonin and begin the bed time phase.
The brain signals to the hypothalamus which is considered as the master glad in the body. Some of the things in which it controls are: hunger, fatigue, thirst, the body’s temperature and your sleep cycles.
By getting more natural sunlight in the day and less light exposer at night will help the sleep process. We will talk more about artificial light later on.
Leptin and Ghrelin
I spoke earlier about your adherence to eating healthily being affected by lack of sleep due to the brain craving glucose in the form of simple sugars which also links to the hormones called leptin, ghrelin.
Of these hormones, leptin suppresses your hunger and the levels of leptin in the body are reduced when you are sleep deprived. Making you feel more hungry.
Ghrelin has an opposite action and is at its highest before a meal. Ghrelin tells you when hungry/full with this increasing again if you are sleep deprived.
This shows a direct correlation between both hormones and sleep deprivation which can lead to eating more than you require and usually of the wrong foods!
Serotonin is a known as the ‘feel good hormone’ and is what a lot of anti-depressants are centred around, due to its role in the body. Serotonin is heavily influenced by your diet, brain activities and how much natural sun light you get. Don’t you just feel in a better mood when you wake and the sun is out? So, you may already be linking how being healthy actually makes your feel better.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released into the body to make us feel more awake and alert. More is secreted during the morning to help us wake up, but it is normally at its peak between 6am and 12pm and then starts to decrease. Now this isn’t the exact same for every one yours maybe slightly different.
Circadian rhythm continued
Now that you understand some of the key players when it comes to your hormones let’s take another look at your Circadian rhythm.
This is your natural flow of alertness though the day as you can see in the morning you are most awake unless you are sleep deprived. Why are you most awake at this time, yes you’ve guessed it, cortisol production being at its highest.
As cortisol production then drops from mid-day, this is usually a good time for a nap but no more than 20-30 minutes, as you don’t want to be going into your deeper stages of sleep at this point in the day. Something I will go into later
As evening approaches your natural cortisol production drops even lower with melatonin increasing to prepare you for sleep.
Your sleep cycle stages 1-5
There are 5 stages in you sleep cycle and these are described in the photo below:
Stages 3, 4 & 5 are what we want to aim to be in, this is the better sleep quilitly and when the body is making its repairs. If you are not getting into the deeper stages of sleep you will not be sleeping optimally.
Sleep cycles normally last for approximately 90 minutes and depending on how many cycles you go through, determines how long you sleep. If you wake up in the middle of one of your sleep cycles and you are in the deeper stages of sleep you will feel groggy and tired.
Working out so that you wake at the end of a cycle will be optimal. You should aim for 4-6 90 minutes cycles throughout the night.
Ways to improve
Next we look at some of the areas of which we can influence in order to help use achieve optimal sleep quality.
- No screens before bed
- Bedtime routine
- Sleep sanctuary
- Black out
- Bed time routine
Caffeine is one of the most consumed drinks with the most popular form being coffee. There are benefits to consuming coffee & caffeine but there are also some negative things too that you should be aware of.
It might be counterproductive to have caffeine first thing in the morning, as this is the time our body is producing cortisol (the hormone which makes as naturally feel awake) and it is at its highest. Caffeine actually interferes with cortisol production making your body more dependent on the caffeine to feel alert. Reducing your morning consumption may be beneficial in allowing your body to act naturally.
It is not advisable to consume caffeine after 2pm, as the body requires time remove it from its system, otherwise it will affect you getting into your stages deeper sleep.
Setting a caffeine curfew is important and for most people it should be set at 2pm, but if you are caffeine sensitive then possibly even earlier!
No screens before bed
The screens of our laptops, iPads etc, give out blue light rays and this sends an incorrect signal to the brain, which makes it believe it is still day time. With this incorrect signal, the hypothalamus will not be secreting the melatonin, which you now know is important.
All gadgets such as TVs, phones, tablets, kindles and computers send out blue light rays and just tuning down the brightness won’t stop it. It is much better to stop their use and so remove the blue lights effect on your brain 90 minutes prior to going to bed. This will then allow your body to adapt to the prospect of going to sleep.
If this sounds like too much of a big jump, the start with 30 minutes and build it up
Right bed time
You should aim to go to bed a few hours after it gets dark, as you get the most rejuvenating hours of sleep between 10pm and 2am, as these are known as the golden hours. Going to bed early will also help you rise early, increasing the time you can catch more natural sunlight
One way to help with this is to set your phone on night mode 90 minutes before bed so that you are not alerted of notifications and messages and the brain can ready itself for sleep.
Your room should be a sleep sanctuary! You shouldn’t bring work, gaming or a tv into the bedroom, as you want your brain to associate your bedroom with sleep and only sleep. If your live in a small flat and your bedroom is the same room as you live in, then you should try to divide the room and not work on the bed.
The correct room temperature is also very important as you won’t sleep properly with the room being too hot, it’s much better for sleep when it’s cool. Fresh circulating air is also helpful, another addition would be to have one or two air purifying plants or an air purifier in the room.
It is also much better to have our phones on plane mode as opposed to just night mode as they can still produce a radiating signal. It will also reduce any disturbance from messages and notifications coming though until you are ready to receive them in the morning and on your terms. What you can also do is turn off your Wi-Fi so there is no disturbance from this during the night and you are now in as close to perfect sleep sanitary as possible.
Spending money on your sanctuary/ bedroom is an investment as you spend 1/3 of your life there, so a proper bed, mattress and pillow is all money well spent and your body will thank you for it.
It is well known that sleeping in darkness will improve your quality of sleep, but this is still not utilised to the fullest by most of us. In fact, many people don’t realise that a very small amount of natural or unnatural light can affect your sleep patten. The reason for this is that there are actually photoreceptors in your skin, similar to the ones in the retina of your eyes of which we spoke about early, so they also send information to the brain thinking that its daytime.
According to the book “Sleep Smarter”, an American University carried out trials on this subject and the results were amazing. They tested subjects and their sleep pattern by placing a fibre-optic cable giving out light the size of a ¼ dollar (l think is similar to a 10p piece), on the back of the knee while sleeping. Although they slept in complete darkness the light effected their body temperatures and melatonin production. Proving that covering your eyes with night shades won’t be enough alone.
Removing any form of light from your room is advisable, even if it’s just a stand by or charging light on an appliance, such as a tooth brush or mobile phone. Cancelling out any external light through black-out blinds, whether its natural or simply street lights, will greatly improve your sleep. Investing in black out blinds will be well worth the money.
Exercise is great for the body and has many known health benefits, but it can also aid your sleep and as you sleep the body repairs and rebuilds itself. Therefore, if you want to continue to improve your physique, make sure you prioritise your sleep.
One thing to bare in mind is that training too late in the day can have a negative effect on your sleep. Some people who train late take a stimulant, which can have a negative effect and not only this, but your body also releases hormones to aid your training. One being adrenaline which will give you a jacked up nervous system as opposed to a relaxing sleep sanctuary. You may fall asleep fine but you won’t be getting into the high-quality stages of deep sleep.
So, plan your training time accordingly, for me it’s mid-morning when l have my best sessions. I’ve been able to have a couple of meals, got any little jobs out the way so that I am not distracted and it fits into my natural daily cycle.
In this day and age drinking can be a part of life, but be aware that it doesn’t just affect how much body fat you have just because of the calories, it also takes you away from optimal sleep, meaning it won’t just be pounds you put on, it will also stop you from losing them!
Bed time routine
To help you start shutting down properly for bed you should have a bed time routine. This can vary from individual to individual and you need to work out what works best for you.
To begin with you need to calm your inner chatter. This can be as simple as writing down items you need to remember (off-loading) which can be anything from the list of jobs you didn’t get round to doing, any appointments or social events that you may have arranged and any ideas that may of popped up. It all helps with sleep.
Reduce screen time as previously mentioned and this can be filled with reading or conversations with loved ones instead.
Meditation is fantastic to get your mind into a relaxed state and tune your parasympathetic nervous system (body in equilibrium). It doesn’t have to be anything long, as I have a few clients that simply do 5-10 minutes of breathing exercise which is enough for them. We have tracked their sleep with and without meditation and the quality is much higher with the simple 5-minute routine
Reading books is another great option, as you are not just improving your knowledge but reducing screen time too. Tablets and phones would not be advisable to read from, due to the blue lights effect of which we spoke earlier.
I don’t personally use any supplements to help with my sleep I just make sure all my heath markers are in the right place. But there are supplements that can aid sleep. You should do your own research before you decide to take any.
Although you may be going to bed at the right time and getting enough hours in bed, you should also track your sleep pattern, as then you can tell how many hours of deep sleep you are getting for the greatest quality.
There are multiple apps you can use to do this which link to your smart watch or Fitbit, although this is not the most optimal way. Using a heart rate monitor would be better if possible, as that way you are not affected by the blue lights given off by your watch.
Some of the apps that either me or my clients have used are:
Sleep rate, Sleep Cycle, Sleep Watch
Don’t limit yourself to these there are many out there find which suits you best and use that one.
For something that has as many health benefits as sleep does, I think anyone would be crazy to ignore and not prioritise it, especially as it’s completely free!
This overview is really only scratching the surface and I would recommend that you look more into improving your sleep, if you wish for optimal health!
Having been on multiple courses and mentorship learning on sleep hasn’t stopped my desire to improve and I continue to read to enhance my knowledge.
Two of the books I suggest my clients purchase to allow a better understanding of the importance of sleep are;
Sleep smarter by Shawn Stevenson (my personal favourite)
Another good option is:
Why we sleep by Mathew walker
(photos used in this article are from the book Sleep Smarter & also my M10 Coaching Course)