11 Jul The Importance of Sleep and How To Improve It
It’s difficult to overstate how important sleep is. We spend a third of our lives asleep, yet sometimes it feels like it can get in the way of life. Why is it that sleep takes up so much of life, but it’s not always a priority? Even when so many of us struggle with it?
It wasn’t until I began looking into what sleep does for our body and why it’s so vital, that I started to place a bit more importance on it. It turns out that sleep is literally the best area you can focus on to improve your health and well-being. I had never really looked at it as something that could help me get more out of life.
Before attempting to improve your sleep, you’ve got to understand why it’s important and how it works. This article is the summary of everything I’ve recently learnt and want to share it with you.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
There are two main reasons why we have to sleep: to restore our mind and to restore our body. As we go about our day, our minds are working insanely hard doing pretty much everything for us – you can only imagine how much neural activity there is firing through it. While all of this neural activity takes place, it produces a specific type of waste that builds up.
Our mind naturally works to clear this waste out of our system while we’re awake, but it can only do so much at a time. It is actually far more effective at clearing it out while we sleep. Because once we fall asleep, the size of our brain cells actually shrink which allows the waste removal process to speed up. This process is why our minds feel foggy when we’ve been awake so long, and why it can feel so clear when we wake up.
Just like our minds rely on sleep, the body does as well. Sleep allows the body to rejuvenate, strengthen our immune system, restore energy reserves and release hormones that repair tissue and help build muscle. The longer we stay awake, the harder our body has to work which uses up all of its reserves.
The less we sleep, the more susceptible we are to fat gain and muscle loss as well, because the body stops burning fat, and starts relying on carbs and protein for energy.
HOW IT WORKS
The Sleep Cycle
The best way to understand how we sleep is through the ‘Sleep Cycle Process’. It visually describes what’s happening to us at different points of the night. There are two really important parts to this process; the deep sleep (the technical term is slow wave sleep), and REM sleep, which stands for Rapid Eye Movement – sounds a bit intense but I shall explain.
Stage 1 is the lightest sleep right at the beginning, stage 2 is where the mind slows down and stage 3 and 4 (deep sleep) is where the body completely relaxes, blood pressure falls and the brain activity is at its slowest. The deep sleep is where the body actually begins to repair itself. If we get woken up in this ‘deep sleep’ stage, this is when the mind feels super foggy.
As we come out of this deep sleep, we eventually get to what’s called the REM stage. Although we’re still asleep, the body temp and blood pressure both begin to rise. REM is where the mind comes to life and brain activity is at its highest. It’s where we dream and the mind goes to town organising all the information it’s consumed while we were awake and the memories get stored.
As the night progresses, the REM stages tend to extend and the less time we spend in deep sleep. Your body/mind go through this process the entire time you sleep typically 3-5 times per night. Each cycle is averaged to be around 90 minutes but is dependent on the person. To put it simply, deep sleep restores the body and REM restores the mind.
Once you get your head around this, it’s easy to see why without enough of the REM and ‘deep sleep’ phases, the body and mind can’t function properly and begins to deteriorate. When that happens, you begin to expose yourself to a bunch of different health risks such as weight problems and heart issues.
The Circadian Rhythm aka Your Body Clock
The sleep cycle covers what happens while we sleep, but the Circadian Rhythm determines how our body naturally gets to that point – we commonly refer to this as our body clock. It’s basically a 24-hour biological cycle that the body typically follows e.g. at the same point in each cycle, our bodies do specific things. This mainly impacted by; natural light, time and this thing called melatonin.
Light – Back in the day before the advanced tech and artificial light was around, natural light was the thing that typically influenced our body clock most. The sun rising and setting triggers a lot of this. These days the more we’re exposed to bright artificial light (like from our phones), there more it can effect your Circadian Rhythm.
Time – This has the biggest impact on your body clock – the time of the day our activities happen, the routine we go through and when we sleep.
Melatonin – The hormone our body releases at night when the sun goes down which causes us to get sleepy. It gets released throughout the body all night until we wake up and when the sun rises.
Side Note – you can get Melatonin as a supplement to help you sleep, it works a treat on long-haul flights and can help you adjust to a new time zone.
HOW TO IMPROVE IT
How Much You Need
There is no universal answer for this as everyone is different and the number is unique to the individual. However, there have been a tonne of studies that give a pretty good indicator based on what age you are. As you get older, the less you need. Once you hit the age of 18 it averages out 7-9 hours up until the age of around 65 when it decreases. As you’ve probably heard, the recommend blanket number is around 8. Again there are always people who need more or less than this, but the best way to work it out is to listen to your body.
Whenever we’re struggling for time, sleep is the first thing to go. It’s super easy to get caught in the trap of sacrificing sleep, thinking you’ll be better off because you’re gaining time. But the main thing you end up by doing is sacrificing quality. The less you sleep, the less focus, discipline and energy you’ll have.
One study found that after 17-19 hours without sleep, our minds are actually affected as much as having a blood-alcohol level of .05! Some cities, states and countries are actually pushing for a new law around driving while sleep deprived.
You can cut back on sleep as much as you want, but the reality is your body cannot survive without it. If you don’t make the time for it, it will make the time for you. Your body will force you to take a break and restore itself by getting sick and physically stopping you.
The Best Time To Sleep
Just like how long you should sleep, there is no universal answer for when you should go to bed. It’s completely unique to you as an individual. Your Circadian Rhythm is going to give you a pretty good indication of when it wants to sleep, so listen to your body. As long as you’re getting enough REM and deep sleep cycles, the time you go to bed isn’t huge.
A good way to look at this is to pick when you want to wake up and work back from there. To avoid your body clock constantly changing, picking a time to wake up each day that is consistent is one of the best things for you (yes, even on weekends!). If you want to get more sleep, it’s a lot better to wake up at the same time, but get to bed earlier instead of the other way around. The more consistent you are the better. You’ll know you’ve nailed this when you start to wake up just before your alarm.
Simple Ways to Improve Sleep Quality
There are so many different ways to help improve our sleep and everything won’t work for everyone. The number one piece of advice I give to people when it comes to sleep is to test and track what impact different things make for you. All of the recommendations I’ve included below are things I have personally found beneficial.
Consistency – Worth mentioning again. Obviously, there are plenty of people, mainly parents, who can’t control when they wake but consistency is the key. The more consistent you are with this, the more your body clock will stay the same and better night sleeps you’ll get. If you’re not getting the right amount of sleep during the week and catching up on the weekends, you’re not going to be doing yourself any favours. Your body clock tries to adjust and you’ll always feel that on Monday.
Disconnect – The light from our computers, TVs and cell phones all affects the body’s natural desire to sleep. The more you expose yourself to this type of light at night, the more your body thinks it’s actual daylight. The best thing you can do is to commit to as much time as possible without your devices before you go to sleep. I aim for an hour, but 30 minutes is my minimum. The difference in how I feel the next day is massive.
Avoid thought intensive activities before bed – If you’re working right up until you’re going to sleep, it’s rather hard to just switch the mind off after extended periods of intense thinking. There is nothing worse than wanting to go to sleep, but your mind is running at a million miles an hour. Things like reading a book can help this, or the activities in the next step below.
Relaxing and calming the mind – Calming the mind requires a little bit of work, but is hugely beneficial. Small things like breathing techniques, meditation and gratitude exercises all help quiet the mind. If you struggle to quiet your mind when you attempt to sleep, try extracting those thoughts and putting them on paper – it can do wonders. If you need help on any of these techniques, flick me an email.
Get some sun / natural light – Exposure to the sun for at least 30 minutes each day can actually help you sleep at night and is beneficial for your health. Getting some natural light each day, especially in the morning works in with the Circadian Rhythm of your body clock. This is super important if you work inside all day in a place that doesn’t have a lot of natural lighting.
Exercise – This is a no-brainer, not just for sleep but also for general health. Exercising allows the body to naturally fall asleep at night due to its need to restore/rejuvenate. Exercising also raises our body temp slightly, which then allows it to drop over the next couple hours, which brings on a natural sleepiness.
Caffeine – Caffeine can be a killer for sleep. If you’re struggling to sleep and you do consume quite a bit of caffeine, slowly reduce this over time and see if it helps at all. The more you have caffeine, the more your body relies on it to stay awake and as an energy source. If you’re willing to put up with a couple days of not feeling awesome, cutting back on it can do wonders for your sleep and energy levels. For some people stopping after 12pm works, for others its around 2/3pm.
Note – Even if you can get to sleep straight immediately after consuming coffee that doesn’t mean that you’re getting quality sleep. It still affects the brain activity, which can impact REM and deep sleep patterns. It’s the exact same thing with the light from our tech devices.
Like anything in our lives, if you want to improve something you’ve got to give it some focus and sleep is no different. While its importance can never be overstated, sleep is hands down one of the most underrated ways to improve our general health and well-being. If you’re looking for a way to get an edge in your life, business or sport – focus on improving sleep and see what happens.