The importance of sleep to your health

Does sleep really matter that much? We’ve all read stories about people who have achieved greatness in their field on significantly less than the recommended 8 hours a night. Barack Obama, Maggie Thatcher, Bill Clinton and Elon Musk to name a few. Allegedly Maggie napped frequently in the back of her official car. And Bill has had to extend his sleeping time post-presidency.

But it turns out – apart from when events overtook them – they all had a regular sleep cycle. They fell asleep and woke up at around the same time each day, including weekends. But before we get into the details of sleep, let’s cover why it’s so important.

Sleep quality and quantity is linked to many health markers

Now, there’s probably a relationship both ways in some of the below. i.e. poor sleep increases the risk of weight gain AND weight gain increases the risk of poor sleep. But if you read the list below, you’ll see why sleep is so so important. Poor quality and quantity of sleep is linked to an increased risk of:

  • Weight gain
  • Low mood
  • Poor concentration and lower productivity
  • Poor athletic performance
  • Increased risk of heart attacks and stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Poor immune function
  • More inflammation
  • Emotional volatility and poor relationships

It’s scary isn’t it. But what can you do about it? It’s very difficult to re-establish good quality sleep once that routine has been disturbed. But it’s not impossible. Take heart. And start to take small steps towards that goal of re-establishing your 8 hours…. But before I cover how to do that, let’s discuss how sleep has such wide-ranging effects on your health.

How does sleep have such wide-ranging effects on health?

This is a lot to do with hormones. Unless you are woken up by someone/something else, you wake up when your adrenal glands release a surge of cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as a stress hormone, but it is a necessary part of your life. It is definitely NOT a “bad hormone”. It is involved in waking you up, regulating your immune system, your blood pressure, your metabolism, and many other automatic functions.

Hormones pretty much all affect one another. All of your hormones are affected by your sleep. So, if your sleep is less than optimal, your hormones will be too. And as those hormones moderate pretty much every physiological process in your body and mind, sleep will affect everything. Period.

Melatonin is one of those hormones. Released by the Pineal gland in your brain. One of its main functions is in helping you to fall asleep. Levels of melatonin will increase normally towards the end of your day. You should want them to. So that you can fall asleep more easily. And these fluctuations, along with that of all of your hormones are part of the natural circadian rhythm that affects us all.

We are naturally diurnal

Humans are naturally diurnal. The opposite of nocturnal. Some animals are active at night, and sleep during the day. Most primates – and mammals – are diurnal. But quite a lot are active at night. Being diurnal is so baked into human evolution and physiology that night shift workers are at significantly higher risk of many diseases. Sorry to say. And we should all be eternally grateful to those who do essential work while the rest of us are sleeping. They really are “taking one for the team”.

How to get better sleep

Early Daylight Exposure

It turns out that – being diurnal – daylight is very very important. And the earlier in your waking day that you can get it the better. And it helps a lot if it’s natural daylight. Getting bright daylight onto your eyes – without sunglasses – is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to time your melatonin surge that night.

The early morning light has a particular quality (bandwidth) that is best. This can be challenging if you live a long way from the equator.

Regular sleep and wake times

Try to have a very regular routine. “Sleeping in” at the weekend can disrupt sleep quality the following night. One sleep-in each week might not be too disruptive. But two almost certainly will be.

Regular exercise early in the day

This isn’t true for everyone, but getting some exercise in soon after you get up is helpful. It could be as simple as walking the dog. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. If you can combine daylight exposure and exercise, that’s brilliant.

Regular mealtimes, not eating late, and minding what you eat

Food intake affects your metabolism – and all those hormones. It’s much easier to have a sounder sleep when your hormones are stable. So avoid eating close to bedtime. Ideally nothing for the last 2-3 hours before you go to bed. Especially foods that might stimulate wakefulness. This is a huge topic, but broadly, I have my highest carbohydrate dense meal in the evening. This is because eating carbs leads to more tryptophan production, which is a precursor for serotonin which is a precursor for melatonin. I don’t want high tryptophan levels during my productive hours, but I’m quite happy to have them in the evenings before falling asleep.

If you want to avoid nodding off during the day, you may find that eating “low carb” during the day and high carb in the evenings is one good way of doing this.

Regulate body temperature – what about a hot bath?

The main way your body times your body’s metabolism to be doing the right things at the right times is through controlling your body’s temperature. If you thought you had a “normal resting temperature”, you’d only be half right. We all have a healthy range. The exact temperature typically reaches a minimum 2 hours before your regular wake-up time, then it slowly rises through the morning and declines again late in the day.

It’s easier to fall asleep when your body temperature has been dropping.

How does a hot bath or sauna help? By exposing your body to higher temperature, it responds by promoting self-cooling mechanisms. Those cooling mechanisms help you get to sleep. That’s how a hot drink works too.

Avoid stimulants

Avoid bright light late in the day. If you want to use them, this is the only time of day I’d recommend blue-blockers. Glasses designed to block blue light. Blue light will stimulate you to a more wakeful state. Turn the lights down low. In fact, if you need lights on, then put them down low in your visual field – floor lamps are best. Overhead lights – like the sun – are more effective at stimulating the light-sensitive cells in your eyes. So, turn off the overhead lights. And don’t sit in front of bright computer/phone screens.

Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants. Best avoided late in the day.

Some people are stimulants – avoid conversations that get you going.

Calm yourself down

Whatever works for you. Here are some ideas…

Have a pre-bed routine

It helps if your wind-down is predictable. Body and mind like predictability. If you want to time a melatonin surge, it’s much easier if you do things at the same time. So, turn down the lights, tidy-up your living space, brush your teeth, get into the same side of the bed, use the same pillow, read some fiction (that isn’t too exciting), etc. You’ll need to have some light to read by, but keep it low.

Breath-work / Meditation / Self-hypnosis

If you want to change the state of your mind, change your body. It’s very difficult to make your brain do something different to what it’s doing. But it’s much easier through the use of the body. Breath-work is very effective at calming the mind.

Try box-breathing. Breathe in for a count of 4. Hold for 4. Breathe out for a count of 4. Repeat 4 times. Try to do this breathing down low in your belly.

Meditation – either at bedtime or at any time earlier in the day – has been shown to benefit sleep.

Self-hypnosis at bedtime is effective for many people. Try this free research-based resource>>

Staying asleep

If you have trouble staying asleep, it may be that your cortisol is surging early. There may be other reasons too of course, like the dog next door barking. The answer to an early cortisol surge may be (strangely) to go to bed earlier. The dog needs another solution.

Get up at the same time each day

Remember, what controls your ability to fall asleep is the regular cycle of hormones. Getting up much later will disrupt that cycle.

More to come on sleep…

Sleep is a hugely important topic, and one we will cover in more depth in future, when we are joined by a Lifestyle Medicine Consultant specialising in sleep!


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