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The Importance of Sleep: Unlocking Your Full Potential

Updated: Nov 8, 2023


Sleep really is a game-changer for your health and for your emotional wellbeing. Still, even so, scientists are only just starting to begin to understand the biological role.


I know that you know that everything looks better when you are well-rested. It's an essential function for everyone, and lack of it can wreak havoc with all kinds of bodily functions, from daily lived experience to weight gain, lowered immunity, and increased risk for metabolic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.


If you don't want to understand the reasons, then please just skip to the bottom part of this blog. I say this, because sleep so very important for our health.


a dog sleeping


The purpose of sleep is for the body and mind to rest and repair. That process in humans takes seven to nine hours, which is where the idea comes from: everyone should get eight hours of sleep a night. Perhaps you do, in which case I am impressed and salute you. I do try and probably hit this 80% of the time. But many people don't, and there are always consequences. Your mood, creativity, and tolerance are lower than expected, and your motivation to eat well has a tendency to disappear.


There will be always times when sleep gets a little patchy here and there. However, if you regularly get less than seven hours a night (and it really doesn't matter what you have convinced yourself you can get by on) I invite you to look honestly at the impact that it may be having on your life


Why Sleep?

When you sleep, a series of physiological changes take place that allow your body to fully get into a state of rest so that it can repair and prepare for the next day.


Research shows that resting time fulfils a vital function that keeps you healthy. Aside from other actions, sleep removes toxins in your brain that build up while awake. There are two main types of sleep: REM sleep and non-REM sleep, the latter having three different stages. In non-REM, your heartbeat, breathing, brainwave activity and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax. This is the most common sleep stage to be in, and it is the most restorative. Here, the body repairs bone and muscle, strengthening the immune system.


You'll cycle through all these different stages several times a night. The exact make-up will change from person to person and even from day to day. Some days you'll spend longer in those deep and restorative sleep cycles than others. REM sleep is interesting because the brain is very active - brainwaves are very much like those that occur when you are awake. This is when your dreams happen, and it's not usually considered a restful phase. A complete sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes, and you'll typically go through four to five cycles each night.



 

Reasons for not sleeping:

There can be many reasons you're not sleeping; it would be almost impossible to list them all here. The main ones include:

1. Stress

Too much stress is one of the most common reasons my clients struggle to sleep. It doesn't have to be 'big' stuff like divorce, bereavement, or a house move. It could equally be the relentlessness of daily life – like work issues, family or relationship worries or even an assortment of 'smaller' worries. Regardless of the source, stress triggers the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in the central nervous system and puts you in fight or flight mode, essentially, a sense of high alert. Prolonged stress means more stimulation of this HPA axis and, potentially, higher levels of stress hormones at night. You may well feel tired but wired. You'll have little chance of nodding off until you dial down those stress hormones.


2. Blood sugar imbalance

I've often seen clients with blood sugar imbalances (created by consuming too much sugar, starchy carbs, and refined foods) with poor sleep. They might find it easy to get to sleep initially but wake up early. Suppose you're riding a blood sugar rollercoaster, which is common. In that case, your glucose levels can drop too low at night (a hypo), and if you're in a light sleep cycle, this can easily wake you up – even in those who do not have diabetes.


When I don't eat enough carbohydrates during the day, my blood sugar level often dips at night, usually around 0400. I always wake up. I have monitored my blood sugar level using a continuous glucose monitoring system, which is why I am aware of this. This is why I find no carb diets are not good for many clients – we need a bit.


3. Hormones

Declining oestrogen in the transition to menopause can cause a wealth of hormonal issues, including night sweats and hot flashes, which are detrimental to a good night's sleep.


Oestrogen also helps promote deep sleep, while progesterone has a calming and sleep-inducing effect.


When these levels fluctuate, it can disrupt the normal sleep-wake cycle and lead to sleep disturbances. Additionally, hormonal fluctuations can also affect mood and increase stress levels. Anxiety, irritability, and mood swings are common symptoms during perimenopause. These emotional changes can make it challenging to relax and fall asleep, leading to an increased likelihood of insomnia or disrupted sleep.


4. Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnoea is a common sleep disorder characterized by repetitive pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. These pauses can last for several seconds to minutes. They can happen multiple times throughout the night, waking you up from sleep and disrupting your regular sleep pattern. They might be so brief you don't fully remember them, but they can fragment your sleep enough that you wake feeling unrefreshed.


5. Circadian Rhythm

The circadian rhythm is a finely tuned, natural biological process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle in humans. It is often called the body's internal clock, as it controls the timing of various physiological processes, including sleep, hormone production, and metabolism. To improve sleep, you need to understand the circadian rhythm's role.


 

Blue light is the most important factor in regulating the circadian rhythm.


From sunrise to sunset, these rhythms followed the natural daily light pattern for millennia. But, thanks to the invention of artificial light, electronics, and our modern always-on society, this natural pattern has been disrupted. Blue light has the most significant impact on the circadian rhythm. You need the right amount at just the right time to stay balanced. You want more of it in the morning when you're bright and ready to start the day and less in the evening so your body can increase melatonin levels, which facilitates a good night's sleep.






Most of your blue light exposure comes from the sun, which makes getting an early morning work in first thing an excellent idea. At the other end of the day, you can see why staring at blue light-emitting screens like TVs, computer screens, and smartphones is terrible. Too much blue light can, therefore, confuse that internal body clock. This is why that late-night YouTube or Facebook habit might not be such a great thing for your well-being. You're probably now thinking, that's OK because you have the warm-light function on your phone, but scientists believe that it's not just the blue light that is a problem with devices like these. Phones and tablets are excitatory for other reasons, too. Screen time activates dopamine, an 'awake' hormone that leaves you eager to find out 'what's coming next?'. That's why your planned 10 minutes on social media leads you down the rabbit hole.


 

Try these tips for getting more restful sleep

You don't have to do all this stuff - slow and steady wins the race.


Get Plenty Of Natural Light

Getting outdoors during the day – whatever the time of year - can help regulate the circadian rhythm. Spending time outside or near a window can help, as can using a light therapy box during winter. Getting out for a morning walk is a great way to start the day and wake up your body. The earlier that you can get outside the better, even if it is just for 10 minutes.


When I can, I meditate / sit quietly for 10 minutes on my doorstep. That may seem a tad weird, but it is my perfect way of starting the day.


Exercise every day

Try to do some exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.


Watch your Caffeine

Caffeine has a very long half-life; it can take 6-8 hours for half the caffeine in your cuppa to leave your body. Consider that any caffeine after 2pm (if you go to bed at 10pm) will deleteriously affect your sleep quality – even if you cannot feel it.


Dim lights in the evening

At the other end of the day, you want to be encouraging your body to make more of the night-time hormones, which means reducing the amount of bright light. If you have dimmer switches, use those. Or use side lights instead of the main overhead lights. These subtle lighting changes can make a difference.


Avoid Screens before Bed

You learned earlier that blue light from electronic devices can interfere with the circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall asleep. Think about what else you could do to avoid using things like smartphones, tablets, and computers for at least an hour or so before bedtime. Consider real books or a Kindle (which has a different type of light to a tablet).


This is probably the most resisted change that I ask people to do. I have learnt to suggest starting with just a 10 minute break and then gradually extend it. Anything is better than nothing. Making gradual habit changes is the important part.


Take Time to Wind Down

Establishing a relaxing bedtime routine can help signal the body that it is time to sleep. This is what we do with babies, and there's no reason why you cannot adopt some of this for yourself: a warm bath, reading a book, anything that you can do most evenings. It is also helpful to practise relaxation techniques like yoga or try some guided meditation.


Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet

Creating a comfortable sleep environment helps promote better sleep. This includes keeping the bedroom dark, quiet, and cool and using comfortable bedding and pillows. Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off. Since the sleep hormone melatonin likes it dark, if you don't live in the middle of nowhere and you don't have blackout blinds, a generously sized silk eye mask is a good option to create a dark environment.


Ditch the Smartphone Alarm Clock

Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smartphone can stay out of the bedroom – this will also help remove temptations to check messages and/or social media. Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm. That's your personal sleep requirement.


Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help regulate the circadian rhythm. This means avoiding staying up late on weekends or sleeping in too much on days off.



 


Sleep is free and often undervalued, and this is why people typically don't prioritize this.


If you struggle to sleep enough or wake up feeling unrefreshed, I invite you to make sleep a REAL priority this week. Throw everything at it for a whole week - make it your number one job – and then see how you feel. You will almost certainly have read or heard most of the above tips before and for a good reason. They're established facts.


The trouble is, it can feel mighty tricky to do them consistently. So, once again, do every single last one you can for a week and experience what life could be like for you. Choose a week without much going on, just the regular stuff, rather than a week filled with social engagements or a busy work week. Let's call it the 'sleep experiment.' Put it in your diary as though it were an important engagement. Getting into good habits (people often refer to this as 'establishing good sleep hygiene') is the of the very best gifts you can give yourself.


If you have any questions, please do yell. I am always happy to chat about any concerns and try to answer questions. The link is below.





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