The Importance of Sleep

If you want to be really healthy, you need to get enough sleep.

Unfortunately for many people, sleep can be elusive. The latest UK survey revealed almost half of British women (43%) say they are not getting enough sleep. In fact, 45% do not feel well-rested when they wake up.

Problems with a lack of sleep

Yet sleep is essential for basic repair of our body systems – whether its neurological, immune, digestion or hormones. Did you know for example that melatonin our sleep hormone is also a potent antioxidant known for its anti-ageing properties and immune supporting abilities?  This is why you’re more likely to get an infection when your sleep is disrupted.

For fitness fans it’s also worth knowing that getting sufficient sleep can improve recovery and performance. It helps us to be more resilient to stress and of course makes us feel more positive and energised.

If you’re struggling to lose weight then getting enough quality sleep should be a priority. Poor sleep can lead to insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalances, obesity and increased risk of diabetes. It can also disrupt leptin and other hormones that help us to control appetite so you are more likely to overeat hindering your efforts to get in trim.

If you’re studying for exams then don’t deprive your body of sleep. Studies suggest it reduced cognitive function, short term memory and can lead to anxiety and even depression.

Our Sleep Patterns

Let’s take a moment to see what happens when the quality and quantity of sleep are optimal. During a good night’s sleep you experience two different sleep states, rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM).  There are four progressive stages of NREM sleep. During the  first stage you begin to drop off. (And it is during this stage that, as the muscles gradually relax, you can awaken suddenly, with the sensation that you are falling.)  Then, during stages two and three, the heart rate progressively slows and your temperature falls. Stage four provides the deepest sleep and it is during this stage that the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and helps to replenish the immune system.

Once you have completed all four stages, you are pulled out of the deep sleep by a phase of REM sleep, during which dreaming occurs. It’s also during REM sleep that the brain stores the information it carries as memory. Taking pharmaceutical drugs to help you sleep can affect your memory because they tend to reduce your REM sleep, as does excess alcohol intake. What is also interesting is that deep non-REM sleep occurs more in the early part of the night (11pm – 3am) – so there is some truth that going to bed earlier rather than later is more beneficial.

Completing all four NREM stages and the REM stage means you have completed a full sleep cycle. If you get a good 7.5–8 hours’ sleep a night, you are likely to complete four or more sleep cycles.

Unfortunately your total amount of sleep reduces with age at a rate of about ten minutes every decade. Quality can also diminish too.

Why Can’t I Sleep?

There can be a number of factors affecting our sleep – obesity for example often leads to sleep apnea. Suffering from ongoing pain can also keep us from dropping off.

Dietary factors can also play a role. Too high an intake of stimulants (caffeine, sugar and nicotine) can interfere with the brain’s ability to relax. It can take between three and seven hours for your body to clear just 50 per cent of the caffeine you’ve consumed. This means caffeine consumption in the afternoon could easily interfere with sleep patterns. Switch to decaf, herbal teas or redbush tea.

Alcohol does not actually help you sleep despite what you may think. Alcohol stimulates dopamine production, which is stimulatory. It can also disrupt blood sugar levels, resulting in nocturnal surges of cortisol and leading to night-time waking.

Eating a large meal late at night is also not a good idea as this can interfere with digestion and lead to bloating and pain. But don’t go to bed hungry either. Many people  find that eating a protein based snack before bed can keep blood sugar levels steady overnight, helping to prevent night-time waking. If blood sugar levels plummet in the early hours, your adrenal glands will pump out the stress hormone cortisol which is your waking up hormone – this will make it difficult to get back to sleep.

People often talk about sleep hygiene – this really refers to making conditions more conducive to quality sleep. So making sure the room is at the right temperature, keeping noise to a minimum and reduce your exposure to artificial light.  This could be from alarm clocks, electrical devices, phones etc as they can suppress melatonin production. I often cover my alarm clock. Black out blinds are also very effective in keeping the room pitch black.

Nutritional Support

Certain nutrients may be helpful but it’s important to address any underlying issues first.

Melatonin, a hormone made in the pineal gland, is highly correlated with the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Supplementation can be helpful for some. In the UK melatonin is only available on prescription via the GP so speak to your doctor as to whether this may be of benefit to you.  5HTP which is available as a supplement, is a precursor for serotonin and melatonin and can also be helpful for improving sleep patterns.

Magnesium for example is a relaxing mineral and rapidly depleted when the body is stressed. Try a formula such as magnesium glycinate, citrate or malate which are easily absorbed.

Zinc has also been shown in some studies to support better sleep patterns.

Taking sufficient amino acids through the day is also important to keep blood sugar levels balanced – so some people find a protein powder or amino acid formula beneficial.  Glycine, a non-essential amino acid that transmits chemical signals in the brain, helps support bone health, digestion, and metabolism. This compound is also a novel and safe way to promote healthy sleep patterns.

Various herbs can be beneficial – Valerian, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, passion flower, Saffron and Ashwagandha.  You may also wish to try Bioactive milk peptides supplements which have also been shown to promote better quality sleep.