Why Sleep Matters And How To Improve It

 

 

By Coco Sandes

Sleep is considered one of the three most important pillars of human health. Alongside good nutrition and regular exercise, getting enough sleep is one of the most fundamentally beneficial things we can do for our bodies. As we sleep, our bodies work hard to recover from the previous day and reset for the morning. We experience muscle repair and recover, secretion of critical hormones, and lowering of our cortisol levels (the stress hormone). 


Despite its importance, sleep isn’t something that’s culturally revered the way good eating and exercise habits are. While it’s commonplace to see a feature about someone’s diet or exercise routine, scarcely do we see anyone boast about how they manage to always get a full 8 hours of sleep. In fact, it seems that we do everything we can to avoid resting. Stories of CEOs working 100 hour weeks imply that sleep is negotiable- that if you’re really committed to the hustle, it’s something you can minimise. While there is a small subset of the population who naturally need less than 5 hours of sleep a night, research indicates that this is the result of a gene mutation, and isn’t something the rest of us can adapt to.


Ultimately, the effects of sleep deprivation can be immediately felt. If you’ve pulled an all-nighter, or tossed and turned until the morning, it’s hardly surprising to wake feeling groggy and unfocused. While a single night of inadequate rest is unlikely to have severe consequences, long-term sleep deprivation can affect our bodies on multiple levels.


Additionally, the reality is that no one performs at their best when underslept. And beyond the immediate impact of decreased cognitive function, chronic sleep loss can impact our health in much more serious ways. Despite this, studies have shown that 30% of all adults get 6 or less hours of sleep a night - far below the recommended 7 to 9 hours. Over time, the CDC warns that this sleep deficit can increase our risk of health conditions such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Other conditions, such as increased stress, anxiety, and depression, have also been associated with poor sleep health. 


Research into sleep is ongoing, and it remains one of the least understood aspects of human health. Despite this, however, it is clear that a good night’s sleep - every night - is part of the recipe for ideal long-term health. To improve our sleep quality and consistency, there are several habits we can implement.


  • Go to sleep at the same time every night
  • There are considerable benefits of having a proper bedtime- and waking at the same time each morning. Our bodies are essentially clocks - they want consistency! Maintaining a regular sleep/wake pattern means that our circadian rhythm can function normally - this is a natural, internal cycle that our body goes through every 24 hours.


  • Don’t work in bed
  • Your bed should be for sleep or sex, period. No eating, no working, no blue light emitting from a laptop or TV. While it can be cozy, working from bed can heavily impact your quality of sleep. Exposure to blue light sources before rest can decrease our body’s melatonin stores, making it more difficult for us to both fall asleep and stay asleep. Additionally, doing work while in bed can make it more difficult to separate the work-life balance - which can lead to stressful, work-related thoughts running through your mind as you try to sleep.


  • Avoid food just before bed
  • If you know you get hungry late at night, try to ensure your last meal of the night is a light one. Heavy meals before bed can interrupt our sleep quality, as our body is working hard to digest the food. Furthermore, foods containing sugar and caffeine can make us more alert, limiting our ability to get to sleep. If you know you’re particularly caffeine sensitive, it’s best to avoid sources of caffeine for at least 6 hours prior to sleep. 


  • Get comfortable
  • Comfort is key when it comes to sleep. If you find you often toss and turn, or are fussy about certain aspects of your bedroom, it may help to devote some consideration to this. Do you like to feel warm when you sleep? Perhaps higher thread count sheets would help. Alternatively, if you like to feel cool, try linen or bamboo bedding. If your pillow isn’t quite right for you, invest in one which is a better fit. And if you live in a noisy city or find it hard to sleep in absolute silence, perhaps play some white noise quietly while you drift off. There’s no right or wrong answer here - it’s entirely about what suits your preferences. We spend a third of our lives sleeping - it’s worth making it a relaxing, enjoyable experience.