Guest article by Sam Hadadi,
The Big Sleep
From counting sheep to taking a soaking hot bath or playing soft, soothing music, we all have our own ways of helping us to drift off. Yet, if you’ve ever lay tossing and turning in bed until the early hours, then you’ll know that getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always as easy as it seems.
With more and more of us checking Instagram or our emails while we’re in bed, or packing our diaries to the brim, then it perhaps comes as no surprise that sleep is becoming increasingly hard to come by.
Yet, when you consider that sleeping well goes hand-in-hand with a happy, healthy lifestyle, we need to take the bull by the horns (or, more likely, the Sandman by his pillow) and work to improve our sleep.
If you find yourself hitting snooze on repeat and feeling anything but refreshed, then here’s our Lucy Bee lowdown on sleep…
Why Do We Sleep?
As you probably know, after a long day in the office or chasing around after kids, sleep is pretty essential to keep our body happy and healthy. Yet it’s the one thing which we often skip or sacrifice, even though we need it to both function and think properly.
Bizarrely, some of the best brains in the science world still can’t agree on an answer as to why we actually need sleep. There are some experts who think it’s to build up our energy levels and to recover, and there are others who believe that it supports us in our ability to think, chat and remember.
What we can be certain of, though, is that sleep is actually crucial for our body to survive and, once we finally drift off, it’s supported by natural cycles of activities in the brain. You’ll often hear scientists talking about types of sleep and these are measured or determined by our eye movements. However, all you really need to know is that there are two types:
- Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, is when the brain is active and the body inactive. This is the stage of sleep where we dream the most (if you wake up mid-dream, chances are you were in REM sleep) and it happens around every 90 minutes throughout the night. When we’re in REM, our muscles don’t move and we only move our eyes and breathe.
- Non-Rapid Eye Movement, or NREM, is pretty much the reverse and is where the brain is chilled out while our body is active. Flailing limbs and sleep walking are most common during this cycle. There are also three stages to NREM sleep:
Stage N1 Sleep is where we go from being wide awake to shutting our eyes and nodding off. However, this stage doesn’t restore and revive the body as we may still be partially awake.
Stage N2 Sleep is a little bit deeper and starts the process of recovery for our body.
Stage N3 Sleep is also known as delta sleep and is when we go into a very deep sleep – the kind of sleep which helps our body to recover from the exertions of our day.
How Much Sleep Do I Need?
We’ve all heard that eight hours is that magical, mystical number we need to hit to feel at our very best. Yet some of us are naturally sleepy, while others can get by on much less. So, first thing’s first – how much sleep do we even need?
As you now know, many of us Brits don’t get even close to eight hours come night-time. For many of us (especially those with young children), this can send us into an automatic panic mode. How are we meant to stay healthy and thrive when we can’t get enough sleep?
Well, fret not – not all of us actually need the big eight. Instead, most experts reckon that we need somewhere between six and nine hours, depending on the individual, to feel refreshed and to function well physically and mentally.
Less than six hours usually stands for a pretty bad night’s sleep and this is backed up by research. Sleep experts believe that we experience physical and mental problems if we sleep for less than six hours each night. Yet, we also seem to be sleeping less and less as the years go on (in 2010, the Sleep Council discovered that 27% of us slept for just five to six hours per night, compared to 34% in 2013).
Of course, parents know all too well that kids need far more sleep than we do (even if they tell us they don’t!). While, again, it varies depending on the individual, newborns will need around 16 hours per day, while one-year-olds should nap for a couple of hours during the day while getting 11 hours at night.
Meanwhile, pre-schoolers should ideally nap for an hour (easier said than done, we know!), and sleep for up to 12 at night. By the time they reach school, children need a good stretch of 11 hours, which drops by 15 minutes each year until they hit 14, when they need nine hours.
What can you take from this? Well, put simply, you need to find the number that best works for you. But if you wake feeling like you already need a nap, or if you find yourself needing to rest come that mid-afternoon slump, then chances are you’re not getting enough. In which case, turn off that TV and get an early night, pronto!
Also be aware that too much sleep can be equally hazardous for our health. You have been warned1!
How Can Poor Sleep Affect Me?
Apart from making you feel grumpy and grouchy, a lack of sleep can have huge effects on our health and fitness, too. While it’s OK to skip a few hours here and there, proper sleep deprivation can:
- Impair Mental Ability
We’ve all felt that foggy, confused feeling after a night or two of poor sleep. Yet sleep deprivation can do more than simply leave us sluggish and snappy. A lack of sleep can ruin our ability to concentrate (it’s one of the biggest causes of accidents, especially on roads), affect our memory, leave us short-tempered and moody and it can even trigger hallucinations.
Sleep disorders can also make us feel blue and is one of the biggest causes of depression. In a study back in 2007, experts found that those suffering from insomnia were five times more likely to suffer from depression as those without2.
- Weaken Our Immune System
When we sleep, our body repairs and heals. As well as this, our immune system pulls together to create infection-fighting antibodies and cells, which work to kill bacteria and viruses. When we’re not sleeping well, our immune system isn’t given a proper chance to build up its inner army, meaning we’re left more vulnerable to attack.
- Gain Weight
We’ve all stretched for the bumper packet of Haribo or crisps when we’re feeling exhausted the day after the night before. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that sleep deprivation can even make us obese. You see, when we’re not sleeping enough, our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) rocket through the roof, which can cause us to store more fat. It also stimulates cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods.
Don’t believe us? See for yourself! In a 2004 study, scientists discovered that people who sleep less than six hours a day were almost 30 per cent more likely to become overweight than those who slept seven to nine hours3.
A lack of sleep also lowers your levels of the hormone leptin, which tells us when we’ve had enough to eat and boosts levels of ghrelin, which makes us more hungry. Combine those two, and you can see why that vending machine starts to look more tempting after a poor night’s sleep4…
- Increases Risk of Diabetes and Heart Disease
As we just mentioned, skipping on sleep can cause us to gain weight. The knock-on effect of this is that you could be more likely to suffer with cardiovascular problems such as heart disease, while the fact that your body is unable to repair itself properly also puts you at risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
In fact, just one night of poor sleep is enough to cause soaring blood pressure for the next 24 hours if you already suffer from hypertension4. What’s more, experts believe that around 90% of people with insomnia also suffer from another health condition3.
- Ages Your Skin
We’ve all heard about beauty sleep but there’s more than a grain of truth in that saying. While most of us will get puffy eyes and sallow skin after a bad night beneath the sheets, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to dull and grey skin and cause fine lines and panda eyes. What’s more, a lack of sleep sends cortisol levels rocketing and cortisol can break down collagen, the “beauty protein” that keeps our skin youthful and glowing.
What Can I Do to Get More Sleep?
If you do struggle to drift off once you’ve slid between the sheets, then you’re not alone. Yet, you don’t have to suffer forever – and there are some pretty nifty tricks we have up our sleeves which could help you.
Whether you’re an insomniac, or you simply feel too frazzled and stressed to sleep, then there’s plenty you can do to help you nod off. Here are some of our top tips on getting to sleep, naturally.
Parents will know all too well how having a good bedtime routine with kids (think bath, story and milk) can help them to unwind and sleep better. Yet the same thing goes for us grown-ups, too! In fact, The Sleep Council believes that 14% of those who sleep poorly have no bedtime routine at all5.
Want to sleep well? Try to develop your own bedtime routine. It could be a long, hot soak in the tub, or it could be something simple like a mug of chamomile tea and a book. Wherever you can, you should also try snuggling up to sleep at the same time each night.
Who else has lain awake for hours on end when they’re shivering cold with icy toes and hands? It comes as no surprise that we sleep better when we’re snug as a bug. And scientists have backed this up, too – research shows that wearing socks to bed, or having a water bottle at your feet, can help us to drop off quickly6.
Tell Yourself to Stay Awake
Alright, alright, we know that this one sounds a little out there but bear with us. After all, anything is worth a try, right?
In one study, scientists tested tricking the brain with paradoxical intention (that’s pretty much reverse psychology, to you and I) and found that it can help to lull us into a deep sleep7. So, next time you’re wide awake at 1am, try telling yourself to stay awake, and see what happens…
We’ve all heard our mums and grans say that lavender is the perfect fragrance to help lull you into a deep sleep. Yet, does smelling like a flower garden really do us any favours? Well, yes, actually! In a study of good sleepers, experts found that inhaling a lavender fragrance would help youngsters to drift off into a deeper sleep and wake up feeling refreshed8. Try popping a few drops of lavender oil onto your pillow at night-time, or take a soak in a lavender-scented bath before you slide into bed.
How many of you are ready for bed after a tough session at the gym? Well, exercise is one of nature’s best remedies for helping to cure that insomnia! The Sleep Council found that those of us who exercise five to six times a week are less likely to be on meds to help aid sleep, while around 11% of those who don’t exercise are thought to sleep badly.
Plenty of studies have also shown that moderate intensity exercise, such as a power walk, can significantly improve the sleep of those suffering from insomnia. However, a word of warning – the same study found that vigorous exercise, such as running or lifting weights, didn’t improve sleep quality9.
Meanwhile, exercising too close to your bed-time can also keep you lying awake since it stimulates your heart, brain and muscles, so try to get your gym time in well before you start winding down for the night.
Slip into a Bath
Taking a bath is one of our favourite ways to relax and unwind, so it stands to reason that slipping into a soapy tub should help to make our eyelids droop.
In fact, some studies10 show that baths can even make us fall into deeper sleeps. Want to make your bath as relaxing as possible? Give our salts a try…go on, you know you want to…
Dim Your Lights
While it might seem like we’re spelling out the obvious, too much bright light can keep you wide awake. You see, bright lights (particularly blue lights, which are found on many TV screens and phones) send signals to your brain telling you that it’s still daytime. This stops our body from releasing chemicals which help us to drift off, such as melatonin. Once it gets to 8pm, try to use only dim lights with a reddy tone, and get outdoors during daylight – this will help to reset that body clock11!
Put Down That Phone !
How many of us sit scrolling through Instagram, liking endless pictures of brownies or courgetti, when we should actually be relaxing and trying to wind down for sleep? Yep, we’re guilty of it too…
However, endless studies12 have shown that staring at a screen before bedtime (and that includes the TV – sorry!) is bad for your sleep. Our advice? Make a rule to yourself and try and switch off that phone by 8pm. Maybe try picking up a book instead of watching endless TV.
Better still – or for parents at least – reducing screen time before bed can even improve a child’s behaviour and their performance in school13.
Ditch the Coffee
While caffeine may be an insomniac’s best friend, our coffee habit isn’t doing our sleep any favours, either. Drinking too much caffeine (and, yes, that means your beloved PG Tips, too) can affect melatonin levels in the brain, which not only means we take longer to drift off, but also that our quality of sleep is worse, too.
Hide the Wine Glass
Once we get in from a long, hard day at work, treating ourselves to a glass (or two!) of red wine with dinner can seem like the best way to relax and unwind. However – and we’re sorry to be the bearers of such bad news – but alcohol isn’t quite the sleep aid you may imagine.
A review14 of a series of studies showed that drinking alcohol can seriously damage the quality of our sleep. Even those who keep things sensible and drink just one or two glasses can take longer to fall asleep and drift off.
Think Happy Thoughts
It can be tricky to switch off those incessant thoughts about tomorrow’s big meeting, or that email from your boss but, unfortunately, this is not doing your sleep any favours. Many of us who suffer with insomnia also find that unwanted thoughts will keep us lying awake until the early hours.
An easy way around this is to think happy, positive thoughts. While it may sound obvious, research has proven15 that focusing on pleasant images (yep, we were thinking about turquoise waters and powder-soft beaches, too) while you lie back and hope for sleep can help to calm you.
Relax with Music
Not only is classical music good for the brain but it can also help us to de-stress, too.
Studies have shown that listening to classical music can help students to relax, as well as improve their quality of sleep. If you can’t stand classical music, simply play yourself a few tracks which you do find relaxing.
- Too much sleep is not good for you!
- Sleep and mood
- 10 things to hate about sleep loss
- Sleep and disease risk
- Sleep Council
- Warm feet equals better sleep!
- Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy
- Aromatherapy and sleep
- Can exercise help reduce insomnia?
- Can a bath help you sleep?
- Bright lights, melatonin and sleep
- Relationship between late night tv and sleep
- Reduce screen time before bed to improve child’s behaviour
- Alcohol increases sleep apnea
- Think happy thoughts
- Music improves sleep quality in students
About Lucy Bee Limited
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