“Sleep is a fascinating field. Every single organ in the body is affected by sleep and can be improved by sleep.” – Jaime Boero, M.D., Ph.D.
It’s hardly surprising that a mother of a toddler and infant wants to prioritise sleep. The other night I was putting my toddler to bed, telling him a story of kings and castles, when I drifted off, only to be nudged awake, muttering something about dancing mangoes.
The things we dream about.
It is with this disclaimer that I write about sleep.
Sleep is often elusive, despite the best of intentions: a baby that still wakes for a night feed most nights, a toddler who occasionally wakes for a midnight tantrum, a husband who sleep walks and talks and snores, noisy neighbours, fighting cats, hot nights, cold mornings…it’s been a long time since I’ve had a good night’s rest.
Nevertheless, I aim for a good night’s sleep (or catch up nap or two) because adequate sleep is essential. It is so essential in fact, that sleep deprivation can kill you sooner than starvation can! And yet many of us are chronically sleep deprived, and this is having a negative impact on our health and wellbeing.
We tend to underestimate how much sleep we need. Studies are revealing that we are averaging around 6 hours of sleep per night, sometimes less. Compare this to the early 1900s when we reportedly slept around 9 hours a night, or the 1970s when we reported around 7 hours a night.
Not only that, we underestimate how much sleep we actually get. We may be in bed for 7 hours, but once the time it takes to get to sleep and night wakings are factored in, we are sleeping much less than we think we are.
It is because sleep is so important to our overall wellbeing and ability to function, and because chronic lack of sleep is so prevalent, that the ‘getting it together’ series starts with creating and maintaining good sleep habits.
The effects lack of sleep
“Lack of sleep has long been connected with reduced ability to concentrate, trouble learning, decreased attention to detail and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents. More recent studies have tied chronic partial sleep deprivation to medical problems, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension.” [Source]
There is a whole host of negative side effects to chronic lack of sleep. Chronic lack of sleep doesn’t mean a late night here and there; it means inadequate amounts of sleep night after night caused by bad habits, stress, babies, snoring partners, noisy neighbours, long working hours, Facebook, TV…
Here are just some of the effects that lack of sleep has on a person:
Sleep and immune function are inextricably linked. Lack of sleep depresses the immune system, increasing your susceptibility to illness. Extra pathogen-fighting proteins and white blood cells are produced during sleep.
Conversely, immune challenges alter sleep patterns (that bone-tired feeling you get the day before other virus symptoms like a sore throat kick in). Sleep is your body’s natural response to illness (so it can produce those fighting proteins), and it is why plenty of rest is recommended when ill. [source]
Learning and Memory
While you sleep, your brain is busy building neural pathways, organising and correlating information and memories.
Lack of sleep impacts memory, cognitive function, attention span, concentration and reaction time. The brain fog that results from a lack of sleep affects your ability to function at work, process new experiences and understand information. [source]
Any amount of sleep deprivation can lead to crankiness (that goes just as much for me as it does for my toddler). Chronic lack of sleep can increase the risk of depression and anxiety. Conversely, people with depression or anxiety can see an improvement with regular adequate sleep. [source]
Sleep helps lower blood pressure and stress hormones and relaxes the body and mind and reduces stress. It is an essential part of any stress therapy. The problem is that stress can interfere with sleep. [source]
Sleep helps regulate the hormones that affect and control appetite. Sleep deprivation leads to cravings for foods high in fat and carbohydrates (not surprisingly, energy dense food). Sleep plays an important role in any weight loss program. [source]
It’s hard to have fun when you’re tired. Even if you can be bothered to get off the couch to do something enjoyable, your enjoyment level will be diminished when tired.
Frugality takes a little extra work, energy and organisation. Every time I spend money unnecessarily, it’s because I’m tired. Like when we opt for takeaway rather than cook. Fatigue has always been my number one hindrance to frugality.
How to achieve a better nights sleep
How much sleep do you need? On average, between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night for an adult. However, actual sleep needs will vary from person to person, and you may need more if you have a sleep debt to sleep off. The only way to know if you’re getting enough sleep is to assess how you feel each day (see this interesting article for more info on sleep needs).
Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep.
It is important to schedule enough time for sleep, which means going to bed early enough to get adequate sleep.
A regular bedtime and wake-up time will help you stay in sync with your body’s natural rhythms. My aim to be in bed by 9:30 pm each night, with a 30-minute wind-down period. The kids are normally up around 5:30 am, so this allows for 8 hours sleep (assuming no interruptions) while still being able to have a little time to myself in the evenings.
Part of a good bedtime routine is the wind-down. TV and computers are not the best way to wind down, despite the fact that many of us use either or both to relax. Not only that, they tend to suck you in and keep you up longer than you intended.
A bath or shower, reading a book, journaling, meditation, yoga or stretches, knitting or similar repetitive hobby, soft music, a book on CD, a hot drink, light conversation, planning for tomorrow are all good ways to wind down for bedtime.
Light, particularly blue light (natural and man-made) plays an important role in the regulation of our sleep cycles. When exposed to blue light (daylight) our body limits the production of melatonin, and we stay alert. When the light fades, melatonin production increases, making us sleepy.
Because of artificial lighting, TV and computer screens, we are exposed to much more light (blue light in particular) during night time, and it can affect our pattern of sleeping, delaying the sleep phase of our internal clock and therefore reducing overall sleep.
What this mean in practical terms is that we need to get plenty of exposure to natural light during the day – at least an hour of direct daylight throughout the day, particularly in the morning. We also need to limit light at night by avoiding screens for at least 30 minutes before bedtime and using candlelight or low wattage lamps (the warm/soft or yellow light variety) for lighting instead of bright, overhead lights. If, like me, nighttime is the only time you use the internet, you can download a free program called F.lux, which reduces blue light emissions on your screen.
Quiet, cool, dark, comfortable. That’s the best sleep-inducing environment. And with no screens!. Making changes to your bedroom to achieve this will ensure a better sleep, particularly if you are a shift worker.
Room darkening / lined curtains help reduce light and noise from the outside, keep out some of the daytime heat (or keep it in winter). I’m currently making lined curtains and will share links to the tutorials I used to learn how to make them when I’ve finished (sometime in the next decade).
Ceiling fans, while they don’t reduce the temperature in the bedroom, make it more comfortable to sleep without spending a fortune on air-con.
If you live in a noisy neighbourhood earplugs can be helpful, but if that’s not an option, another option is to play white noise in the background, just as it is suggested for babies, to muffle the other noises. A clock radio off-station and down low does the trick.
Good quality, comfortable mattress and pillow are well worth the investment. Not only for a good night’s sleep but to also avoid stiff muscles and an aching body in the morning.
Nutrition and Exercise
If you’re a parent, then you know that if you take them out and run the ragged, they will sleep better. Funnily enough, the same goes for adults.
Many of us commute to work, sit at a desk for 8 hours, commute home, spend the evening in front of the TV and then wonder why we can’t sleep. We are mentally tired, yes, but not physically tired.
Plenty of exercise and incidental activity during the day (not too close to bedtime otherwise it will rev you up) is important for good sleep. That might mean getting off the bus or train one stop further from work or parking further away and walking. It might mean walking during your lunchbreak or standing up as much as you can at work. Or going for a walk after dinner. Or running ragged with the kids.
Nutrition is also important. Avoid consuming a whole lot of the things that affect sleep (and just happen to be bad for you too): caffeinated drinks, sugar, alcohol, nicotine and junk food. Carbohydrates are sleep-inducing, so they are best eaten at night. But not too much and not too late because food is energy after all.
A pen and paper besides the bed are invaluable for a good brain dump, especially when you’re awake because you’re worried about things that need to be done. It’s easier to put what’s on your mind aside and get back to sleep when you’ve written things down. You don’t have to worry about forgetting anything.
It’s also useful if you’re awake at 4 am because something’s on your mind. It can be better, in the long run, to get up and work through your worries (by candlelight) than to let them fester until dawn.
Alternatively, a quiet, repetitive activity like reading or knitting (again, in low light – no screens) can also help with 3 am insomnia. For some, this is the only time that you can get peace and quiet to yourself.
Before having children, I used to welcome insomnia – I got so much done! By welcoming it and not stressing over it, I found that it soon passed.
Naps can be a good way to catch up on sleep, as long as they don’t interfere with regular sleep. Short naps, not too late in the day can help you catch up. I’ve found, however, that long naps too late in the day can make you drowsy all afternoon and then prevent you from sleeping at night.
The takeaway here is to prioritise sleep because adequate sleep underpins everything else in life. You will be healthier and happier, and everyone around you will benefit. The dishes can wait. So too the vacuuming. And Facebook. And TV.
Despite our modern lifestyle, our bodies are adapted to sleeping when the sun goes down, getting up with the birds, spending our days active and outdoors and not sitting in front of a screen. It’s in our best interest to emulate that pattern as best as we practically can. That’s one of my main goals for this year.
Time to get off my very orange computer.