By Sandie Shaw
It’s easy to forget the important role that a good nights sleep has in helping us maintain good mental and physical health. When you sleep a number of changes take place in your body – your heart rate and respiratory system slow down and your blood pressure drops. Your endocrine system (the glands in your body) get to work on secreting the right amount of hormones into the blood stream, including growth hormones which help to repair, regenerate and develop all systems of your body. During sleep your mind also gets to work on a very important job – processing all the emotional and thought inducing events of your day and storing them as memories and information in the various layers of your subconscious mind. All this sleep work is vital for ensuring good physical and emotional wellbeing. As you can imagine, when you are feeling stressed and overloaded during your waking hours, you need good quality sleep more than ever. When we don’t get enough sleep this important work simply doesn’t get done and you can find yourself becoming physically or mentally unwell.
Latest research suggests that we should aim to get between 7 and 9 (ideally 8) hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. However the majority of us Brits get less than this. In a recent survey conducted by The Sleep Council, it was revealed that “the majority of us (70%) now sleep for seven hours or less hours per night with more than a quarter (27%) experiencing poor quality sleep on a regular basis.” The survey goes on to say that nearly a third of us get by on just five to six hours per night, which is worrying considering the important role that sleep has in maintaining good health.
There is undoubtedly a problem amongst us known as ‘sleep debt’. Losing out on two hours sleep one night means that you incur a ‘sleep debt’ of two hours. And losing out on one hour every night for a week can be the equivalent to losing out on a full night’s sleep. When this occurs, it is important to try and pay off any sleep debt by catching up on your sleep as soon as possible.
Sleep deprivation leads to a variety of identifiable short term symptoms including irritability, mood swings, blurry vision, an inability to think straight, memory loss, aches and pains, muscle tension, emotional disturbances, worry – the list goes on. Long term symptoms include diabetes, obesity, hypertension, mental illnesses, memory loss and cell damage.
On the other hand, sleeping more than you need to is not the way to good health, either. In fact, regularly sleeping for too long (hypersomnia) can also be linked to diabetes, weight gain and poor mental health. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, an inability to switch on and wake up fully, low energy levels and constant tiredness and fatigue.
There can be many reasons why you are oversleeping or under sleeping, and whilst some of the stress reduction exercises I offer as a coach will help with stress related sleep issues, it is still advisable to speak to your doctor to rule out any other possible causes.
To improve the quality of your sleep, first you must respect sleep and the role it plays in keeping you well. You must take responsibility for prioritising sleep and making enough time for it. Jessica Alexander from The Sleep Council suggests that there are three important factors involved in getting a good night’s sleep. One, your sleeping environment; ensure at night, your bedroom is a cool, dark, quiet, clutter free sanctuary and you have a super comfortable bed. Second is maintaining good ‘sleep hygiene’ in other words a good bedtime routine. Your body responds well to keeping regular hours and will programme you to sleep better. Ensure you ‘wind down’ and get into sleep mode with activities like meditation, yoga, reading, doing a jigsaw – whatever works for you. Avoid TV and gadgets which stimulate brain activity and keep you awake. Also, avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol too close to bedtime. And the third element is your lifestyle; what you eat, how much you exercise and how you manage stress and worry in your life will all affect how well you are able to sleep at night.
For more information on how to get a good night’s sleep, visit The Sleep Councils website:- www.thesleepcouncil.org.uk.