To fully understand the power and importance of sleep to your health and wellbeing, we must first look at the how the body regulates this process. We can then start to understand why sleep is important and how you can get reap the benefit of sleep by adjusting certain behaviors and routines.
Our bodies have a natural 24hr cycle, we call this internal body clock the Circadian rhythm. The word circadian comes from the Latin word circa diem or about a day. The circadian rhythm is controlled by a structure in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) these neurons serve to regulate and synchronize the circadian rhythms of the body’s tissues using cues from our environment such as light, eating, exercise and social cues. The 24hr circadian rhythm is important in the regulation of gene expression, thermoregulation, memory, learning, alertness and sleep/wake behaviors in each of us.
Our body’s have a natural internal 24hr body clock that regulates many physiological processes to maintain our health. This includes the sleep/wake cycle. We need to be mindful of any disruption to our body clock as it can mean thsat our health can be affected.
Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted in the Pineal gland. Melatonin is an integral part of the circadian rhythm and modulates the sleep/wake cycle and also has an effect on thermoregulation of the body. Melatonin secretion is modulated by the external light levels. Typically, melatonin shows a higher concentration at night and peaks at around 3-4am.
The development of the 24hr society over the last few decades means that we are disturbing the natural melatonin – circadian rhythm axis. Different wavelengths of light have a different effect on the secretion Melatonin and the onset of the sleep/wake cycle as well as other molecular and gene expressive functions of our cells. Short wavelength visible light that is resent during the day has the effect of suppressing melatonin levels making us more alert. However, during the night, no light is present, leading to the higher concentrations of melatonin, leading to increased Delta and Alpha wave brain activity. Eventually leading to sleep.
The 24hr society and the abundance of artificial light, not to mention the differing shift patterns of some workers provides the conditions for disruption to the Circadian rhythm. Furthermore, research has suggested that our health maybe affected by this disruption, leading to increased risk of disease and mortality.
Artificial light used in our homes may have an effect on our body clock (Circadian Rhythm) potentially disrupting our normal sleep/wake cycle and leaving open the possibility of increased risk of affecting our mental and physical health.
Caffeine is a widely used psychoactive substance that is present in a lot of foods and drinks that we consume. People tend to use caffeine for different reasons; to enhance cognitive performance (say on an exam) to stay awake and prevent sleepiness, taste, enjoyment and many other reasons.
On the other hand, caffeine could also be impairing our ability to get a good night’s sleep that leaves us feeling refreshed and energised. Research suggests that caffeine can reduce the time to fall off to sleep, the duration and the quality of the sleep itself.
Your tolerance and reaction to caffeine vary from person to person. With some people being very sensitive and other not. The pharmacodynamics of Caffeine mean that in conjunction with exposure to artificial light during the night can have a profound effect on the Circadian rhythm, bodily processes and the sleep/wake cycle.
In order to minimise the impact on your quality of sleep and your overall health you could adopt the following new habits to replace the old ones.
Recognise you’re consuming too much caffeine – This includes some foods that are high in caffeine
Switch to Decaf – Switching to decaf is a good way to reduce your caffeine intake without sacrificing taste.
Cut back gradually – Caffeine withdrawal syndrome can cause symptoms such as; headache, fatigue, decreased energy/activeness, decreased alertness, drowsiness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating and focusing on tasks, feeling irritable and not feeling clear minded.
Caffeine is powerful stimulant that promotes wakefulness and disrupts the natural circadian rhythm if taken in high enough quantities. Also, high caffeine intake can reduce the time to fall to sleep and the quality of the sleep itself. Reducing your caffeine intake can help with the quality and duration of sleep.
Core body temperature and the temperature of your surrounding environment plays a part in your ability to fall asleep. Recent research has suggested that the reduced blood to the extremities has a detrimental effect on your ability to fall asleep. Heat loss at the extremities has been suggested to be a benefit to inducing sleep and preventing insomnia.
Have you felt sleepy after a long hot bath? If like most of us the answer is yes, this is because blood has been shunted to the skin and your extremities trying to dissipate the heat. This triggers a physiological cascade that results in sleepiness. Therefore, one of the ways in which you could initiate the sleep cycle is to wear a hat, socks and gloves if your feet and hands are particularly cold.
Core and peripheral body temperature plays a role in inducing sleepiness. Constriction of blood vessels at the end of your limbs plays a part in preventing sleep. If your hands and feet are cold, wearing socks or gloves may help to dilate the blood vessels leading to increased blood flow and helping you fall off to sleep.
The research around the impact of physical activity and exercise on sleep quality generally shows that being active and getting recommended 30mins moderate to vigorous activity per day helps to boost the quality of sleep.
There is a complex interaction between exercise and how it positively affects sleep quality and duration. Exercise may induce physiological changes in the body that allow the body to enter into the sleep cycle easier and may have benefits on your ability to have better quality sleep at each stage of the sleep cycle.
There is evidence that suggests that sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep impair not only your cognitive function but your ability to perform exercise and your body’s ability to repair damaged tissues. There is inclusive evidence of the exercise dose relationship between intensity and type of exercise that illicit sleep improvements.
Being active through the day and having a healthy exercise routine (minimum of 30mins/day moderate to vigorous intensity.) will help you to fall asleep faster and improve the quality of sleep.
Anxiety is sometimes a debilitating disorder that can leave people unable to function or go about their daily lives.
The main ‘stress’ hormone that mediates our stress responses is cortisol. It has wide ranging physiological functions in the body to prepare us for a perceived danger. However, prolonged release of cortisol can result in negative psychosomatic effects such as sleep deprivation, depression, weight gain and cardiometabolic dysfunction. This has the effect of disturbing your circadian rhythm and preventing good quality sleep and can lead to insomnia itself.
If you find it hard to fall asleep at night because your mind is racing with all of the things you need to finish tomorrow, take a minute to jot all of your thoughts down. Having a place to keep all of these thoughts is helpful because you won’t have to stress or worry about forgetting something – all of those thoughts will be waiting for you in the morning!
Use techniques that will help you to unwind before bed. This can include; writing down your fears, reading, steering clear of stressful activities, having a bath, breathing techniques and meditation.
Chamomile has been known for its tranquilsing effects for some time. Research has suggested that Chamomile can help you achieve a better quality of sleep compared to a placebo.
Prescribed and even some over the counter medication has been attributed to all sorts of health risks associated with both acute and chronic usage. Research suggests that although the supplements and prescribed medication may help you get off to sleep ok, they may not help you when it comes to the quality of sleep you have. This could indicate that you are not moving through the different stages of sleep as you should or not spending enough time in them. Therefore, the underlying causes of your sleep disturbance needs to be found out in order for you to be able to start to address that problems you are having with sleep.
It is always best that you learn what the root cause of your sleeping issues are. There may be a need for supplements but you should always need to seek medical advise and guidance before you do so. Ask you self ‘why’ you are feeling bad when you wake up and why you cannot fall off to sleep. Start from there before heading down the supplement route.
Waking up at a similar time will help strengthen your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Our bodies are designed to rise with the sun and sleep when it goes down – and sleeping in on weekends can throw this rhythm off.
The same goes for falling asleep at a similar time. You will find falling asleep will get easier as your body gets used to its new routine.
Try to sync your daily routines with your own body clock. When you feel sleepy, take that as a big hint that your body is telling you that now is the time to sleep. Many native tribes around the world sync their sleep and wake cycles with daylight and nighttime cycle. As soon as dusk set in, the tribe sleep. As soon as daylight starts to appear, the tribes are awake. Although this is an ideal situation. Many of us are not fortunate enough to follow this pattern. You could takes steps to limit social media use in the nighttime and ensure that the lights are off or dimmed.
Get into a good routine
Try to use curtains or blinds that block out light as much as possible. especially if you live in an urban area like a city or town where there is a lot of light pollution.
Get a light that you can set to switch on at dawn, this mimics the light from the sun that triggers your wakefulness.
Some people are very sensitive to noise during the night. Whilst others would sleep through a thermonuclear detonation next to their head! If you are the former, then make sure you minimise the noise pollution as much as you possibly can
Reduce the external distractions that may affect your sleep pattern. Write down all of the issues that you know distract you from having a good sleep, and systematically go through each of them on your list one by one.