Sleep and wellbeing go hand in hand, and getting a good night’s sleep is just as important to your overall health as eating well and exercising regularly. Think of your body like a factory. As you drift off to sleep, your body begins its night-shift work:
- Healing damaged cells
- Boosting your immune system
- Recovering from the day’s activities
- Recharging your heart and cardiovascular system for the next day
Yet in our busy lives, many of us are not getting the quality 7 to 8 hours sleep that our body needs to perform these functions.
What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?
If your body doesn’t get a chance to properly recharge (by cycling through the two phases of sleep, REM and non-REM), you’re already starting the next day at a disadvantage. You might find yourself:
- Feeling drowsy or moody
- Struggling to take in new information at work, remembering things or making decisions
- Craving more unhealthy foods, which could cause weight gain 1,2,3
If this happens day after day, night after night, you can imagine the strain it would place on your nervous system, body and overall health. So if you’re not sleeping well or not feeling your best, it’s important to consult your doctor. Find out how to talk to your doctor about your sleep habits.
Understanding the sleep cycle
Understanding what happens during sleep also means understanding the sleep cycle. During the night, our bodies cycle through two recurring phases of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-REM or non-rapid eye movement). Both phases are important for different functions in our bodies. For example, a hormone that is essential for growth and development is only released in the last stage of NREM sleep.
If the REM and NREM cycles are interrupted multiple times throughout the night — either due to snoring, difficulties breathing or waking up frequently throughout the night — then we miss out on vital body processes, which can affect our health and well-being not only the next day, but on a long-term basis as well.
Some helpful tips for a quality night’s sleep
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Maintain a routine and rhythm, even at weekends or after a poor night’s sleep.
- Understand your sleep requirements. Most people need at least six hours quality sleep for normal memory and brain function.
- Spend some time in natural light. This helps promote melatonin production in your body. Melatonin is the hormone that allows you to know when to sleep and when to wake up.
- Create a comfortable sleeping environment. Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet and dark. Avoid distracting noises and excessive light (darken your blinds if needed). If you don’t have a comfortable bed or pillow, consider changing them. Memory foam pillows can help to support the spine and keep it in a more neutral position.
- Use your bed only for sleep. Avoid watching television, studying, eating or working in bed. Your brain should associate your bed with sleeping.
- Feel relaxed and warm before bed. Reading a book or taking a warm bath may help you unwind and de-stress before bedtime.
- Consume caffeine in the evening. Avoid tea, coffee, soft drinks and chocolate. Instead try warm milk or herbal drinks.
- Drink alcohol before bed. Alcohol may worsen snoring or sleep apnea; it may cause fragmented sleep and wakes you up too early. You may also need to use the toilet more often.
- Exercise just before bed. Exercise stimulates the body and makes it difficult to fall asleep. Make sure you finish your workout at least two hours before bedtime.
- Eat a heavy, spicy or sugary meal before bed or go to bed hungry. If you’re hungry, a light snack might help you sleep.
- Smoke. Nicotine is a stimulant that may make falling asleep more difficult. There are many benefits to quitting smoking.
- Take long naps during the day. A long day-time nap will reduce your body’s need to sleep at night.
- Engage in stimulating activity before bed. Avoid watching exciting TV, playing competitive games, paying bills or holding important discussions…. anything that keeps your brain wide awake!
If you’ve tried improving your sleep, but still wake up feeling unrefreshed, there might be more to the story, and it’s important to talk to your health care professional.
- Studies show that sleepy people also tend to prefer high-carbohydrate, fatty foods. Morselli L, Leproult R, Balbo M, Spiegel K. Role of sleep duration in the regulation of glucose metabolism and appetite. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Oct. Some of this research was supported by US National Institute of Health grants. 24(5):687-702
- Palnitker (ref to come)
- Greer SI, Goldstein AN, Walker MP. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun. 2013;4:2259