As many of you know from following me here or on social media, I’m a big advocate for sharing ways to optimise our health through aspects of our lifestyle. In my book, the key areas include nutrition, physical activity, stress management and sleep. But only this year have I really understood the true importance of the latter two – stress management, and sleep. That’s partly through my own health and wellness journey, and partly through self-education on these topics.
As a doctor, sleep deprivation and shift work are common in my profession. I’ve always been an ‘early bird’, right from when I was a baby (so my mom says!), at my most productive and energetic in the mornings. As a result, I’ve never really been a fan of late nights (exceptions for social events of course!), wanting to have enough sleep to be at my best mentally and physically the next day.
But until this year, I never really understood or knew about the WHAT and the WHY of the concept of ‘enough’ sleep. Somewhere in my brain, the idea of ‘seven to eight hours a night’ had been passively absorbed – but why that number? What was the benefit of sleep itself? We have all heard the phrases ‘rest and repair’ or ‘sleep on it’ – but only said casually, not with real understanding of what’s going on in body and mind when we sleep, or how and why it’s essential for our short and long term health.
Recently, I read the book ‘Why We Sleep – The New Science of Sleep and Dreams’ by Professor Matthew Walker, who is currently Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkley, as well as the Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory there, and an extensively published researcher on this topic. I also listened to his epic Podcast interview on the Joe Rogan podcast series. To say what I learnt was both eye-opening and inspiring is a total understatement.
Sleep has become the hot topic of many articles, Podcasts and interviews in social media especially, as the trend towards an emphasis on preventive medicine grows. So in this article, I’m not going to delve deep into the nitty gritty science of sleep – simply because I’m not qualified to do that. I highly recommend Professor Walker’s book for anyone interested in further information, or the above mentioned Podcast. Instead, I’m going to briefly tell you why sleep is important for our physical and mental health, and give you my four tips for a good night’s kip.
You guys know I love infographics, so when I found this one on the Public Health England website within an article on sleep, I knew I had to include it (here is the link for that article by the way, and it is in my reference websites below: https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2018/01/18/making-the-business-case-for-sleep/). The current ‘sweet spot’ amount of sleep per night for adults up to the age of 65 is between 7 to 9 hours per night (7-8 hours in some recommendations), and 7-8 hours per night for those over 65. Regardless, the minimum of 7 hours of quality sleep per night is the emphasis wherever you look. Our sleep is divided into ‘sleep cycles’ and each cycle is divided into stages – broadly speaking, these are ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ or REM, and ‘Non-REM.’ The diagram below is really helpful to illustrate the cycles of sleep and what the difference between these stages are.
As you’ve seen above, over a third of us are not getting enough sleep i.e. below 7 hours per night. Why is this important? The reasons are multiple. Sleep is essential for the optimal functioning of all of our bodily systems. The ones which have received the most attention include our mental health (in particular our cognitive function and our risk of developing dementia later in life), our cardiovascular health, our metabolic health with strong associations seen between sleep deprivation, obesity, insulin resistance and risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus) and finally (but not limited to, trust me!) our immune health (with sleep deprivation associated with increased risks of certain cancers). In addition to this personal level, on a population level sleep deficiency increases our risk of harm to others by increased rates of human error – examples including car accidents and medical errors, to name but a few.
Okay, time for some positive actionable tips to help us nod off at night. I don’t mean to scare-monger in this article either – I want it you guys to focus on now having an increased awareness of the harms of sleep deprivation, both short and long term, and feel empowered going forward to take back your bedtime, and improve your sleep quantity and quality.
My Top Tips To Take Back Your Bedtime
- Get Yourself A Relaxation Routine
Can you sleep when you’re feeling wired? Nope, me either. That’s why creating a routine around your bedtime that soothes and relaxes your mind and body is so important. In the hour (ideally ninety minutes, but we all start somewhere) before your bedtime, make it your mission to power down. That means reducing or eliminating screen time – television, tablet, phone, you name it. This is an area I personally struggle a lot with, and it’s because I use my phone for so many things, and often feel I have to catch up on emails, blog writing or Instagram messages after work. But taking in a large amount of screen stimulation before bed will only keep your mind awake, as well as the well-known ‘blue-light’ phenomenon. If you haven’t heard of this, it refers to the fact that our electronic devices emit light with a high concentration of ‘blue light’, which has been found to suppress our sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, and causing a delay in the onset of our sleep.
So in that time before bed, try to switch off. Reading a book, chatting with your family or partner, listening to calming music, or engaging in short meditation are all really helpful ways to help soothe you into a more restful night’s sleep.
- Time Your Caffeine Right
I love coffee. But 99% of the time, I make sure I have it before noon. Caffeine, as many of you know, is a stimulant – but what many of you may not know is that it has a half-life (i.e. the time it takes to eliminate half the caffeine you ingest) of roughly 5-6 hours. As well as that, due to our individual genetics, each of varies in the speed with which we metabolise caffeine. The average cup of Joe of 200mls contains roughly 90-100mg of caffeine, and an upper limit of 400mg per day is what has been deemed safe for most healthy adults. Of course, caffeine isn’t just found in coffee – other well-known sources include tea, chocolate and energy drinks. So if you’re struggling with sleep, take a close look at your caffeine intake over the day. And remember, decaf does have a little bit of caffeine in there too! The graph below is a handy rough guide for you to be aware of how much caffeine you might be getting over the day.
- Get Active – During The Day, Everyday
Among the absolutely endless list of benefits physical activity provides, improved sleep is high up on the list, both in terms of sleep quality and quantity. Studies have shown these improvements in those with actual clinically diagnosed insomnia, as well as the general population. And it gets even better! Simply sticking to the basic physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week has been shown to improve sleep quality – by up to 65%!
Equally important is to try to avoid exercising at high intensities in the 2-3 hours before bedtime – it makes sense when you think about the effect exercise has on our bodies. Activity is a technically a stress to the body, as exercise activates our sympathic nervous system (responsible for that ‘fight or flight’ response we all know so well!). While regular exercise is hugely beneficial to our health, it is generally best to try to fit the more intense workouts into your day early. I personally see no issue with someone taking a gentle stroll outside or doing some restorative yoga before bed, as a way to gently mobilise your body – but avoid the late run or spin class at the gym if you can!
The take home message here is to, as much as possible, aim to meet these national guidelines for physical activity, and to make movement a regular, well-integrated part of your day. In particular, try to get some of that exercise in outdoors (for example, a pre-work walk or lunchtime stroll), as exposure to natural light during your day, particularly earlier in your day, will help set up your circadian rhythm (i.e. your body’s internal biological clock) each day.
- Switch Off For Sixty
My final tip touches on my first point about creating a relaxing bedtime routine, but because it’s so important, and also the hardest (I think) to implement, I’m going to go into it a little deeper. I want this tip, to switch off for the sixty minutes before you hit the hay, to be the take-home change you can make as an empowered action towards getting a better night’s sleep. I recently took on a #switchoffsixty challenge on Instagram for one week (as a start!) to share with you my experience, struggles, and reflections on making this positive change to my bedtime routine. I went for 60 minutes because, having seen the amazing Dr. Ranjan Chatterjee speak about his ‘No Tech 90’ concept (i.e. a 90 minute ‘no screen before bed’ rule), I wanted to try it for myself, but personally just couldn’t commit to 90 minutes to start. One caveat to my challenge was that I did use my phone to do my ten minute night meditation using my Calm app, but, I did only use the phone to press play on the meditation, and I fell asleep before the end each time.
What did I learn? A lot. I learnt that yes, it is achievable to switch off for that hour before my bed, despite admittedly struggling with the idea before challenge, and of course during it. I learnt that yes, the world DOES keep turning if I haven’t posted something on my social media or Instagram Story right before bed – in fact, my mental health was better for having switched off from it, and reducing the stimulation I was receiving by using my phone before sleep. I learnt that my sleep DID subjectively improve, and that more than anything motivated me to keep sticking to this habit as frequently as I can.
Well! Who’s ready to make some positive changes to snooze better tonight? I really hope you guys like this article – I want it to be informative, helpful and empowering so that you can take this knowledge with you, delve deeper into it if you want to, and most importantly, use it to improve YOUR sleep hygiene, quantity and quality. I’ve included my basic references and websites for this post if you want to have a peek below.
As always, I would LOVE your feedback on this post! Send me a message on social media, email me, or leave a comment! You know where to find me – @theirishbalance on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!