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The Art of Sleep & Why When It Comes To Health, It’s Step Number One

Dr Kieran Kennedy

SLEEP. IT’S SOMETHING WE LOVE SO MUCH, BUT SOMETHING WE CAN ALSO LOATHE (MOSTLY WHEN WE’RE NOT GETTING IT).
Sleeping problems represent one of the most common and widespread of all health issues, with numbers for major sleeping struggles nearing 20% in the Western world. With the average person sleeping approximately 8,000 days across their life (yes, you read that right), sleep is something we’d do well putting a bit of effort into. So how exactly do we go about doing that? And how can we turn our relationship with sleep from dysfunctional sitcom into feel-good ending? Dr Kieran Kennedy explains…


What is sleep?

Sleep is actually an incredibly complex and active process, and this is something (unless you know the horrors of not being able to get it) that often surprises people. Different brain areas are responsible across our day for coordinating our Circadian Rhythm, sleep/wake cycle and levels of alertness. Circuits and neurochemicals act as an oscillating switch to keep us up and at it when we need to be and (hopefully) nodding off when night rolls around. Across the night our brain functions to coordinate growth and restore the brain/body, cycling through a series of a distinct set of stages (1, 2, 3 and 4), each with their own shifts in activity and purpose.

Why do we need it?

The amazing thing here is (to be honest), we still don’t really know. Two major theories exist here primarily, however, and it’s clear that sleep is a basic human function vital to our overall health, longevity and wellbeing. One theory views sleep as a vital tool for restoring body and brain as things are worn across the day, while the other sees sleep as a ‘safe hold’ that allowed our most ancient of biological ancestors to avoid the dangers of darkness.

Consolidating memories, learning and balancing mood and emotion have been closely linked to sleep too, and many hormones and functions vital for physical growth have also been found to kick up a notch while we slumber. More and research outlines the negative impacts that missing sleep can have on our physical and mental health.

Studies increasingly show that sleep deprivation (a sad reality for many in today’s modern world) can lead to significant mental and physical problems ranging from Depression and mental illness, to cardiovascular disease and stroke, and even obesity and diabetes. Most notable are findings that link even low-level sleeping problems to subtle changes in our concentration, focus, problem solving and emotions. Sleep is closely matched to our mental muscle and health, and poor sleep can be part of depression, anxiety, mania and other mental health struggles.

How do we get more of it?

Studies increasingly show that (like most other things when it comes to health), there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to sleep. Whilst we know that most individuals achieve optimal health in relation to sleep by looking in around 7-8 hours per night, some people will naturally sit above or below this. Many of us, however, could benefit from a little more shut-eye, and surveys of modern life show that stress, work schedules, technology and Everest sized to-do lists often put sleep a lower down the priority list.

‘Sleep hygiene’ is the first and often most vital port of call when it comes to giving our sleep (and brain) a helping hand. No, we’re not talking about some kind of weird bedtime sponge bath – when it comes to falling asleep and staying asleep – the things we do before, during and after it makes a significant difference.

“Simple tips include avoiding caffeine or stimulants (including pre-workout and energy drinks) in the 6 hours before bed, keeping the few hours before bed reserved for a quiet and relaxing activity, and avoiding heavy meals in the hour before. Regular exercise across the week can help us drop off to sleep sooner and more soundly, but be wary of strenuous activity too close to bedtime. Light levels act as a powerful tool for us to take control of our sleep/wake cycle; try turning off most of the lights in your house or dimming them in the few hours before bed, and avoid the bright lights of laptops, TV or smartphones in the hour before we plan to hit the hay.”

Where we sleep can make a big difference too – it should be dark, comfortable and on the lower/cooler end temperature-wise. Sleep is something that moves to a clear and consistent rhythm too so locking in a regular bedtime and wake time can make a world of difference.

A key step I talk to people about a lot is making the bedroom an “off-limits” zone for anything other than sleep or sex. Your bedroom, and especially your bed, should be linked to these two staples only so the brain learns to associate this space with downtime and rest. Eating, working, watching your laptop, or tapping away on your phone in bed can set up habits in the brain where bed definitely does not mean sleep.

Conclusions?

Sleep is vital when it comes to our physical and mental wellbeing, and when it comes to simple things we can do every day to improve our health – it’s a powerhouse. For those with significant and ongoing struggles to sleep, seeing your doctor and getting possible mental and physical health causes checked out is important. As we’ve moved through, however, making some simple yet consistent adjustments to how and when we sleep can have huge payoffs.

It’s time we started to maximise our time between the sheets and when the lights are out, just like the goals, hustle and haste we’re flowing through throughout the day. Trust me, your brain (and body) will thank you for it.

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{Photo: Madewell}