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Sleep: Why You Need It And How To Do It Better

Here’s why you should make sleep a priority in your schedule.

A more recent report by Sleep Health Foundation, found that 60% of people experience at least one sleep symptom at least three times a week – this includes trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep. This is bad newssleep is integral to good physical and mental health.

Our sleep patterns are set by our circadian rhythm, an internal body clock that follows a roughly 24-hour cycle. Some of us are night owls, with a body clock suited to late nights, and others are larks, who wake early.

There are a number of factors that determine how much sleep an individual needs each night, such as age and genetics. Newborn babies and infants need between 12 and 17 hours of sleep a day, preschoolers and school-aged children 10 to 11 hours, and teenagers eight to 10 hours.  

For adults, the scientific consensus is that we need on average between seven and nine hours sleep. A small percentage of the population sports a genetic makeup that means they can get by on six hours or less. For the rest of us, any less and we suffer the consequences: impaired cognitive function, memory, mood and health.

 

Why is sleep so important?

Scientists are beginning to understand more about sleep and why we need it. One study revealed that sleep deprivation can affect our cognitive behaviour and our ability to perform simple daily tasks – which explains why our mind is unaware and runs on auto-pilot when we’re tired.

Meanwhile, researchers at Boston University at Massachusetts found that while we sleep, there is a fluid known as ‘cerebrospinal fluid’ that runs through our brain and spinal cord to help the brain clear up accumulated metabolic waste. 

Insufficient sleep affects our physical health too, inhibiting our immune system and metabolic function. According to Michael S. Jaffee, a neurologist at the University of Florida, “studies have shown that adults who were short sleepers, or those who got less than seven hours in 24 hours, were more likely to report 10 chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma and depression, compared to those who got enough sleep, that is, seven or more hours in a 24-hour period.”

The good news is that it’s possible to improve the quality of our sleep. Here are seven tips to improve your slumber. 

 

7 Tips to improve sleep

 1. Develop a routine

Do your body clock a favour and try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Sticking to a schedule regulates your body’s clock to help you fall asleep and remain asleep throughout the night.

 

2. Eat to sleep

Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, helps us produce melatonin, the hormone responsible for making us feel sleepy. B vitamins and magnesium improve the bio-availability to tryptophan. Sleep-boosting foods such as nuts, sardines and dairy are high in all three – B vitamins, magnesium and tryptophan.

Sophie Medlin, a lecturer ‎in Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College in London, suggests snacking on tryptophan-promoting foods like skimmed milk, a small banana or a few nuts before bed if you’re having trouble drifting off. “It takes around an hour for the tryptophan in foods to reach the brain, so don’t wait until just before bedtime to have your snack,” she notes.

Try to avoid eating large meals 2-3 hours before going to bed. Instead, try a light snack 45 minutes before bed if you are still hungry. This allows enough time for your body to digest the food.

 

3. Go caffeine free

Avoid stimulants like caffeine late in the day. Herbal tea is your friend – sip on a cup of chamomile or peppermint after dinner.

 

4. The right light

Light helps synchronise our body clock with the outside world. A dark, cool room will help us nod off at night. In the morning, sunlight helps wake us by suppressing melatonin production. A 2007 study found that exposure to bright light in the morning helped people suffering insomnia fall asleep and sleep longer. Using a bright light will help you maintain your circadian rhythm.

 

5. Ditch the devices

Smartphones and tablets emit blue light that suppresses melatonin production and disrupts our sleep patterns. It’s a good idea to avoid using devices for at least 30 minutes before you go to bed at night. Arianna Huffington, media entrepreneur and author of The Sleep Revolution, recommends banning devices entirely from the bedroom.

 

6. Kick back and relax

Add magnesium-rich Epsom salts to a warm bath at night to wind down and prepare your mind and body for sleep. Mindfulness practices like meditation have also been shown to improve sleep quality.

 

7. Have a nap

Thanks to our circadian rhythms, our energy tends to dip between 1pm and 3pm in the afternoon – the perfect time for a nap. A 10 to 15-minute power nap has been shown to improve alertness, cognitive function and mood. Longer naps are beneficial too but may make it difficult to fall asleep at night.

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