Sleep: Important For Our Overall Health and Wellbeing
I started writing this blog a couple of weeks ago after a terrible night’s sleep. Much has happened since then which has affected my sleep length, but less so the quality of the sleep that I’ve had. That said, I am still a regular 5am wake-up person. If I think back to my childhood, I was naturally an early bird, despite my teenage years when occasionally I would sleep, like most teenagers, up to midday.
Sleep and I have had a contentious relationship for many years, with significant life events having a major impact on my ability to stay asleep. I have learned many strategies for enabling a good night’s sleep and here I want to outline what has worked for me and why.
But first, some information on why sleep is so important for our overall health and wellbeing.
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep is an uncontested requirement for good health. It’s a human being’s basic need and is laid out in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid as being one of 7 basic needs in order for our survival. Research suggests between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night is required for the vast majority of people. Chronic sleep deprivation can seem normal, but it’s far from normal for our bodies. It is associated with depression, metabolic problems (obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension), memory loss, cardiovascular disease, and an increased risk of death from all causes.
Our nervous systems are so overstimulated from light pollution, technology, the stresses of modern-day life, constant juggling, and the need to over-perform in work and parenthood. Eating ultra-processed foods, industrial seed oils, alcohol consumption, dehydration, under-training (under-moving), and even over-training can impact our sleep quality.
Promote Healthier Sleep
Here I list some ideas to help promote healthier sleep that’s worked for me. What sleep strategies have you implemented and why have they worked?
It took me 20 years to start a regular meditation practice. I know, I’m a yoga teacher, right?! I later learned that my nervous system wasn’t ready to sit still due to being in general state of flight and fight most of the time.
Meditation gives me clarity, a sense of calm, and down-regulates my nervous system from sympathetic overdrive to homeostasis (balance). It helps to ease anxiety, calms the nervous system, reduces stress, and teaches you ways to quieten the constant internal dialogue of your mind.
Morning Light Exposure
In modern society, light pollution is a significant problem contributing to lack of sleep. Hunter-gatherer populations without access to artificial light live in the natural rhythms of day and night. These days, we use artificial light to be active during the night (computers, TVs, mobile devices). Exposure to artificial light decreases melatonin production. Melatonin has numerous biological roles, but one of the most important is regulating our sleep-wake cycles.
Getting early morning light helps to set our circadian rhythm, helping us to have more energy during the day and get a better restful night’s sleep. Artificial light exposure at night will have the same impact by waking the body up, so avoid artificial light as much as possible; reduce device use, use dim lighting, and avoid things that over-stimulate, such as social media, TV, and intense conversations.
Get outside first thing in the morning and drink in that early morning light for about 20 minutes to help set your circadian rhythm.
It’s important to get the right amount of physical activity for proper sleep. Notice not just how much you move your body, but how much time you are sedentary. Other benefits of regular exercise include reduced stress hormones, better mood and outlook, improved self-confidence, extra outdoor time, prevention of cognitive decline, boost of brain function and memory, increased productivity and creativity and better physical and mental performance. With that in mind, consider moving your body in lots of different ways, and don’t overdo it. Don’t underdo it, either. Walk, move, run, cycle, play. The more you can do outside, the better, and on days when the weather is not on our side, practice yoga or go to the gym.
Through personal experience, I have found “dumping” my thoughts and feelings onto paper before I sleep has been a way to offload unhelpful thought patterns which prevent me from processing throughout the night. Although some say that journaling thoughts and feelings can have an impact on sleep, I have found the reverse to be true, providing I don’t overthink about what I’m writing. Trying different methods of journaling can be useful to find what works for you. One way is gratitude journaling. This can shift our attention away from negativity and towards positivity which changes the wiring in our brain, and leads to changes in gene expression and cellular function throughout our body. However you choose to journal, it’s an opportunity to reflect, learn and find insight through the practice.
Movement/stretching before sleep
Contract, relax technique targets the physical aspect of relaxation to help reduce muscle tension and promote physical calmness. Focus on one muscle group at a time, starting at the feet and working progressively upwards through the body. If you’ve been to a yoga class recently, you may have been taught this in preparation for savasana (final relaxation). You can also try some gentle movement such as cat/cows, twists and stretches to support the relaxation process.
If you find inhaling stressful, simply focus on exhalations. Exhalations promote a parasympathetic tone (rest and digest) and take you away from that stressful state. You can also try the following:
Inhale for 4 counts
Hold the breath for 7 counts
Exhale through the mouth with a “shhh” sound for 8 counts
Yoga Nidra literally means “yogic sleep”. However, this is a meditation tool but can also be used as a sleep tool. I particularly love the rotation of awareness, which focuses on bringing awareness to different parts of the body to induce relaxation along with breath focus to guide you into a deep sleep.
Good quality food
The simple rules are to avoid industrial seed oils, ultra-processed foods, and refined sugars. All of these groups of foods promote insulin resistance which can develop into chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension (high blood pressure).
Focus on nutrient-dense and whole foods to support your body and mind. Have most of your carbs in your evening meal (the carb story is a big one). They are GOOD for us and we need them for energy! However, you must choose the right carbs – slow-burning, low-glycaemic vegetables including, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, chard, kale, cabbage etc. Give your body time to digest before sleeping – it’s recommended to give 3 hours between finishing your meal and sleeping and avoid snacking! Do you really need to snack anyway if you’re eating well during the day?
We need water to convert food into energy, lubricate our joints, cushion bones, regulate body temperature, and to produce tears, saliva, and the mucus that lines our sinuses and gastrointestinal tract. And our blood is made up of 90% water! If we’re dehydrated, we are more likely to experience metabolic complications, high blood pressure, inflammation, joint pain, dry mouth, dry eye, constipation, and sinus infections, as well as sleep disturbances.