Sleep is an essential part of your life. If you don’t get enough of it your level of health will degrade, little by little, over time. If you don’t sleep at all it will kill you.
How do you feel after a good nights sleep? Alert, energised, happy to take on the world? Sleep helps you recover and reset your body. Sleep is a life-sustaining activity, like eating.
If you don’t consume enough food, your body gives you a signal in the form of hunger. Your health will degrade when you eat fast food all the time. If you don’t eat at all, well, guess what. But, it’s easier to explain to somebody why you are eating than why you are sleeping.
If you sleep 6 hours a night that’s one-quarter of a day. If you sleep 8 hours that’s one third. That’s quite a lot of time spent on sleeping. This can be rephrased by saying we humans spend between one quarter and one-third of our lives in bed.
Another aspect of sleep is consistency. Let’s say you sleep about 7.5 hours per day on average, that’s 52.5 hours per week. You can’t sleep 2 hours during the week and then knock off 21.25 hours per day on the weekend.
After a full day and only 2 hours of sleep, your body will give you signs that you need to rest. You might make it the second day though depending on how active you are. But on the third day? Less likely. Bear in mind we are not even considering the question if you can sleep more than 20 hours in one go.
This does not mean that you have to sleep the same hours every single day. Very few people achieve that and it’s also not necessary. If you sleep a bit less on some days your body will tell you to make it up on other days. My sleep pattern consists of a bit less sleep on weekdays and a bit more on the weekend.
Circadian rhythms (sleep/wake cycle)
Have you ever asked yourself why you get tired in the evening? Your body tells you every day it’s time to go to bed at the same time at some point in the evening.
But why is that not happening, say, at 2 pm? The answer to that is two-fold. The first one is called the circadian rhythms, or, in layman terms, our body clock. The second answer is daylight also plays a part.
Your brain controls your body clock. When it gets dark your eyes send a signal to the brain, which in turn signals your body to produce more melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone which is in charge of making you feel tired. It can also be found synthetically made in pill form as a sleep supplement.
Our internal body clock is also the reason why shift workers struggle with their work pattern. Sleeping during the day and being awake during night goes against the circadian rhythms and can lead to a sleeping disorder.
Effects of Jet lag
Jet lag occurs when you cross two or more time zones. The more time zones you cross, the worse jet lag can get. As your body clock is accustomed to the daylight pattern in your current location, any shift in such pattern disrupts the clock.
The further it’s shifted, i.e the more time zones you cross, the more out of sync your body clock is with the daylight pattern in your new location.
Symptoms of jet lag might be daytime fatigue, mood changes, upset stomach and concentration problems. It takes about a day per time zone to sync your body clock to your new location.
Different stages of sleep
As soon as you go to bed your body goes through different stages and cycles of sleep. The first cycle during the night has 4 stages. The following cycles have 3 stages as you start all over at stage 2.
Stage 1 is a transition period from being awake to drifting off into la-la land. As soon as you go to bed, this is the stage you start with. The first three stages fall under so-called non-REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement.
During stage 2 your breathing and heart rate slows down. Your body temperature decreases by 1 to 2 degrees. This is the stage you start with when your body repeats a cycle.
Most of your time sleeping will be spent in stage 2. Stage 3 is the deep sleep stage. Your heart rate and breathing reach their lowest level. Your muscles are relaxed and your body regenerates itself.
In the first sleeping cycle, stage 3 lasts somewhere between 45 to 90 minutes. As the night progresses that time shortens.
Stage 4 falls under REM sleep and occurs after about 90 minutes. Your body cycles through REM sleep every 90 minutes. During stage 4 breathing and heart rate increases to an almost normal level.
This is the stage at which you dream. Your body releases chemicals during that stage to temporarily paralyse itself. This is a mechanism so you don’t act out your dreams. Your brain activity is high and your eyes move around hence the name “rapid eye movement” or REM.
How to improve your sleeping quality
If you are struggling with your sleep there are a few things you can do. Quite a few people I know have terrible sleep hygiene but don’t know why they struggle to fall asleep. Unless you suffer from chronic insomnia you will be able to improve your sleep quality by implementing a few of the following tips.
1.) Regular sleeping schedule
The best thing for your body to fall asleep is to develop a habit. Such habit includes going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day. Even on weekends and days off.
I know the last part is hard to maintain. But as long as there are not several hours difference it’s fine. This will train your body and get you used to a schedule which your body will recognise after some time.
2.) Get a comfy mattress/duvet/pillow
It’s hard to fall asleep if you are not comfortable. So make sure you are. This includes getting a mattress that you don’t think is too soft or too hard. The same counts for the duvet and pillow. Find something that you can snuggle into which doesn’t make you feel too warm.
Set the temperature of your room to a slightly colder one and make sure the room as aired well. I have recently upgraded my cheap old duvet and pillow set to a high-quality down-filled one. It made a big difference in how comfortable I feel when going to bed.
3.) Wind down before going to bed
The worst time trying to fall asleep is when your heart is racing and your mind is preoccupied. It’s best if you start winding down half an hour before going to bed.
Take a relaxing bath or a long warm shower. Light some scented candles. Scents that make you relax like lavender or jasmine work best to get you into a sleeping mood. Read a book or meditate to get into that zen feeling.
4.) Consider sleep supplements
As mentioned before you can get synthetically produced melatonin in pill form to help you fall asleep. External melatonin is helpful when you are travelling and experience jet lag which is also supported by research.
Even if you struggle to fall asleep at home get yourself melatonin pills. Research has shown that it shortens the time it takes to fall asleep as well as sleeping quality.
Having a cup of tea with valerian root or chamomile also promotes relaxation and sleepiness. Valerian root is one of the most popular sleeping aides in Europe and the USA.
Then there is CBD. CBD stands for cannabidiol and is a naturally occurring element found in industrial hemp and marijuana. It does not make you high. That’s the effect of another compound called THC.
We are early in the research stage for CBD but there have already been some promising results. 66.7% of the participants of a study reported better sleep after taking 25mg of CBD each day for a month. It’s also a naturally occurring substance whereas melatonin is made in the lab.
5.) Block out noise and light
The best environment to fall asleep in is quiet and dark. Make sure you block out any light from the outside with thick curtains. Avoid having any light sources inside your room like bright displays of alarm clocks.
The darker it is in your room, the better. Consider using an eye mask if you struggle to block out light sufficiently. If you can’t see your hand in front of your face you’ve done a good job.
Sound is another issue. There is nothing more annoying than hearing your neighbours talk or the TV program they are watching whilst you are trying to fall asleep.
The World Health Organization (WHO) went as far as publishing “Night Noise Guidelines For Europe“. It stresses the impact of noise on the quality of sleep and hence on your level of health. To promote sleepiness, keep it as quiet as possible. Earplugs will help if there is too much noise you can’t eliminate.
6.) Exercise and be active
The benefits of exercise on your health are well documented. But exercise also affects the way you sleep especially when you workout in the morning. Exercising increases your core body temperature by a few degrees.
Once the day progresses and your body temperature cools down to normal the decrease promotes sleepiness. Scientific studies confirm that exercise can improve sleep quality.
In contrast, avoid exercising close before going to bed. After you exercise your body temperature stays elevated for a few hours. You are also high in endorphins making you wide awake.
This does not apply to all people though and some are not affected by exercising late at night. If you are struggling to fall asleep and you’ve been spinning one hour earlier you now know why.
7.) Look at your diet
When you eat and what you eat also affects your sleep. It is best to avoid big, heavy portions before going to bed. It interferes with the body’s process of winding down and preparing for the night.
Also, avoid any foods that are high in sugar, high in carbohydrates and processed. Processed sugar can delay your body’s production of melatonin which is essential for not tossing and turning. There is also evidence that sugar in your diet decreases your sleep quality.
8.) Avoid caffeine in the evening
Caffeine is a stimulant that keeps you awake and makes you feel alert. The complete opposite of what you want before going to bed. It takes a few hours for your body to fully break down and digest the caffeine.
Avoid caffeine intake anytime after 5 pm. If you only have caffeine occasionally, move that cut-off time to 2 pm or 3 pm. A precaution to make sure it has left your system by the time you go to bed.
The exact effect of caffeine is different from person to person. It depends on age, genetics and your metabolism. You might find that having a coffee at 6 pm doesn’t affect you when going to bed at 11 pm.
9.) No screen time before bedtime
Avoid screens and digital displays for about 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed. Screens emit an artificial blue light. That light is delaying your circadian rhythms by stopping your body from producing melatonin. It makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep.
Instead, read a book and promote sleepiness. Even reading on a Kindle device works as devices with an e-ink display don’t emit blue light. The negative effect of screens on sleep quality is also backed by research. It found the use of screen media before bedtime is associated with shorter sleep duration and poorer sleep quality.
If you are often waking up during the night and struggle to fall asleep it could be a sign of poor sleep hygiene. It’s time to look at your bedtime habits and make a few changes. Just a few modifications in your bedtime regime will go a long way.
What’s your view on the points above? Do you have any other suggestions to put on the list? Share your comments and ideas in the comment section below and don’t forget to sign up to my blog.