It is well established that sleep is essential to our health – both physically and mentally. As you sleep, your body goes through different sleep stages which each have different functions. They are generally split between non-REM & REM stages.
The first stage of sleep (NREM) is where you drift off – where you float in and out of consciousness and, when stressed, is perhaps one of the most challenging stages of sleep as cortisol (stress hormone) is working hard to keep you on high alert which can make it difficult for you to actually get into the next stage of sleep.
All being well, when you do drift into a deeper sleep, your body goes to work on making repairs to organs, muscles and all other cells. Your immune system gets strengthened and your bodily functions slow down and ‘rest’ whilst your mind has a chance to start filing and sorting memories from the day. This sorting also includes deciding what to store and what to delete.
The last stage of sleep is what is referred to as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and is the most active part of a full sleep cycle within the mind, your body however is usually very still. Your eyes dart about (behind your eyelids), this is normally where you dream as the mind starts to re-energise itself. Usually, a person will wake up immediately after the REM stage – however, be aware each full sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes – so it’s actually normal to wake up several times in the night. Generally, we only wake up for a few seconds and we head straight back to sleep until we have had enough sleep cycles (or the alarm goes off!!) Again, this is where cortisol can cause havoc as when levels are high due to stress, it can wake us up fully between sleep cycles.. resulting in what is often referred to as a restless night.
When experiencing periods of high stress and overwhelm the body responds with the physical stress response. The release of hormones such as cortisol causes changes in the body which include increased bursts of energy and awareness – states needed to allow you to run from or fight any perceived threat. The hormones that help you sleep, and do all the above, generally cause cortisol to drop however when we are inadvertently triggering our stress response too often, we end up with an excess of cortisol (& similar hormones) so normal effective sleep becomes more difficult.
You can see how lack of sleep and high-stress levels can become a vicious cycle, so it’s important to find ways to break that pattern. Here’s a simple guide to ensure you are maximising your chance of good quality sleep.
Patterns. Your body naturally works well with structure and patterns and will, in a relatively short period of time, adjust itself to any pattern you set. Regular bedtimes and waking up times are a great way to do this. Your natural body clock is heavily influenced by light - so getting daylight on your face in the morning helps set your body clock so you are more likely to feel tired and sleepy by the end of the day. There will always be the odd exception but wherever possible try and stick to a similar routine.
Number of hours: Spend some time discovering just how many hours of sleep you need. That’s NEED not ‘can get by with’. Sleep, sadly, seems to be the one essential part of our life many of us sacrifice – even before food and water – yet it’s up there as one of the most essential things we need. And we all need different amounts. The official guideline is somewhere between 7 – 10 hours per 24-hour period, however, I know people who struggle to function on less than 12 hours and I equally know people who run amazingly well on just 6 hours. Also, allow for seasonal differences - we naturally require more sleep in the colder months (the human equivalent of hibernation) - usually only an hour or two, but if you listen to your body and allow time for that you will feel better for it. One of the easiest ways to discover your ‘number’ is to track your sleep for a while, notice when you naturally wake up on days you don’t have to, spot the patterns, especially on the days when you feel great, healthy and running on all cylinders. This may take some discovering but it’s worth tracking and seeing what you need.
Avoid screen time: We all know this but how many of us do this? Screens (phones, tablets, TVs etc) all emit a type of light that confuses our circadian rhythm (the system that tells our body when to release ‘sleep’ and ‘wake up’ hormones when needed). You generally need an hour or 2 before bedtime without these lights for it to work its magic. It’s not just the light that prevents us from winding down too - any stimuli that could trigger a stress response can also impact this. From social media headlines, and news, to watching thrillers or crime documentaries.
Write stuff down. A big part of what can keep us awake is running through things in our minds. Our brain spends part of our sleep time organising and sorting through things – and quite often writing stuff down can help make sure we don’t forget the stuff we need to remember. By dedicating 10-15 minutes a day to processing these thoughts, writing a to-do list or possible solutions can be a healthy way to deal with stress and prevent it from interfering with your sleep.
Temperature: Did you know that if it’s too warm in your bedroom – this is more likely to cause sleep problems than external noise? Everyone is different but generally, the recommended temperature for good quality sleep is between 15 – 19 degrees.
Watch your caffeine: Seems obvious but caffeine is a recognised stimulus and can stay in your system for up to 10 hours. therefore having it later in the day or even when you want to sleep can cause problems depending on how sensitive you are to it.
Relax: Again, another obvious one. If you know something relaxes you (bubble bath, warm cup of camomile, reading a book etc) then introduce it into your bedtime routine… help your body as much as you can to do what it needs to do. If you are a parent you will know how important a routine is to help your child sleep - the funny thing is that adults benefit from this too - so finding the right, relaxing routine is a great way to improve your sleep.
There are lots of other things you can do too – such as spraying your pillow with lavender, having a relaxing massage, avoiding eating big meals late etc… find what works for you and prioritise your sleep as much as you do food, water and even brushing your teeth.