Sleep. It's not really something we give any thought to, is it? You lie down in the dark and close your eyes, then, after a little while, sleep just tends to find you. Then you open your eyes, it's light, and you go about your day as if just five minutes have passed.
And yet you spend about a third or so of your life asleep, making it a hugely dominant activity, and one that is really quite necessary to your continued survival. So I suppose it's quite nice that something so important happens with such little effort.
But, because it's part of your day that sort of imposes itself and in which you can't get much done in, it's very easy to overlook it, neglect it and, in some cases, even actively avoid it. And it's worth noting that one in five Brits suffer from poor sleep, it's the second most common health complain after pains, and sleep deprivation is directly linked to heart attacks, strokes, obesity, and linked to diabetes and and cancer.
It's advised that you get eight hours of sleep a night, but what hasn't been stressed is the quality - six hours of uninterrupted sleep is better than eight hours if you wake up three times in the night. It's not about what time you went to bed and what time you got out of it - it's quality over quantity.
So why is sleep so important?
Rejuvenate & Repair
One important function of sleep is inactivity - but in this case, 'inactivity' means a lack of voluntary activity. You're not watching TV, you're not walking, you're not eating, you're not moving. This means a lot your body's functions are on stand-by, including things like digestion since you've not eaten for a while, and that also means your body has the energy and opportunity to see to important things that get put on the back-burner in your day's activities. For example, it is while you sleep that your body sees to repairs. If you've had a great workout, you'll consume protein and such afterwards to refuel and help your body to recover. This is important so that it can also continue to function properly through the day, but it's when you go to sleep that the repairs really begin - and it's not just muscular cells, it's all cells. So injuries and bugs are taken care of more intensely while you sleep.
You hear a lot about REM sleep and why it's important, and one of the reasons for this is because it is during this stage of your sleep cycle that your body produces the most proteins (the building blocks of cells) and subsequently repairs itself most efficiently.
Sleep also plays a huge role in bolstering your immune system, warding off stress and keeping your hormones in check, and that in turn plays a massive part in your day to day, from your mood, to your workout, to life plans or personal goals like trying to get pregnant or losing weight. Skimping on sleep will affect your body chemically, as chemicals are what make you tick, and if just one is out of balance, it can and will affect countless aspects of your life from short- to long-term.
But what about dreaming?
No one really knows why we dream, or why it's important, but dreams usually occur during REM sleep, and since REM sleep is so important, you can say that dreams are, too. If you're not dreaming, you're not getting REM sleep. That's not to say if you don't remember your dream you didn't get REM sleep, it just simply means that you don't remember it, and that's just as well.
Generally, if you remember a dream, it's because you woke up from it, and waking up from a dream implies interrupted sleep, and that's what you don't want.
But what about when you do wake up from a dream? Well, it probably upset or startled you by touching on something you've been trying to ignore.
Do Dreams Really Mean Anything?
Dreams are typically down to interpretation, but they can tell us a lot about our minds. Sleep is an opportunity for us to realise how we really feel, when distractions are done away with and our minds have 'nothing to do' but turn towards fears and fancies. It's an opportunity to find out what we're troubled by or make us realise that we're not over something we thought we were and are still being dragged down by it.
A lot of people tend to hide from stress and bottle it all up, and they will have more restless nights than those of us who face our problems, and this is bad for physical and mental health. The trouble is that not everyone who have such habits are even aware of it, so by stopping and looking at your dreams and whether you can remember any of your night at all can really help you to work if that's an area that needs improvement.
But while dreams are open to interpretation, there are a few key themes that can be identified in most of our dreams, and they can also be insightful, especially if you're struggling to grasp your tensions or emotions and work out what is truly bothering you. In these cases, your dreams tend to manifest your real concerns in unusual ways, and it can be helpful to analyse them.
That's not to say you have to write down every dream you have. The problem with keeping a dream journal is that it's easy for it to feel like a necessity, and you'll end up waking up a couple of times in the night to write down a dream that may not even need noting down (but you're too sleep-addled to realise it). This will result in more stressful sleeps because of that self-imposed pressure, and you'll end up having a lower quality sleep. In the end, if you want to keep a dream journal, it's best to only note down the ones that actually jolt you awake. These are the ones that are more likely to matter. Otherwise, let yourself sleep soundly.
Children's minds are the most active, the most innocent, but also the most volatile, and they can present a really good baseline for understanding dreams. There is a video from Adjustamatic wherein psychologist and oneiric (dream analyst) Ian Wallace analyses and explains the dreams of two children, and it's an insightful if tear-jerking starting point.
So: sleep is important. But how can you improve your kip and get a better night's sleep?
Rituals, Make & Break
Little rituals can be helpful, things that put you in a 'time to sleep' frame of mind. Perhaps a hot tea toddy or cup of camomile tea, or slipping into your jim-jams. I've got a little ritual, and though a sleep professional would tell me it was all wrong, it's what works for me.
I have a cup of tea, either green or herbal, and relax with it about an hour before bed, then Seeg and I turn out the lights and watch some TV for 20-40 minutes - an episode or two of something, (at the moment we're re-watching Bleach), then I go to the loo and we swap places (because a few years ago we got in the habit of lying on different sides of the bed to where we actually sleep, for some unknown reason) turn off the plugs and go sleepy-byes. Without this, especially without the TV, both of us struggle to drift off.
It's the TV part of my habits that sleep professionals will dispute, and they're right to: blue light is emitted by both the sun and most TV/device screens, and the reason that's a problem before bed is because it affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. It's why some Kindles now have a special sleep light/screen filter that reduces the amount of blue light so that you can still read in bed.
It doesn't seem to inhibit the two of us, but we're not having trouble sleeping. If you are, and this is one of your habits, it should be one of the first things to go.
Other bedtime rituals people find helpful are:
1. Taking a moment to think happy thoughts. Push aside your worries and count your blessings instead, or think of something you did that day that you didn't expect to be able to, or was a challenge you managed to overcome.
2. Dressing to wind down. A surprising number of people sleep in the buff, and a surprising number of those still have clothes they associate with bedtime, like comfy, oversized clothes, maybe their boyfriend's or husband's, or perhaps even a pair or pyjamas they then kick off before slipping between the sheets.
3. Pre-bed exercise - for some people, an exhausting cardio workout, for others it's resistance, but for most it's yoga. The moon salutation sequence is designed for better, calmer and deeper sleep, while its better-known sister, the sun salutation, is designed for improved mornings and waking.
4. Massaging body oils into the skin can help in two ways: first from the movement, relaxing the muscles, and second from the scents. Lavender is an effective relaxant, but in truth, if it is a scent you associate with bed, sleep and chilling out, it will work. I used to use Nip + Fab green tea body lotion before bed, and now if ever I catch a whiff of it I instinctively think 'time for bed' and I breathe a little easier.
What you can do to get a better night's sleep:
1. No caffine after 6pm
2. No blue-light two hours before bed (phones, TV, ipads, computers, etc)
3. Get blue-light reduced light bulbs for in-bed reading, such as Drift Light
4. A new mattress, pillows or bed sheet
5. And, if things are really difficult, a whole new bed to suit your body, such as the adjustable Beds from Adjustamatic
6. Include foods rich in magneisum, calcium and vitamin B in your dinner or evening snack, as these nutrients are involved in sleep regulation - these include nuts, seeds, leafy greens, bananas, fish and poultry.
7. Make your bedroom as dark as possible when you're going to sleep. Draw all curtains completely - perhaps even invest in black out curtains - and turn off all plugs to avoid stand-by lights.