Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Sleep. The Best Thing You Did All Night.

   There's always something to do. It could be fun, it could be dull, it could be urgent, or the deadline could be entirely imagined. And yet, if we miss it, it's going to be the worst thing in the world. It's ridiculous, really. And it leads to cutting so many corners, and, worse still, those corners are always the things that matter. Like skipping a proper warm-up or cool-down post-workout, or arriving late to parent-teacher night, or dragging your dog around the park as quickly as you can (I maintain, if you have to find time to give your dog a walk, you shouldn't have a dog). And, worst of all: sleep.
   Staying up late to hit your deadlines and then rising early to get a head-start. Fine, if there's a dissertation hand-in that needs to be met in a week's time. But if this is basically your life, something has to give. And if sleep is the corner you're cutting, the thing that buckles will be your sanity.

Why is sleep so important to your health?
   During sleep, lots of body functions are turned down so that other functions that run in the background while you're awake can do their job more efficiently. Like your computer trying to run updates and things like that during your inactive hours. These are things like repair - your body rebuilds its cells and starts to work on healing injuries or illnesses while you sleep. This isn't limited to exercise, it's your body's basic daily wear and tear - but it does, of course, increase in necessity if you're active. To repair your body properly, it chooses to run these 'programs' while you're not moving around and directing energy elsewhere, and as a result it makes other things less sensitive - like touch, hearing, smell and sight - and also reduces your metabolism because you're not eating. If you start to wake in the night from small noises, your body isn't working properly, quite probably because you've ruined your sleep-cycle with late nights and early rising. This can also contribute heavily towards general bad moods and depression.
   This entire system is managed by chemical changes in your body, the simplest and most relevant of which is the balance between serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin levels increase with exposure to natural light, ie morning time, and kicks your metabolism, mood and nervous system into drive, while melatonin increases when serotonin eases off, and kicks your healing, rejuvenation and natural detoxing systems into drive, which are running on low-power in the background during the day. This is generally why you feel like you've 'reset' the next day if you felt ill or sore the day before. It's also responsible for your circadian rhythm - your body clock, essentially.
   The balance between these two incredibly important chemicals is skewed when our busy days come into play. We rise early with an alarm clock, before our bodies are ready, and often while it's still dark, and we stay up late, using computers, tablets and phones - sending artificial light into our eyes and confusing the release of melatonin - before sleeping for 6 hours.

It's not just a matter of sleep time, but sleep quality.
   If you're in bed at 10 and rise at 6, you probably count that as 8 hours of sleep, right? Well, no. Not if you're waking up every hour or two. If you keep waking, your body can't keep up its nighttime engines. You won't heal, rejuvenate, recover or rest if you're still using your conscious mind, your sight, your hearing, etc. And just the act of waking these systems up will trigger others to follow by default. It takes time to shut them back down and start the others back up. This is more damaging than 6 hours of restful sleep.

   So what can you do? Especially if you're the kind of person who does wake every hour? Well, it's actually quite simple. You need to hold yourself accountable.
   Setting up a simple night-time ritual will help to turn off your over-active mind, aid the release of the right chemicals through relaxation and association, and ease you into sleep, giving you a better 6 hours if that's really all you can spare. You may even find that new nighttime habits gets you to bed a little earlier as a cosy little side-effect.

1. Limit artificial light
This means phones, tablets, computers - electronics, basically. Stop using them 2 hours before bed and read a book instead, go for an evening walk, draw a picture. Do something that doesn't have you staring into a screen, that disconnects you from social media and the anxieties that come with it - whether you notice them or not - and relax.

2. Consider your environment
Cool down. Cooling the air and letting in a fresh flow will help you to fall asleep. The body usually responds better to cooler temperatures. It sucks trying to sleep in the summer, but winter is oh so cosy. So, crack open a window, opt for lighter/low-tog sheets - Julian Charles has a good variety of togs - don't fear the monsters under the bed and stick a foot out, and consider sleeping nude beneath the sheets.

3. Stretch and breathe
A few yoga stretches with some deep breaths before bed helps to calm and slow the mind. If you do this after shutting off your devices, it gives you something to take your mind off of the 'boredom' that comes with having turned your phone off. There's more to life than your phone, social media and work. Take time for you.

4. Don't exercise in the evening
On the other hand, don't take the yoga too far. Consider dinner time the cut-off point for proper exercise, like a dance class, workout or run. You need the fuel to recover from it, anyway.
   When serotonin eases off and melatonin rises, your ability to handle higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced, and continues to reduce the later it gets. You know how nightmares always seem so scary when you're a kid, but when you think back in the day, they seem silly? Or how niggly things that don't bother you so much in the day suddenly grow into monsters at night? It's because your brain can't handle the stress. This isn't just mental stress, but physical, too. This means that higher levels of cortisol at night also inhibit sleep quality, and if you're trying to lose weight, get fit or build muscle, then having a poor night's sleep after an evening workout is only going to inhibit your results, too.

5. Get some blackout curtains
They're a thicker curtain, or another set of curtains hooked behind your regular ones. They add an extra layer to block out the light, which will aid your melatonin levels at night. This is the best option if you hate wearing sleep masks. I certainly do.

6. Get outside during the day
Melatonin levels improve at night if you got lots of sun during the day. This means getting outside. The exercise and change of scenery will do your general mood wonders, too.

7. Have a warm drink before bed
Warm milk doesn't actually contribute to a good night's sleep. The levels of melatonin and tryptophan in a glass of warm milk are far too low to make a difference. Instead, it's the act of having that warm drink and the relaxation that goes with it that helps to prepare the body for sleep. But it is still high in fats and protein, which the body puts to use at night to repair the body.


Do you already have a night-time ritual that helps you get to sleep? 
For me it's simple: turn off devices, have a stretch, then clamber in bed and read a book for an hour, with a cup of sleepy tea. I'm loving Bird & Blend's 'Dozy Girl' right now.
If I fall asleep with a cup half-full, then I fall asleep with a cup half-full.



Disclaimer: this is a collaborative post. All research was my own.



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