While there’s still a lot that we don’t understand about sleep, there’s plenty that we do and we’re uncovering more and more about this mysterious state. And this knowledge can help us to get better sleep and work out how we can improve our health. Here’s what doctors and psychologists can tell us about sleep.
Lack of Sleep Short and Long Term
We all know the unpleasantness of struggling through a day where we’ve not slept well. You’re tired, moody, emotional, you even feel hungrier because of the way your hunger hormones are affected. In the long term it can cause obesity which comes with it’s own unique problems, high blood pressure, increased risk of obesity and diabetes to name a few. This can lead to strokes and heart attacks and other severe health issues. A lack of sleep is even linked to accidental death due to exhaustion and lack of concentration. It could be due to crashing a car, getting injured by machines, power tools or other dangerous equipment. You put both your health and your safety at risk when you don’t get enough sleep.
It’s not as simple as drifting off to sleep and then waking up in the morning. You actually cycle through a number of different sleep stages during the night which all have different cognitive and body functions. The majority of sleep we get is classed as ‘light sleep’, but this doesn’t mean weak sleep. There are lots of different things this stage is responsible for. The first thing is processing and ordering memories, it will decide which go into longer term storage and which will be forgotten, as humans when we’re coming up against all kinds of new situations on a daily basis this is important. It also deals with emotion, allowing emotions to regulate. Light sleep also regulates and restores the metabolism too.The next stage is deep sleep, which is mainly responsible for repairing the body. During this stage you don’t dream, your heart rate drops right down and you secrete growth hormone while rebuilding your body’s cells, This sleep stage helps to restore and strengthen the immune system. Your body likes to get this stage of sleep out of the way early in the night, with most deep sleep occurring in the earlier parts of the evening. The final sleep stage is something we’ve all heard of, REM sleep. This is characterized by rapid darting eyes under the eyelids- you dream vividly in this stage and your heart rate increases. Your body goes into a state of paralysis here which stops you ‘acting out’ your dreams. REM sleep is all about the mind and cognitive functions and helps to stabilize mood and emotion amongst other things. This sleep stage usually occurs towards the end of the night, in the last hour or two before you wake up. This is why it’s important to be sleeping the full seven or eight hours that your body needs. Otherwise you risk cutting off this part of your sleep. It’s why most nightmares occur closer to the morning, as your brain is producing vivid story- like dreams which you will remember if you wake up at the right time. If you invest in a fitness tracker like a Fitbit, it can accurately measure your sleep stages based on your heart rate. So you can see if you’re getting enough.
Dealing With Sleeplessness and Insomnia
Even the best sleepers in the world can sometimes suffer bouts of insomnia or sleeplessness. Some of the main culprits are caffeine, stress, and uncomfortable bed and the wrong lighting or temperature in the room. As humans we are very sensitive to these kinds of things and they can massively affect our ability to fall and stay asleep. If you’re suffering with this, there are a few things you can try. The first would be to totally eliminate caffeine from your diet. This means coffee, energy drinks and caffeine pills but even things like cola, tea and chocolate contain it. Caffeine lasts for a surprising amount of time in the body, so even if you consume it in the morning it could still be having a stimulant effect that night when you’re trying to sleep. Another thing to consider would be light sources in the room. We’re all glued to our devices these days, but the light emitted from computers, laptops, tablets, tvs and phones are all strong ‘wake up’ signals to the brain. They can prevent the sleep hormones from working as they should and massively disrupt the way your brain and body wind down. Get rid of any lights, including LEDs and blinking lights on computers and electronics an hour before bed. This might be difficult to do at first if you’ve been used to scrolling through your phone at night but can make a massive difference
If you’ve been struggling sleeping for a while, it can be tempting to drink some alcohol as a way to shut down. However while alcohol can make you sleepy, the quality of sleep you will get under the influence is not good. While you might drift off more easily, your sympathetic nervous system stays active and your heart rate stays elevated, meaning you will wake up as soon as the sleep inducing effects of the alcohol wear off. Many insomniacs have actually gotten themselves into a position where they become addicted to alcohol as they’re so desperate to drift off at night. If this is a situation you’ve found yourself in, you could consider online alcohol addiction help or speak to your GP. They will be able to help with the addiction as well as prescribe proper medication or counseling to help with the sleeplessness.
Sleep is so important for both mental and physical health. Without the right amount and type of sleep your whole life will be negatively impacted, so it’s something to take seriously. If you’re experiencing problems sleeping, speak to a doctor. If the doctor believes the issues are not medical, a sleep consultant can help.