Why sleep is so vital to our health (and how to get better at it)

Do you get enough sleep? There's a fair chance the answer to this question is 'no'. If that is the case, that puts you in a group of around 28 million people in Britain who are getting too little sleep.1 Most adults require at least 7 or 8 hours a night, but it isn't uncommon for people to sleep for under five hours.

While not sleeping well occasionally shouldn't cause any more problems than just being a little tired or grumpy when you wake up, if it happens consistently and over a long period of time it can put you at risk of developing some serious health conditions. These include obesity,heart disease and type 2 diabetes, while it can also lower your life expectancy.

The link between stress and sleep

One of the key reasons many people are unable to get truly restful sleep is down to stress. In modern life, many of us are "switched on" all the time, constantly available to pick up work emails or phone calls, and electronic devices have been linked to poor sleep for a while. But why is stress such a problem?

Our body naturally releases adrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals during times of stress. These chemicals are part of our natural stress response (the so-called "fight or flight" responses) that help us deal with stressful situations. However, if we stay at this heightened level for too long we can find ourselves in a position of chronic stress, often without even being aware of it. This means that getting to sleep can be difficult, and when we eventually do drop off, truly restful sleep is unlikely.

Most of us have probably "lost sleep" over a stressful event or situation a few times in our working or home life, and when we play that moment back in our minds it is known as rumination. This can be problematic at any time, but it is especially unhelpful to be playing an event over in your mind while you are tossing and turning in bed. It is also unhelpful if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, and instead of dropping back to sleep, you find yourself ruminating again.

It's particularly important then that we manage our stress levels to help get restful sleep. Sometimes it is even worth seeking medical advice over too.

The benefits of a good night's sleep

We've already mentioned that a lack of sleep over a long period of time can lead to a plethora of health conditions, but there are other benefits to be had as well as avoiding these potential problems. One of the most noticeable ones is a better mood, for understandable reasons. It is easy to be a bit short with people if we haven't slept very well, after all. On the same note, a good night's sleep makes it easier to think clearly, making better decisions and fewer mistakes, while our memory also functions better if we are well rested.

One more surprising benefit though is a better control of our body weight. One of the reasons for this is the hormone leptin, which helps us to feel full. If we aren't sleeping very well, leptin levels drop and so we are more inclined to eat more. Our immune system also functions better when we sleep well, and studies have shown those who sleep for seven hours or less are three times more likely to develop colds than a person who sleeps for eight hours or more a night.2

If you struggle with body pain, you may also find getting more sleep can help supplement your pain medication too.

How to ensure you get a good night's sleep

• Ensure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and offer the appropriate support. Mattresses have a life expectancy, so if yours is older than eight years it may be affecting the quality of your sleep

• Try to relax before bedtime. Stay away from electronic devices for at least half an hour before going to bed, and try to avoid anything which can lead to stress. Maybe replace watching the TV with reading, or perhaps go for a soak in the bath instead

• If you often have trouble sleeping, try to avoid naps in the daytime. They may help short-term, but aren't a long-term solution

• Try to ensure your bedroom is a restful environment. It shouldn't be too hot or too cold, and try to keep it both quiet and dark

• Cut down on stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, which both affect your sleep pattern, and if you smoke, take steps to try to stop

Exercise is a great way to deal with stress, and can also help improve the quality of your sleep.

Reference

1 http://www.itv.com/news/update/2014-04-04/28-million-people-in-the-uk-getting-too-little-sleep/

2 http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/01/13/health.sleep.colds/index.html?iref=mpstoryview