Why do we need sleep?
Are you getting enough of the good stuff? We all know that sleep is important for our wellbeing and that a lack of shut-eye can affect everything from performance at work to immune function. Yet according to the Royal Society for Public Health, four in ten of us aren’t getting enough.
While medical disorders such as sleep apnoea or chronic insomnia may need medical investigation, for many of us our lack of sleep is lifestyle related. According to the RSPH, “new parents, commuters, shift-workers, party animals and young people,” are all at risk of sleep-deprivation.
We’re often advised to set regular hours for sleep, and told we need seven or eight hours a night to function at our best. However, in reality, if we have young children, work shifts or have other unalterable interruptions during the night, this might not be possible.
But, whilst we can’t always change the quantity of sleep we have, there are many natural ways to improve our sleep quality and make the most of our rest.
Tune in to your rhythm
When trying to maximise the benefits of sleep, it’s important to understand our body’s natural rhythms and work with them. “We sleep in 90-minute cycles,” explains Gemma Clare, Holistic Health Specialist. “If you stay in line with this natural timing, you can feel more rested, even if you aren’t getting quite as much as you need.”
By dividing our night into 90-minute blocks, we can avoid being woken in the middle of a sleep-cycle, and allow our body to wake up more naturally. “The optimum amount might be six 90 minute cycles,” explains Clare. “But if you break after four or five, you will feel more rested than if you continue to sleep and wake up in the middle of a cycle.”
Sound complicated? There’s an app for that. “There are lots of helpful tools such as Sleepytime that help you to plan your bedtime and the best time to wake, based on the time available,” explains Clare.
Focus on quality
Even if we’re not getting enough shut-eye, it’s important to make the most of the sleep we have. So how can we improve our quality of rest?
“Most people don’t think about what happens while they are sleeping,” explains Dr. Magid Katz, specialist in sleep apnoea. “Many people wake up periodically during the night without even knowing it. They’re called mini-arousals and can be worsened by poor sleeping position. You may think you got a full night’s sleep, but may still be tired.”
To optimise our sleep, Katz recommends we consider the quality of our mattress, and bedding. “If you’re waking up in pain, it might be an indication that your back isn’t being properly supported by your mattress,” she explains. “Or if you suffer from allergies, you may wish to consider hypoallergenic bedding.”
Improve your sleep environment
It’s also important to ensure our bedroom promotes good sleep. “Make sure your room is tidy,” says Clare. “Messy rooms can affect your sleep even if you’re not aware of it consciously.”
In addition, it’s important to keep your bedroom solely for sleep and other bedtime activities. This will give your subconscious a clear indication that it’s time for rest.
Light pollution disrupts our body’s natural rhythms, so it’s crucial we minimise excess light in the bedroom. Try investing in blackout blinds or a sleep mask to cut down on unnecessary stimulation.
Exposure to “blue light” from electronic screens can also disrupt our sleep – even after we’ve switched our phone off for the night. “Screens impact our sleep due to harmful blue light emitted from the digital device itself,” explains Optometrist and Sleep Expert Dhruvin Patel from Ocushield. “This light disturbs a hormone called melatonin which is responsible for telling our body it’s time to sleep.”
To ensure our body is ready for rest, it’s important to be mindful of our use of technology. “Reducing the amount of screen time directly before you plan to fall asleep, critically in the hour before the run up to bedtime should help. You can also reduce the brightness of screens by using blue-light software or filtering products,” explains Patel.
Help your body to switch off
In today’s busy world, it’s hardly surprising that lots of us are feeling stressed. And our body may well hold onto that tension, making it difficult to switch off. There are many ways in which we can help our muscles to relax, from meditation to taking a warm bath.
Essential oils such as Lavender and Ylang Ylang are also said to promote relaxation and rest; try adding a few drops to some distilled water and spritzing your sheets, or add a few drops to your evening bath.
What about medication?
Whilst medication has its place, all sleeping tablets carry a risk of serious side effects, including addiction, in the medium-long term. So it's always more beneficial to seek a natural solution to tiredness or poor quality sleep. "Medication can sometimes mask an issue rather than solve it," agrees Clare. "There is often a natural solution."
However, if you suspect you have a sleep disorder, it may be worth discussing further intervention. "If all else fails, or you suspect you have a more serious problem, see your doctor. Some people may benefit from medication or appliance that can improve your sleep and make you healthier," adds Katz.
Making the most of rest
Whilst we might not be able to stop the baby crying, or ignore the on-call pager, by carrying out a few simple tweaks we can make the most of our sleep and feel more rested as a result.