As we are sleeping our bodies have many important jobs to do. This is the optimum time for growth and rejuvenation of the immune, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems. This is when muscle growth, tissue repair and protein synthesis occur. Our bodies are healing, as this is the best time for white blood cell and antioxidant functioning. We also secrete hormones such as growth hormone and melatonin and clear the build up of substances like adenosine. Sleeping is also the key time for brain development and memory processing.
Although we still don’t know everything our bodies do while we are sleeping, we do know what happens when we don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can more than double the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. It can also be a risk factor for weight gain, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Sleep difficulties are associated with depression, alcoholism and bipolar disorder. Sleep deprivation affects judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information and increases the risk of accidents and injury. When sleep deprived our white blood cell count decreases. In a study, animals deprived entirely of sleep lost all immune function and died within weeks. Sleep problems have even been associated to digestive problems such as inflammatory bowel and Crohn’s disease.
So what is enough sleep? One study found that people who sleep six to seven hours each night live the longest. But this is only if people wake naturally instead of with an alarm clock. It is generally accepted that you have had enough sleep if you have no periods of tiredness through the day.
If you suffer from sleep problems the first thing to start with is to look at your sleep hygiene.
- Keep the TV, computer, tablet, phone, anything with a bright screen out of the bedroom. Artificial light can shift your circadian rhythm.
- Sleep in complete darkness. Even a little light can stop the creation of sleep hormones such as melatonin.
- Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tea or energy drinks after noon. Some people can take as long as 18 hours to clear caffeine from their system so should not drink it at all. Check out my blog article on caffeine for more information about its effects.
- Try using an alarm clock with sleep stage monitoring. This monitors what stage of sleep you are in so you are woken during a lighter sleep rather then a deep sleep.
- Avoid alcohol. Although this will initially aid going to sleep it gives a worse quality sleep and you can wake in the night.
- Most sources say a routine is very important. Counter to this is the theory that you should only go to bed when you are tired. Try both and see what works best for you.
- And last but certainly not least, exercise and diet. Regular exercise and a healthy diet will improve your sleep along with most other ailments. Check out my blog article about exercise to learn more about how much we need.
If you are still having problems with your sleep some supplements may be helpful in the short term, but talk to your naturopath before trying anything. Happy sleeping!
Ferrie JE, Shipley MJ, Cappuccio FP, Brunner E, et al. A prospective study of change in sleep duration: associations with mortality in the Whitehall II cohort. Sleep 30 (12): 1659–66.
Harvard Medical School: Healthy Sleep
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Rowland R. “Experts challenge study linking sleep, life span”. CNN.