Why sleep is essential and tonight's sleep is relatively unimportant
Written by: Meg Sharp, Fitness & Health Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs
Sleep is a powerful thing. It can be difficult to control and painfully elusive. And oh so wonderful when we can catch enough of it.
We know sleep is vital. I will remind you of this fact quickly. I want us to be motivated to make sleep a priority and stop wearing sleep deprivation as a badge of honour.
Sufficient sleep – in both quality and quantity – improves focus, mental clarity, and creativity. It helps alleviate depression and stress. It increases energy, strength, and athletic performance. It supports immune system function. It encourages healthy body weight and composition by maintaining and rebuilding lean tissue, increasing metabolism, appetite and craving control, lowered levels of cortisol, and maintenance of blood sugars throughout the day.
Sleep is amazing!!!
And so not getting enough sleep is…?!
Hold that thought. While I need you to embrace the positive power of sleep – I also need you to avoid getting anxious when you don’t get enough of it. Notice I said when not if. We all have bad nights. They sometimes cycle for a long period of time. I’m not saying don’t pay attention to that – indeed for the later scenario I strongly encourage you to speak to your doctor. And many experts posit that the number one disruptor of sleep is anxiety. Ironically, we’re typically worrying about the fact that we won’t be able to fall or stay asleep. The very thing we worrying about creates the bad night sleep.
Here are a few ideas many people have found really helpful:
Rest in and of itself is extremely beneficial. So, when you head to bed, make resting – not sleeping – your goal. Start by breathing deep, slow belly breaths. Tense your forehead on your inhale. Relax as you exhale. Similarly scrunch up your eyes, mouth, and cheeks… work your way – one body part at a time – all the way down to your toes. Enjoy how good it feels to gradually relax every part of you. Time spent still, relaxing and breathing is really good for you. Don’t worry about the sleep part. Just rest.
Exercise increases adenosine – a hormone that builds up in the body throughout the day and ultimately helps create that sleep pressure that makes you feel tired and helps you fall under soon after your head hits the pillow. Physical activity outside, in natural light, especially in the morning, helps support our natural circadian rhythm. Exercise also increases arousal or vigilance over the short term. So, a mid-afternoon workout in lieu of coffee, chocolate, or a short nap is an amazing sleep strategy. Some people find exercise within 30 minutes to 3 hours of bedtime is extremely disruptive. You likely know if this is you – and can modify your workout schedule accordingly!
Pick a wake time that works for you 7 days a week. Avoid varying that wake time by more than 45 minutes. Every morning. I won’t bore you today with the details – but this tip – more than all others – seems to be the magic sleeping potion for many!
Keep your room DARK AND COOL.
As with above… you’ve surely heard this many times before. Again – according to more experts than I can name… these two simple, easy strategies can be transformative.
Avoid bright lights and blue light 30+ minutes before bed.
Like exercise, light increases arousal and vigilance. These are directly counter to sleep as they are important survival mechanisms. It’s good that we wake and become extremely alert – for example – when we smell fire. It’s not helpful if that arousal is piqued by fear, worry, or light. Dim your bathroom and bedroom lights. Read a paper book. Avoid technology. Use a blue light blocker if the tech is a must. Exposure to light at night – especially blue light – suppresses melatonin, disrupting our natural circadian rhythm, and may even stimulate appetite and cravings.
That glass of wine may help you fall asleep. However, even small amounts of alcohol can disrupt the sleep cycle – making your sleep less restful, restorative, and altering secretions of key hormones. Of specific concern is the decrease in growth hormone which facilitates rebuilding, recovery, and, ultimately, boosts metabolism, physical, and mental vitality. A few helpful suggestions: Remember “tonight’s sleep is relatively unimportant”? Choose a few nights a week where you embrace that your sleep will not be optimal. Don’t stress about it. Enjoy that martini and that beautiful wine with dinner. Ensure most days of the week are alcohol free. Or, some research indicates that having one standard drink more than 3 hours prior to bedtime creates zero sleep disruptions for some. Everybody’s different. Likely the only way to know for sure is to stop drinking entirely for a few weeks. See how you sleep. Notice how you feel. Then try adding the drinks back in and see what happens.
Some people nap beautifully without impacting their night’s sleep at all. For others it disrupts the body’s ability to build that natural sleep pressure throughout the day. When bedtime hits, you’re simply not tired. And a cycle of wakeful, anxious nights and subsequent tired days ensues. Avoiding the nap – may make that pressure rather unbearable on a particular day – but – if you can avoid getting anxious about it – the higher pressure may offer a sounder, more restorative sleep. You can wake at your usual time. And now you are back on track.
“O sleep, O gentle sleep, nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, that thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down, and steep my senses in forgetfulness.” - William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act III, sc. 1