The super-power that is sleep

April 27, 2020

If someone offered you a free life hack that could lengthen your life span, increase your alertness, reduce your stress levels, improve your memory, help you lose weight, make you more intelligent, reduce your risk of depression, reduce your likelihood of developing cancer, help repair injury and increase cardiac health, you’d surely think that they’d discovered the next best kept secret of medicine, no?

In fact, the answer has been staring us in the face each day, for (hopefully) around 7-9 hours; sleep. Sleep is the most effective thing we can do to improve our brain and body health every single day.


So why do we sleep? Sleep is caused by two factors. Firstly, our circadian rhythm; this is essentially our internal clock that allows our body to know the time of day. As the sun goes down, our brain signals to the pineal gland to release a hormone called melatonin. The increase of this hormone in our blood causes us to become sleepy and less alert. These melatonin levels stay elevated for around 12 hours before decreasing and allowing us to wake up. Despite the fact that melatonin levels are largely dependent on sunlight, artificial light can play a huge part. For example, if the pineal gland is switched on by the brain during sunset hours but you or I are in a brightly lit room, watching TV or on our phones, the pineal gland will not release melatonin. This effect can be reduced by using red-hue lighting which suppresses melatonin less than blue light. Technology is quickly adapting to this and brands such as Apple now provide a “night time” hue of light to allow you to sleep more easily.


The second factor that causes you to sleep is a phenomena called sleep pressure. Throughout the day, a compound called adenosine is constantly building up in areas of your brain that are related to awakeness and cause us to feel increasingly tired. This is where our dear friend caffeine comes in. Caffeine stops our brain responding to adenosine, allowing us to feel periodically more alert. Great, no? Unfortunately not; adenosine is still building up which means that when caffeine wears off, there is a huge influx of adenosine, causing us to feel even more fatigued than before. This is likely to make us feel like we need more coffee; a dangerous cycle. Caffeine can also affect our sleep quality, too. If you have a cup of coffee at 12pm, at 6pm your body may have only broken down half of the caffeine from the coffee. At midnight, you can still have levels of caffeine sufficient enough to affect your quality of sleep.


There are 3 main stages of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, light non-REM sleep and deep non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep stores and strengthens new facts and skills that we have acquired throughout the day. REM sleep interconnects all new inputs together and increases our innovation and problem-solving abilities. This is the state where dreaming occurs and explains why dreams consist of many different people, places, events etc that we wouldn’t normally place together.


Alongside caffeine, unfortunately, another popular drink inhibits our sleep: alcohol. Contrary to popular belief that alcohol causes you to sleep for longer and therefore can improve sleep by duration, the quality of sleep is drastically affected. Alcohol, in fact, actually sedates you which puts you into an artificial sleep state but with none of the beneficial effects of natural sleep. Regular alcohol intake before sleeping therefore not only causes reduced concentration and energy levels the following day but also causes memory issues. Similarly to alcohol, sleeping pills also induce an artificial sleep which, again, means that you are not reaping the benefits of all sleep stages required to feel energised, alert and receptive to learning.


One of the most common misconceptions of sleep is that we can ‘catch up’ on a lost night of sleep. It’s now known that this is incorrect. Not only can we not make up for lost sleep but it’s been shown that getting 7 hours of sleep a night for one week (only one less than recommended) can cause the same mental impairment as not sleeping for 24 hours straight.


So in an era of increasing sleep problems and insomnia, what can help us sleep?


Routine - one of the most important factors. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day gets your body into a routine that will dramatically increase your sleep quality.

Environmental temperature - when falling asleep, your body temperature starts to decrease. If your bedroom is around 15-19 degrees centigrade, this will facilitate the process. This explains why a lot of us stick our feet and hands out of the duvet when falling asleep as these are the areas where we lose most heat.

A hot bath - for the same reason as environmental temperature, this also helps before bed. The heat from the bath causes blood to rise to the surface of your skin which radiates inner heat once out the bath and, therefore, cooling you down and sending you into a quicker and better quality sleep. It’s also important to note here that exercising too close to bedtime will not allow you to drop your body temperature in time. Exercise is so important but try to limit this to before 1-2 hours before bedtime.

Relax before bed - allow yourself to wind down when getting ready for bed. Listen to music, read, meditate. If you can, dim your lights to stimulate melatonin release.

Get enough sunlight during the day - try to get out for at least 30 minutes during the day. This will keep the correct pattern of your internal clock and help your body to sleep later on.

Only go to bed when tired - the more you lie in bed awake, whether it be to watch films or eat or talk to a friend the phone, the more your brain will associate your bed with being awake. We should get into a routine of only getting into bed when tired so that the moment our heads hit the pillow, we are out like a light and getting our dose of that magic scientific discovery!


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