Why is Sleep so Important?
Sleep is critical to the regulation of the body and mind, resting after the day that has been and restoration in preparation for the day ahead.
There are five stages of sleep, each with distinct electrical activity in the brain. There is a variable pattern of cycling between the five stages of sleep. The first two stages are the descent into a light sleep, and stages three and four are deep sleep marked by the long, tall delta brain waves. During this deep, Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep, it is believed that the brain processes short term memory into long term memory. Peak hormone release occurs during NREM sleep, which facilitates cell repair and reproduction. It is difficult to wake up during these deep sleep stages.
During the fifth stage of sleep, brain activity more resembles being awake, the body is temporarily paralysed, and there is a lot of eye activity. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is when people are most likely to dream. It is believed that this sleep enhances learning and memory and emotional health.
Sleep is, therefore, one of the most critical factors in establishing and maintaining excellent physical and mental health.
Sleep and Mental Health
There is a connection between mental health conditions and sleep. The relationship can be complicated; not enough quality sleep affects psychological state and mental health. And sleep problems are more commonly experienced in people with mental health conditions.
There are over 70 types of sleep disorders, the most common being insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep). The researchers from Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) identify sleep as a critical factor in mental health and wellbeing in Australia, with 40% of the population not getting enough (7-9 hours per night is generally recommended for adults). They estimate the nation’s financial burden of inadequate sleep at $66.3billion in 2016-17, and the personal cost even higher. Someone dies in Australia every day from a sleep-related vehicle or industrial accident.
How to Improve Sleep
Improvement of the quantity and quality of sleep can make a substantial difference to daily function and wellbeing. Improving your sleep can take some time so it is important to continue sleep strategies for a number of weeks. If you experience no improvement, you may consider seeking professional assistance. Some strategies to improve sleep include:
1. Sleep hygiene
Our bodies are wired to naturally function on a daily routine and making conscious adjustments around sleep habits can improve sleep. Having a regular sleep-wake schedule, keeping the bedroom dark and cool, using the space only for sleep and sex, and avoiding electronics before sleep are practical and straightforward actions. An uncluttered bedroom with comfy pillows and linen also help create an atmosphere that tells our bodies ‘it’s time for sleep’ so consider the investment part of your personal wellness plan.
Stress produces the release of hormones that instruct the body to be on alert. Actions that counter the physiological effects of stress will help down-regulate the stress response, making it easier to fall asleep and have a better quality of sleep. Try things like progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, and breathing exercises. Listening to “white noise” can also provide short term relief to insomnia. A warm bath and an easy to read book (not a screen or text book) can help the body and mind disconnect from stressors.
3. Food and Drink
It is important to understand how food and drink may be affecting your sleep and how sleep may be affecting your food and drink intake. Ideally, regular meals and healthy snacks will form part of your daily routine. Evening meals that are light and consumed at least two hours before bedtime are best for supporting good sleep. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine affect the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, so reducing your intake, especially in the evenings, will improve your ability to sleep.
Have a think about what you are eating throughout the day. Do you drink coffee in the afternoon? Do you consume sugary snacks because you feel tired? Are you eating heavy meals? Try herbal tea in the afternoons, and replace sugary snacks with savoury snacks like cheese, crackers or nuts. If alcohol and smoking are a problem for you, seek strategies to cease or cut down. Be honest with yourself and make simple changes where you need to.
4. Physical Activity
Regular exercise facilitates a better quality of sleep, including making it easier to fall asleep, stay asleep, and spend more time in a deep sleep. If you are a regular exerciser, keep it up. If you are not a regular exerciser, try introducing simple physical activity like a morning, lunchtime or early evening walk.
5. Psychological Strategies
When cognitive or emotional regulation is affecting sleep quality, it can be helpful to work with a professional on strategies specific to the individual. These may include actions like using to-do lists or thought diaries or may extend to actively working on any significant past events, current life challenges, or relationship issues. A simple activity to introduce in the workplace is to write tomorrow’s “to do list” today before you go home. Try it for a week to see how your mind gets accustomed to relying on the list rather than ruminating on your work tasks all night.
Sleep Apps and Podcasts
Some apps take you through relaxation exercises, and also apps that play customised noises to aid sleep. Some apps monitor sleep, tracking movement, and reporting the quantity and quality of sleep. To monitor or not to monitor sleep is worth thinking about carefully! If insomnia itself is a source of stress, take care with the choice to vigilantly watch what is going on with your sleep patterns.
Bedtime stories have become quite popular for people with insomnia, as they distract the mind enough without triggering a stress response or engaging high-level cognitive functions (such as problem-solving or decision making). The “Sleep With Me” podcast has a library of stories popular with listeners around the world.
Extra resources you may find helpful:
Sleep with Me (podcast)
Stories designed to put you to sleep