The importance of getting proper sleep

Sleep is important for our overall health, so ask yourself are you getting enough?

Sleep Awareness Week – from March 14-20, 2021 – draws attention to the important role sleep plays in our health and wellbeing. While we have all heard a lot over the years about the importance of a good diet and regular exercise, the importance of sleep has received less attention. Together with information from The Sleep Health Foundation,  Fiveways Surgery believes that sleep is the third pillar of good health, alongside diet and exercise.

What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?

Most adults need seven to eight hours sleep every night. Some require more and some require less.

If we don’t get enough sleep one of the first things to suffer relates to our brain function. We can’t seem to hold our attention, our memory becomes poorer, our reaction times are slowed, and we experience more mood fluctuations.

Continued lack of sleep may also affect our physical and mental health as the likelihood of depression increases. It is also possible that our immune system suffers and places us at higher risk for developing metabolic impairments, such as those leading to diabetes. There is a higher chance of driving accidents and our performance at work often suffers.

What happens when you sleep?

While you sleep, your body heals and restores itself. Here are some of the interesting things that happen when you sleep: 

  • Your brain sorts and processes the information it has gathered during the day. Long term memories are created, and information is filed away for later use. Poor sleep leads to poorer reaction times, greater irritability and decreased decision-making ability.
  • Hormones flood your body when you sleep, which helps your body to grow and repair itself. Hormones get out of whack without adequate sleep, leading your body to crave sugar, fat and high-GI foods which lead to weight gain. 
  • It is thought that consistently good sleep may be a factor in helping to protect against heart disease, diabetes, and stroke as our sympathetic nervous system – which controls your fight or flight response – gets a chance to relax.
  • Our cortisol levels (stress hormone) decrease during the first few hours of sleep before rising to peak soon after you wake up. This helps you feel perky when you wake up and switches on your appetite. It is always why blood pressure can be higher in the mornings and doctors often recommend taking blood pressure medication before bed.
  • Your immune system releases small proteins called cytokines. If you’re sick or injured, cytokines help your body fight inflammation, infection and trauma. Without enough sleep, your immune system might not be able to function at its best.

Sleep and mental health

Even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. The Sleep Health Foundation reports that not only does sleep affect mood, but mood and mental states can also affect sleep. Anxiety increases agitation and arousal, which make it hard to sleep. Stress also affects sleep by making the body aroused, awake, and alert.

  • Chronic sleep disruptions increase the likelihood of negative thinking, depression, anxiety, and emotional vulnerability. 
  • Good quality sleep assists with the recovery from stressful experiences and is related to greater mental resilience. 
  • Poor sleepers are much more likely to develop significant mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, than those who sleep well. 
  • Most people who have depression also experience sleep disturbances such as insomnia and sleep apnoea. It is therefore important that we look after our sleep to promote good mental health.
  • Developing good sleep habits will improve sleep. A regular bedtime and waking time, avoiding stimulants (such as cigarettes and caffeine) before going to bed, exercising during the day, eating well, a comfortable bedroom that is quiet and dark, and avoiding electronic screens in the bedroom are all essential habits for good quality sleep.

Some tips for a good night’s sleep

  1. Have a consistent sleep pattern. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, give or take 20 minutes. This helps set the body’s internal clock to expect rest at a certain time each day. Sleep will certainly get better if this pattern is maintained over time.
  • Have a relaxing, consistent pre-bed routine. Relax before bed to help you unwind and create a bridge between wakefulness and sleep. Avoid exercise later in the evening and ensure electronic screens are switched off within an hour of bedtime.
  • Keep your room cool and comfortable. A lower body temperature helps promote sleep. Have a quiet, dark room with comfortable bedding and good temperature control.
  • Avoid stimulants at the end of the day. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine 4-6 hours from bedtime as they are stimulants that can keep you awake. Dim the lights and partake in relaxing, non-stimulating activities. A warm shower before bed can often help people fall asleep.
  • Avoid naps. Daytime sleeps can make it much more difficult to sleep well at night. If necessary, try to limit your day naps to 15-20 minutes, ensuring you are awake at least four hours before bed.
  • Avoid sleeping pills, other than in exceptional circumstances. Pills don’t fix the cause of your sleeping problem and can have negative side effects. Evidence shows they don’t increase actual time asleep by more than 20-30 minutes.  Look at changing your habits and environment instead. In particular speak to your GP about any anxiety or stress you might be experiencing and ask about support for these issues.
  • Only use your bedroom for sleep, not entertainment. If you refrain from all other things such as watching TV and browsing the internet on your phone, you will train your mind to see your bed and bedroom as a place of rest.  The blue light waves emitted from devices may reduce the release of melatonin your natural sleep hormone and make it harder for you to fall asleep.  Distractions interfere with your sleep. If you are watching the clock it can just make you anxious, so turn the clock around so you cannot see the time.

Help and support is available for medical sleep disorders.  If you have persistent problems with mood, daytime sleepiness, restlessness in bed, severe snoring or wakening unrefreshed please make an appointment to see your GP.