EDITION: June - August 2015

The Importance of sleep

Text: Ruth Osborn

Sleep is an essential part of any healthy lifestyle and it has a great impact on the quality of our waking lives. After a good night’s sleep we feel invigorated and energised – ready to take on whatever life has to throw at us. However, a night spent tossing and turning can leave us feeling under par, irritable and reaching for a caffeine fix to kick-start the day. Quality sleep benefits both the mind and body; it makes us smarter, can help with weight management, prevents illness and keeps us healthy and living longer.
Here are some of the many health benefits of getting quality sleep:
• It improves our overall mental well-being and helps to ward off depression. 
• When we sleep the body releases human growth hormone. In youth this promotes growth, and as we age it helps to strengthen bones, increase muscle mass and thicken the skin. 
• Sleep can help to lower our stress levels. Stress impacts every aspect of our health so better sleep leading to less stress equals better overall health. 
• When we sleep the body has time to repair any damage that we have incurred during the day. Sleep allows us to reduce inflammation which is the body’s immune system response to damage. This is a crucial element in the natural healing process as chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and premature ageing.

A good night’s sleep can also help to improve our performance on all levels. If we don’t have enough sleep our cognitive processes are impaired. However, when we sleep well our attention span is longer and our ability to concentrate is higher. We are more alert and better able to solve problems. Quality sleep also helps to improve your memory. For example, if you are learning a new skill, sport or language, your mind processes this new information while you are asleep and stores it for future reference.
Quality sleep is also essential for weight loss and/or maintenance. This is because the same part of your brain controls both sleep and metabolism. When we are lacking sleep the brain releases hormones into the blood that stimulate appetite. Studies have shown that dieters who are well rested are more successful in losing weight, while those who have less sleep feel more hungry. When we are tired we are also more likely to reach for high energy, high-fat, high-sugar foods to fill that energy gap. In addition, when we don’t get enough sleep our willpower to make healthy eating choices can be diminished. Another benefit to consistently sleeping well is that it helps to keep us looking younger. Most of us have seen the visible effects of after a night or two of poor sleep... it’s not a pretty sight. Over time the failure to get quality sleep can leave your skin dull, while increasing dark circles and fine lines around the eyes. Physiologically what happens when we don’t have enough sleep is that the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. The effect this has on the skin is to break down the protein collagen, and it is collagen that provides the elasticity to keep your skin looking smooth and young.   

So exactly how much sleep should we be getting? There is varying advice regarding the golden number of hours of sleep needed – anything from six to eight hours, though most recommend closer to eight. The actual number needed depends on our own individual bodies and lifestyles. We are all a bit different therefore we all need somewhat different amounts of sleep. Our sleep requirements may also change over time as we progress through different stages of our lives. The basic rule is to listen to your body… it will tell you if you are getting enough sleep or not.   
There are many simple changes in your lifestyle that will help to insure that you are regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Having a calming bedtime routine is one of best – perhaps a relaxing bath, a short meditation practice or just some quiet time to ease the mind. Make sure that you switch off from all electronic devices a good hour before you go to bed. This will help your mind and body to slowly wind down from events of the day. Stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol are best to be avoided in the search for serene sleep, as are late meals that activate the digestive system. An early supper and a cup of camomile tea will be a much more helpful. Make sure that your sleep environment is comfortable, quiet, free of electronic devices, and dark. Studies have found that sleeping with a minimum of light is an important aid in your quest for all of the wonderful health and wellbeing benefits that come with restful sleep. •