Running on sleep deficiency and being tired is no longer a badge of honour – it’s a weakness and according to research it is damaging to our health. Many say that we get plenty of time to sleep when we die, so live for today. But if scientific evidence is to be believed, the shorter our sleep, the shorter our life.
Well-respected sleep scientist, Matt Walker has spent many years studying and researching the impact of sleep on our health and believes that sleep is our superpower. His research studies suggest that disrupted sleep may contribute to various health issues, including type 2 diabetes, weight gain, reproductive issues, accelerated aging, cancer, heart disease, memory loss and dementia. In fact, the link of disrupted or reduced sleep on our health is now so strong that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classed any form of night time shift work as a probable carcinogen. That’s not so good to hear considering my husband has spent most of his working life on shift and I spent decades surviving on minimal sleep.
I have become fascinated at the research and statistics that suggest disrupted sleep may be having an effect on our daytime alertness, our productivity and our overall health. In his 2019 TED talk, Matt Walker discusses how daylight saving might be impacting our health. For example, in the springtime we lose one hour when the clocks go forward and most of us will lose one hour’s sleep because we don’t tend to adapt our timings. And for those of us who do, it’s often hard for our bodies to suddenly adapt to these new timings. Incredibly, statistics show that there is an estimated 24% increase in heart attacks the following day. And conversely, when the clocks go back in the autumn and there is no correlated sleep disruption, statistics show that there is an estimated 21% reduction in heart attacks the very next day! The profile is exactly the same for car crashes, suicide rates and accidents (Ref 1).
And we’ve all probably experienced a bad day at work or poor decision making due to a lack of sleep the night before, so these statistics do seem to suggest a strong link to sleep disruption. There are so many demands on our time and good quality sleep is quite often the trade off. And by trading off sleep, what we’re actually doing is reducing our quality of life and probably our lifespan.
So, how much sleep do we need?
In order to improve sleep to improve health, we first of all need to understand what amount of sleep is required. Animals instinctively know what this is. Unfortunately, we have lost many of our basic instincts in our fast-paced, modern world, and instead look for scientific evidence to say why we should be doing something and how we should be doing it. That said, based on research, the National Sleep Foundation suggests that the optimal zone for most adults aged 18-64 is 7-9 hours’ sleep, with 7-8 hours being the optimal zone for those 65 and older (Ref 2).
I’m not proud to say that I was one of those people who never listened to advice on getting more sleep. I was “genetically” wired and fired and because of that, 4-5 hours of sleep was all I could and would manage. Little wonder I fell asleep soon after sitting down – in meetings ( I know, how embarrassing), at presentations, conferences, the cinema, the theatre (Cats on Broadway of all things) and even at concerts (Lady Gaga’s very noisy support act, and even dare I say, Andrea Bocelli – although his song was more of a sweet velvet lullaby just willing me to slip into a much needed sleep 😊). And the best of it was that I had no idea why I felt so tired and drained – that’s how I always remember my adult years and I accepted it because as far as I was concerned I got enough sleep and it was of good quality.
Now in my 50’s I finally realised how much I had wrecked myself over the years due to sleep disruption. And I really don’t need statistics as evidence – I AM the evidence. I didn’t agree with the advice initially and I struggled to adapt to it, but I forced myself to lie in bed for longer and longer until my body adapted to it. I now get 6 to 7 hours of sleep a night and I have to say it has turned my life around in many ways. How does the saying go …. “if only I knew then what I know now” … <sigh>.
And for anyone wondering why the suggested zone is 7-9 hour’s sleep – there is research suggesting that too much sleep may increase the risk of obesity, headache, back pain and heart disease (Ref 3) – oh, more statistics! That’s a blog for another day.
So, there is mounting evidence that good quality sleep is crucial to our bodies for recovering from the stresses of the day, for rejuvenation and for overall good health and well-being. That is good quality sleep every day – not just at weekends. Unfortunately our bodies aren’t like bank accounts where we can store sleep up to use it later – we need good quality sleep every night to thrive when we’re alive.
Sleep hygiene tips
There are many different reasons why we struggle to get a good night’s sleep and unfortunately there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescription to treat this. If you are having trouble getting the right amount of good quality sleep, I have provided some sleep hygiene tips that you might like to try.
- Our bodies love routine so it’s good to create a sleep time routine – and be sure to stick to it.
- Create a meal routine and eat a nutritionally balanced diet. Avoid eating too late at night.
- Take adequate exercise during the day and stay hydrated.
- Avoid drinking anything two hours before bedtime if you can to avoid or minimise toilet breaks during the night.
- Avoid taking stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol because they are prone to wakefulness.
- At least one hour before bedtime, prepare yourself for the next day to avoid raising stress levels right at bedtime.
- Switch off all computers and personal devices at least one hour before bedtime and stop working or having ‘high octane’ conversations so that you can relax your mind and unwind.
- Use that hour to unwind and do something relaxing such as watching television, reading a book, doing puzzles or relaxing in a bath with epsom salts (if you are diabetic – avoid the epsom salts unless you’ve discussed it with your doctor).
- Have a pleasant sleep environment with a comfortable bed and pillows. Try to make the bedroom as dark as possible and remove any noise disruption (including social media notifications on your device!). Keep the room cool at around 16-18 oC.
If you continue to have sleep issues, then our Healthy-ness programme may be your natural ingredient to improving your sleep and feeling your best, so be sure to reach out to us on our free consultation.
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Ref 1: Matt Walker’s TED talk