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The Importance of Sleep

We all know that when we sleep well and have better sleep, we feel better, do better, live longer and are more productive.

We are also acutely aware that when our sleep quality is disrupted it effects our functioning on all levels of our physical, mental and emotional well being.

We are living in a world of 24/7 distractions that directly impact on our natural body clock rhythms, which revolve around the day/night 24 hour cycle. You have probably heard this called the circadian rhythm but maybe you aren’t so familiar with what body systems it governs and how lack of sleep can seriously affect these; although many of us are familiar with jet lag, just one aspect of our body being out of sync with even a few hours difference.

I’d like to bring a little more depth to some of these systems and how they react when our circadian rhythm is disrupted and how this impacts on our health and well being, both now and for our future health.

My next post will cover some proven Top Tips to reset and regain a more balanced, natural rhythm as nature intended, harnessing our ability to detoxify, our muscle and tissue regrowth and repair, balance our hormones needed for libido, fertility and to maintain a stable healthy weight, feel motivated, happy, and have clarity and focus – the circadian rhythm is a powerful internal system that drives sleep and we need to be organising our lives to allow it to work at its optimal level to enjoy all the benefits that brings.

Living out of sync with our natural rhythms is driving sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnoea; our growing ‘sleep debt’ has consequences including risk of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cognitive decline. Lack of sleep also costs the UK economy up to £40 billion a year due to lower productivity levels among the workforce. Insomnia has a range of adverse consequences, such as memory problems, moodiness, depression, sadness, listless tiredness, feelings of hopelessness, discouragement and disincentive.

Regaining an awareness of how to organise our day for better sleep starts first thing in the morning. Our circadian rhythm affecting wakefulness is activated by exposure to sunlight from daybreak onwards as this increases the brain’s release of the hormone serotonin. Serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping us to feel calm and focused, helping us to awaken and start the day; At night, from dusk onwards, darker light levels trigger the brain to release the sleep hormone, melatonin which is manufactured in the pineal gland, which in turn is responsible for our feeling drowsy and ready for sleep.

The way our days are structured now since the advent of the electric lightbulb, we no longer live within the structure of daylight task planning and have the ability to override perceived limitations of what a working day looks like, in fact ignore our innate natural body clock. For many of us, we can’t take advantage of being outside during daylight hours, especially early morning and particularly during the winter months. We need to actually be outside with no filters because it is through the retinas in our eyes that we take in light which in turn converts to serotonin. We need the serotonin to enable the release of melatonin to get that quality sleep.

Depending where you are living there are relatively few of us whose night-time sky is truly dark and the stars appear in their billions; light pollution from street lighting, our workplaces, our homes, neon advertising etc, are part of our 24/7 culture. We can control the light in our homes though – ensure that the bedroom has blackout blinds as well as curtain linings to totally exclude light during our sleep cycle. I’ll return to this in the next Top Tips post after this.

One of the most exciting discoveries recently has been the glymphatic system. This is the lymphatic system of the brain. It is only switched on when we are in our deep non-REM sleep periods. It’s like a car wash, swishing through all the cells and cleaning up the ‘rubbish’ generated during the day from our metabolic rate, the plaques etc, that can trigger dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. It is a purpose designed system to detoxify the brain. Lack of sleep can significantly disturb our bodies ability to detoxify and repair.

There is also a connection between insufficient sleep and some cancers. Researchers suspect that a disruption in the circadian rhythm could pose a risk of developing cancer following a study mainly based on night shift workers or those working erratic hours. One theory supposes this might be due to the suppression of melatonin.

We also know now about the link between our gut and our brain. Our reliance on processed foods has severely impaired the healthy bacteria growth throughout the digestive tract, and our modern ‘convenience’ diets have encouraged the overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria which can spread throughout the body leading to IBS, SIBO, ME, possibly M.S. amongst many other problems. Quality sleep directly relates to this because again, it is only when we are in deep levels of sleep that our liver can detoxify, including removing unhealthy bacteria. I shall cover the importance of diet in Top Tips as well. On the subject of food, our biology doesn’t do well if we eat late at night or snack before bed-time, and severely disrupts our being able to switch off and sleep because the stomach is still ‘awake’ and functioning. Also, if we do drop off with restless, disturbed low level sleep and have not fully digested, that food will start to ferment and increase our unhealthy bacteria to grow. We should aim to finish eating at least 3 hours before we retire for the night. All this has a direct effect on our metabolism and weight gain and sleep improvement.

Interestingly, we burn more calories the better we sleep. You don’t need to be in strenuous activity because the body is burning calories all the time. Energy is particularly high during REM sleep. During this time the brain is at its most active and you burn more glucose, your body’s source of fuel. We also need to keep our basic functions running, including breathing, blood circulation, and keeping your organs running. A healthy person weighing 125 lbs burns approximately 38 calories per hour of sleep. Eating a high carbohydrate diet with sugars – bread, pasta, pizza, white rice, biscuits, will cause our insulin levels to rise pre-disposing us to diabetes, and the rise of another hormone, ghrelin which stimulates appetite, increases food intake and promotes fat storage. That last evening meal should be small, nutrient dense with protein, healthy fats like olive oil, and with plenty of steamed vegetables. Just by changing the diet and the times we eat; we can radically impact our sleep quality and regain our waists and increase our daytime energy and verve.

It’s worth saying now that alcohol and caffeine are sleep disruptors because of the time it takes for the body to metabolise and remove their stimulus from the body. Try and make that last cup of coffee midday and an alcoholic drink as an occasional choice or early in the evening with food on a few days a week. Remember it is sugar laden and the effect of a sugar spike on the craving to overeat and snack – plus lowered self-discipline…..The liver is such a busy organ needing our deep sleep to work efficiently that it needs a rest now and then! Your skin and digestion will be noticeably thankful too!

When we don’t sleep well it also affects other hormones, including our testosterone levels. We need this hormone for libido, muscle growth and repair at all ages, and feelings of wellbeing. When it lowers, we start to feel stressed over work, family – life itself. Hence the expression of ‘a good night’s sleep’ being the cure all!

If you want to learn much more about the importance of sleep from someone far more knowledgeable than me, I highly recommend you read this book by the leading expert.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker – The New Science of Sleep and Dreams
ISBN 978-0-141-98376-9 published by Penguin Random House.