Why is Sleep Important?
It’s up there with nutrition, water and exercise. Sleep is one of the things essential to your health, and to go a stage further, when it comes to survival it’s on a par with the ability to breathe fresh air.
The Science of Sleep
We’ve always known that sleep is the body’s way of resting, of healing and restoring us but during the past twenty years or so, science has delved ever deeper into that mysterious yet fundamental element which renders us unconscious for such a large portion of our life. We now know that sleep not only affects our physical well-being, it also plays a significant role in keeping our mental health on track. Sleep is the reason we are able to think clearly, make good decisions and concentrate to a degree where we can attain greater skill and creativity.
Research has pinpointed that sleep cycles have five stages:
- Stages – 1 and 2 – light sleep
- Stages – 3 and 4 – deep sleep
- Stage – 5 – REM (rapid eye movement) sleep
Stages 1 and 2: light sleep, takes up most of your night and helps with healing and restoring.
Stages 3 and 4: deep sleep, helps your ability to retain information and to be creative.
Stage 5: REM sleep helps memory function and can also influence your mood. It is during this stage when dreams are at their most vivid, because brain activity is heightened. You dream during the other stages of sleep too, but not with such clarity.
Mental Health and Sleep
Mood and emotional fluctuations are often driven by the quantity and quality of sleep. This can affect how you feel the next morning and sometimes the mood or atmosphere of a dream may stay with you throughout the day.
Research has found that sleep has a huge effect on mental health and is closely associated with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome and other mental health conditions. Mental health problems often render a good night’s sleep elusive, but also for those suffering from insomnia and other sleep disturbances, mental health issues can emerge or be made worse because of sleep disruption. Encouragingly, studies have shown that improved sleep can have a positive effect on mental health and gives a beneficial boost in the treatment of many psychiatric treatments.
For many years poor sleep was regarded as being a symptom of low mood or depression but due to more recent clinical studies it is now becoming clear that there is firm evidence suggesting that sleep disruption may be a cause, or can certainly exacerbate, depression. This means that in helping a patient manage sleeping patterns, help can be gained in treatment for their depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
A member of the family of depressive illnesses, SAD usually affects those who live in countries which have long, dark winter months with very few hours of natural daylight. It is linked to the disruption of a sufferer’s biological clock which is what normally influences various important bodily functions, including sleep. Because their circadian rhythm is out of sync, those with SAD tend to sleep for longer than they should or else they struggle to get any sleep at all. They may also be susceptible to variations in their sleep patterns.
There is a whole spectrum of conditions which come under the umbrella of anxiety. They all have something in common and that is the effect they have upon a sufferer’s everyday life. The main anxiety disorders are:
- General Anxiety
- Social Anxiety
Both of these conditions are linked to sleep difficulties because anxiety creates a situation where the mind is over-active, known as hyperarousal which makes getting to sleep very difficult and can result in insomnia. It can often happen that when sleep is elusive, the sufferer becomes overly concerned about the fact that they can’t sleep, and this sets up an anxiety state of its own known as anticipatory anxiety.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Findings of a study published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions reported that disturbed sleep has a detrimental effect on OCD sufferers due to increased symptom severity leading to a degree of depression. This is particularly relevant when REM sleep is compromised.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Scientific studies have established that there is a very strong link between PTSD and sleep disruption. Traumatic events and disturbing imagery may be frozen in the minds of sufferers at a sensory level, and this also causes them to be very prone to flashbacks and nightmares. This is not only applicable for those who have seen active service in conflict; PTSD can arise from many other experiences, such as witnessing or being involved in an accident or disaster, or from any personal event which causes shock and grief. Successful treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is trauma-focused, alongside prescribed psychiatric medication.
For anyone suffering with bipolar disorder, moods can vary between episodes of mania and depression. These inconsistent mood swings can prove both distressing and exhausting and have a debilitating effect on everyday life. Sleep patterns can be extremely variable. During manic spells there is often less desire to sleep whereas when in the throes of depression sleep is often excessive. The medical treatment to help with sleep for bipolar patients is usually behavioural cognitive therapy.
This illness causes sufferers to find it difficult to distinguish between what is and is not real. Those with schizophrenia are very likely to suffer from insomnia and disruption of their circadian rhythm. These problems associated with sleep patterns may also be heightened by medications which are used to treat the condition. Lack of sleep can increase symptoms of schizophrenia so the need to achieve a balance in sleep patterns is highly desirable.
Why Your Brain Needs to Dream
Dreams and Memories
One of the brain’s activities during hours of sleep is the sifting and sorting of memories. You have memories which are stored in short term files and these are examined before being transferred to long-term storage archives. This clearing process helps with memory retention and recall.
Brain activity during sleep provides a kind of workout which leads to improved learning, concentration and memory. Medical research into sleep and dreaming has established that brain activity during sleep has a very significant effect on emotional memory. When you get enough sleep, particularly deep, REM sleep, your brain is busy dealing with a great deal of emotional information. It works out the importance of thoughts and stored memories. It is able to attach relevance and importance to certain information and supress non-desirable data. This is why a lack of sleep is damaging to your store of appropriate and positive emotional memories. The outcome of this process is able to influence mood and behaviour. It also links to the severity or otherwise of mental health conditions.
Time spent in deep sleep is vitally important to mental and physical health. Dreams can be pleasant, fanciful, surreal, disturbing, scary and sometimes they can be very lucid. Certain people who have these lucid dreams can learn to exercise some degree of control over them. This is a specialised dream area which has advantages in terms of managing such things as sleepwalking and PTSD nightmares.
Dreams and Depression
Anyone suffering with depression will have a tendency to dream more than usual. The National Sleep Foundation report that dreaming may help alleviate depression. Each stage of sleep has a different part to play in brain health and the various areas of the brain need to be stimulated or to rest at varying intervals, so the different stages of sleep allow this to happen. For instance, during non-rapid eye movement phase, brain activity slows down, but even so there may be short spells of activity. During the REM phase the brain activity increases quickly, and this is why we have the most vivid dreams during sessions of deep sleep.
Although dreams are often dismissed as random nonsense, they can reveal information about both your mental and physical health. A 2018 study from the University of Adelaide has found that taking vitamin B6 can help the brain with dream recall. The study involved 100 Australian participants taking high-dose vitamin B6 supplements before bedtime on five consecutive nights. Dr Denholm Aspy, School of Psychology at University of Adelaide, said ‘Our results show that taking vitamin B6 improved people’s ability to recall dreams compared to a placebo.’ He went on to explain that Vitamin B6 did not affect the vividness, bizarreness or colour of their dreams, and did not affect other aspects of sleep patterns.
The randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involved participants taking 240mg of vitamin B6 immediately before bed. Participants confirmed that after a while on the supplements their dreams became clearer and easier to recall. They also noticed that the dreams stayed in their minds throughout the following day. Dr Aspy made the point that in view of the fact that participants in the study gained their vitamin B6 from supplementation, further research would be needed to establish whether the same dream recall properties could be achieved by dietary means.
It is possible to include Vitamin B6 into your diet by ensuring a regular supply of whole grain bread and cereal, legumes and fruits such as banana and avocado. Also, spinach, milk cheese, eggs, red meats, liver and fish contain B6.
Most Frequently Experienced Sleep Disorders
- Sleep Apnoea – this is a serious, yet surprisingly common condition, where breathing repeatedly stops and then restarts many times during each session of sleep. Often the sufferer also snores very loudly and gasps for breath. Apnoea requires medical intervention and is usually diagnosed following referral to a sleep clinic. It can be successfully managed by means of a compact devise called a CPAP machine which pumps air into a lightweight mask which you wear over your mouth during sleep. This alleviates the constant gasping for breath and also avoids the continual waking every few minutes which, without treatment, robs the sufferer of the vital periods of deep sleep. If you feel these symptoms may apply to you then you may wish to check out the NHS website.
- Insomnia – is the difficulty of falling asleep and/or being able to stay asleep for long enough.
- Night sweats – Often a feature of menopause but can also be caused by various infections, cardiac issues, certain medications and too much caffeine.
- Narcolepsy – Is when the brain becomes unable to control sleep and wake cycles. Sufferers will often fall asleep, usually for short spells, during the day and sometimes at inappropriate moments. This presents issues of safety, particularly when driving and operating machinery.
- Restless Leg Syndrome – Also known as Willis-Ekbom disease is believed to be a symptom of an imbalance of the chemical dopamine. One of the functions of dopamine is to convey muscular movement signals to the brain. This syndrome can sometimes be genetic and is sometimes experienced by expectant mothers during the later months of pregnancy. It can also accompany other conditions such as kidney disease, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, peripheral neuropathy. It can also be a result of iron deficiency which is easily treated, so it’s a good idea to consult a GP if you have restless leg problems.
- Grinding Teeth – Also known as Bruxism, is often the result of short-term or chronic stress. It may also be associated with snoring and sleep apnoea. Your dentist may diagnose this condition and can make a guard to be worn during sleep which will protect your teeth from being worn down by the constant grinding.
- Sleep Paralysis – A feeling of being immobilised. This usually happens during the falling asleep or waking-up process. It lasts for only a few seconds and is not harmful but can cause a feeling of panic and anxiety.
- Snoring – When muscles of the throat relax, the tongue falls backwards and the throat narrows. The walls of the throat vibrate, and the narrower they get the louder the snoring becomes. Losing weight is the most usual medical advice, but this is not always the cause; such issues as enlarged tonsils can often cause a chronic snoring problem.
The natural rhythms which determine your sleeping and waking times are governed primarily by light. Daylight is the fundamental, even primeval facilitator of your circadian rhythms. It is the reason why wild animals and birds live their lives governed by the daylight hours. We were most probably very much the same before the days when we had sophisticated ways of lighting our living spaces and even illuminating the darkness outside our homes.
The hormone which floods your body during hours of darkness is melatonin. When there is an absence of light entering the brain through the eyes, the brain steps up its production of melatonin to make you feel sleepy. When light is beaming into your eyes, your brain eases up on the melatonin production, so you feel wide awake.
Confusingly for the brain, it’s not only daylight which triggers this lack of melatonin production. We have introduced into the equation such things as television screens and computers as well as house lights and mobile phones. What we need to do is to somehow restore some of nature’s day/night balance to give waking and sleeping rhythms the chance to reset themselves.
Here are some tips to help you reset your body clock:
Through the Night
- Give some thought to making your bedroom into a sanctuary of calm. Peaceful, pastel shades are generally more soothing than bright primary colours. Keep the room organised and tidy so your mind isn’t troubled by a jumble of clutter. Invest in the most comfortable mattress, pillow and duvet possible.
- Switch off the TV or computer at least 30 minutes before settling down to sleep as the light from the screens will prevent your brain from releasing melatonin.
- Avoid alcohol and caffein late in the evening. Substitute your bedtime drink for a herbal sleep tea or tisane instead.
- If you need to take your phone to bed with you, then at least have it set to night mode, so you are not disturbed by it lighting up and pinging each time a notification arrives.
- Have curtains which block out summer’s early dawn light or street-light glare.
- Get temperature in your bedroom right. It needs to be cool but not cold. About 18-20 degrees is comfortable for most people. If it’s not too cold outside and noise isn’t a problem, then a slightly open window gives a stream of healthy fresh air.
- During the night, if you need to go to the loo, keep a small torch by your bed so you can avoid switching on bright lights. This really helps with getting back to sleep.
- Try a sleep mist spray on your pillow or aromatherapy herbal oils on your pulse points. The fragrance of sleep-inducing herbs will help you drift off into a peaceful sleep.
- Avoid synthetic night clothes. Soft cotton helps your skin breath.
Throughout the Day
- Make sure you spend some time in real daylight as early in the morning as possible. Even standing at the open window and taking a few deep breaths will help. Your biological clock has a memory, and it will register that this is wake-up time.
- Keep curtains and blinds open all through the day to allow plenty of daylight to flood into the rooms.
- Take every opportunity to be out of doors during the day. Even through the winter months when there is very little sunshine, the natural daylight will help your brain’s day/night rhythm readjust itself. It will also help your body to absorb vitamin D.
- If you struggle with the lack of natural sunlight in the winter, then use a light therapy lamp to give your brain the impression of having spent hours in the daylight. This will lift your mood as well as helping your sleep patterns.
- Get plenty of movement into your days. Walk about whenever possible rather than spending long hours sitting. If you are able to do some actual exercise, then that will help you get better quality sleep through the night. However, it’s important not to do anything too strenuous for a couple of hours before bedtime. This is because exercise releases the hormone cortisol which makes you very alert.
Eight Main Advantages of Getting Enough Sleep
Good quality sleep, and enough of it, can only be a good thing for your physical and mental health. Additionally, it can make you feel on top of the world instead of having to drag yourself through the day feeling only half alive. Here are eight very important reasons to address the sleep issue and make sure you get it right:
- Reduce your risk of gaining weight – The two hormones which control your appetite are influenced by sleep deprivation. When you are short of sleep the hormone, ghrelin increases your appetite. When you have had plenty of sleep the hormone leptin takes over and your appetite is decreased.
- Lessen your risk of Alzheimer’s, heart disease and stroke – A rise in the heart rate after prolonged episodes of getting insufficient sleep can elevate your resting blood pressure. If this is not treated it can pre-dispose you to these conditions.
- Boost concentration – Your brain needs plenty of sleep so it can clear out all the unwanted data taken in during the day. You will feel more able to focus your mind on things that matter to you.
- Energy and mobility – Studies have shown that poor sleep results in a reduction in physical ability. One study involving 2,889 older women (average age 83.5) who had poor-quality, disrupted sleep showed slower walking speeds, less grip strength and difficulty in carrying out basic activities.
- Athletic Ability – Sleep quality makes a huge difference to athletic performance in such skills as speed, reaction and accuracy.
- Enhanced Immunity – Eight hours sleep is the benchmark for maintaining your immune system.
- Reduced inflammation – Good sleep patterns greatly help to avoid the body setting up inflammation against pathogen invasions. It also reduces the risk of your immune system attacking its own cells, which can lead to autoimmune diseases.
- Better Communication Skills – Sound sleep makes a big difference to how your emotions allow you to behave. When you are fully rested, mentally and physically, you are more able to pick up social signals and the emotional moods and cues given out by those around you.
The Natural Approach to a Good Night’s Sleep
The things you do during the day have a big influence on the quality and quantity of sleep you get during the night-time hours. It sounds like an easy thing to manage, yet to get it right needs some careful thought and planning. Help is at hand:
- Stimulants – What you drink throughout the day, and particularly the evening, makes a big impression on your sleep. If you overdo the caffeine and alcohol you will be giving your brain and body a load of work to cope with. Caffeine can continue to act as a stimulant for 12 hours after consumption and alcohol, which often makes you feel sleepy after an initial high can then block your body’s attempts to move into the REM phase of sleep.
- Good Diet – Reduce sugar, refined carbs, high fat meats and dairy. Replace with wholefood choices. Your digestive system will be more comfortable, and your blood sugar levels will remain stable. You will also be unlikely to suffer with indigestion and heartburn which can be disruptive and painful during the night.
- Sleep Teas and Tisanes – There are blends which contain herbs recognised over the centuries as being effective for soothing stress and gently, naturally inducing sleep.
- Valerian -This is one of the most widely recognised of the natural sleep supplements, and the great thing is that unlike a pharmaceutical sleeping pill, it does not cause dependency or have side effects.
- Meditation – It doesn’t have to be the formal kind, a few stretches combined with deep breathing can calm you and make you feel more centred.
- Aromatherapy – Fragrance can play its part in creating a feeling of calm. The herbs known for their soothing properties are lavender, bergamot, frankincense, lemon balm and clary sage. Essential oils, herbal pillow sprays, herbal inhalers and aromatherapy pulse-point oils can help by introducing a signal to the brain that sleep time has arrived.
To help you achieve one of the most important aspect of living a healthy life, we have put together a carefully devised range of natural products to support you in your quest for the vital need to sleep.
If you would like to discuss any aspects of our natural sleep products, please give us a call on 01297 553932 or email: [email protected]