Sleep is a mysterious phenomenon. Time and money are increasingly being devoted to understanding this inscrutable aspect of our lives: ‘Why do we sleep?’ ‘What does sleep do for us?’ and ‘How do we sleep better?’ While we still don’t have a consensus regarding the first question, we have made decent headway on the latter two.
WHAT DOES SLEEP DO FOR US?
When considering sleep from an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make much sense. Switching off our senses for eight hours at a time is not, one might think, a particularly effective technique for ensuring survival. It must have been worth the risk. So what has it been doing for us all this time?
Quite a lot, actually – there are three key functions of sleep.
The first function is restoration. Over the course of a normal day, your brain will accumulate a significant amount of metabolic waste – understandable, given it is engaged in astonishingly complex neural processes more or less non-stop for approximately 16 hours at a time. If these toxins are not dealt with regularly and effectively, they can accumulate and increase the likelihood of neurological disorders such Alzheimer’s disease.
Before you stick a toothbrush in your ear and start scrubbing, we should say that your body disposes of these toxins automatically – no brain brush necessary. This is happening all the time. Particularly important in this process, however, is sleep. Researchers at the University of Rochester found that clearance when sleeping is as much as two times faster than the same process during waking hours. How? Research from the Regenerative Sciences Institute in California has shown that while you’re busy dreaming, your brain cells are only 40% of their regular size – which, they suggest, allows the brain’s waste-removal team (known to smart people like scientists and you as the lymphatic system) to do its job more effectively.
The second function is memory consolidation. This is also the thrust of the prevailing hypothesis for the question of why we sleep – and indeed, dream. It has long been known that sleeping or, more specifically, dreaming, is crucial for memory consolidation – a process where the day’s events are downloaded into long-term memory. Swedish research also shows that insufficient or disrupted sleep will likely undermine this process and be an impediment in forming memories. This applies to both ‘concrete’ memories, involving facts, figures, and all that jazz, and also emotional memories. The research may also explain, to some extent, the connection of poor sleep with Alzheimer’s.
The third and last function of sleep concerns the role that it plays in maintaining metabolic health. A US study showed that how much sleep you get determines how much of the energy you burn comes from fat, as opposed to carbohydrate and protein. Sleeping 5.5. hours per night instead of 8.5 will mean that you will take more of your energy from the latter, predisposing you to muscle loss and fat gain. Moreover, inadequate sleep or abnormal sleeping patterns can play a role in insulin sensitivity and metabolic syndrome, which increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Safe to say, sleep is essential for your physical and mental health. Let’s take a look now at how we can get better sleep.
GETTING BETTER SLEEP
First, we’d like to draw attention to the wording – getting better sleep (not necessarily more sleep) is what’s important here. There is such a thing as too much sleep as well as too little. Basically, there’s a sweet spot – roughly 6-8 hours for adults, 7-9 for teenagers and 8+ for kids. However, this number can vary widely depending on the individual.
In addition, we are all endowed with what is called a sleep chronotype – a biological clock which determines the optimal time for waking and sleeping. An individual’s sleep chronotype is what makes them a night-owl or early-bird, and is largely genetic. Listen, if you can, to what your body is telling you and try not to fight your physiology. People who stay up and sleep late are often told they’re lazy, but more likely they’re simply following their internal sleep timing profile. The upside of this is that your ideal bedtime is personal to you – try to pay attention to the natural rhythms of your body and allow them to dictate when and for how long you sleep.
Now, on to the nuts and bolts. These are the crucial factors to consider when trying to get better sleep:
Ditching alcohol, coffee and cigarettes will make a big difference in the quality of your sleep. Cigarettes and coffee both have stimulating effects, which may keep you from getting to sleep. Caffeine also has the effect of shortening the duration of sleep phases three and four, where REM sleep and dreaming occur. Alcohol, on the other hand, might be relaxing and even aid you in getting to sleep, but it does disturb the sleep cycle once you do get to that stage – resulting in restless, often intermittent sleep that finds you waking up in the morning feeling like you’ve barely slept.
We know talk about exercise all the time, but we’re not sorry. Exercise helps you get to sleep faster – provided it’s not done right before bedtime when it will have the opposite effect.
Avoid looking at screens in the hour before bedtime. Two hours before, if possible. A US study (of many, on this topic) for the Lighting Research Centre tested the effects of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression. The lead researcher, Mariana Figureiro commented: “Our study shows that a two-hour exposure to light from self-luminous electronic displays can suppress melatonin by about 22 percent.” Basically, electronic devices are causing havoc when it comes to our sleep cycles – the light emitted tricks our brains into thinking its daytime, suppressing the production of melatonin, a chemical that initiates sleep. Even if sleep does come, it may not be as deep or restorative as sleep sans screens.
Dealing with Stress
Try to be aware of and deal with your stress as best you can. Stress activates the adrenal gland and will have you tossing sleeplessly till the wee hours of the morning if you’re not careful. Find outlets for dealing with stress, like daily journaling, chatting with a friend or family member, spending time in nature, listening to calming music, meditating or, as suggested earlier, exercise – all have proven track records for reducing stress.
Bed, Bedding and Bedroom
Over the course of an average lifetime, people spend approximately 20-25 years in bed and, by extension, their bedroom. So making this space as conducive as possible to good sleep is an investment well worth making. Of primary concern is, of course, your bed itself. If your bed and associated accessories – pillows, sheets etc, are not supremely comfortable, some adjustments may well need to be made. The temperature of the room also plays an important role. The optimal temperature for sleeping is generally agreed to be 17-22 degrees celsius. However, as with almost everything sleep-related, this is a matter of personal preference also.
Or rather, quiet. The absence of engaging noise is essential – as anyone who has ever tried to sleep in the presence of engaging noise will tell you. If peace is difficult to find, you could generate white noise with a fan or even a white noise machine. For a cheaper option, you could try earplugs.
That’s it from us. Good night and sleep tight! Let us know in the comments if you have a favourite good sleep tip.