The Importance of Sleep and How to Improve It

Poor sleep habits are becoming a big issue for many people in this modern world. Common things that interfere with sleep are: drugs, alcohol, chemicals, stress, pain, breathing issues and work.

Why it is important to get enough sleep?

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  • Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory so overall helps with learning and memory.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.
  • Lack of sleep contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the day increasing the risk of road accidents and workplace accidents.
  • Lack of sleep leads to irritability, lack of concentration and moodiness.
  • Serious sleep disorders have been linked to diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and increased stress hormone levels. One sleep experiment had to be stopped early, the healthy young being sleep deprived had started to develop insulin resistance (pre diabetes) within a week. This was in documentary called Dead Tired.
  • Sleep deprivation effects immune function, including the activity of the specific white blood cells (killer cells) which help prevent cancer.

What can you do to improve sleep?

Create routine sleep habits

Go to bed at the same time every night and rise at the same time each morning. Changing habits on the weekend interferes with your circadian rhythm and can mess up your ability to get to sleep.

Create the right environment for sleep

Make sure your bedroom is a quiet, dark, and relaxing comfortable environment with a comfortable bed. The bedroom should be reserved for sleep and intimacy only. Don’t use it as an office or tv/computer room. No back lit alarm clocks or mobile phones allowed in the bedroom. Your body needs to learn that the bed is associated with relaxation and sleeping so it automatically knows it is sleep time when you go to bed. The room needs to be dark to encourage melatonin production (a neurotransmitter required for sleep).

Exercise promotes good sleep

Exercise can support healthy sleep but for people with major sleep issues, don’t exercise too late in the evening (those with major sleep problems may need to avoid exercise for 4-5 hours before bed as it can hype you up too much).

Eat well

In particular, magnesium is important to avoid muscle and foot cramps it is also important for making the sleep hormone melatonin. Eat green leafy vegetables, pepitas, almonds, full fat plain yoghurt/kefir, quality dark chocolate (in small amounts) and bananas. Heavy, spicy or sugary foods before bed may affect your ability to get to sleep or stay asleep.

Avoid long naps throughout the day

Only nap if you limit the nap to 20-30 minutes and can sleep well at night.

Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bedtime

Alcohol may help you get to sleep easily but as your blood alcohol levels start to fall, it causes a stimulant or wake-up effect.

Avoid stimulants including caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime

This includes caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, iced tea, energy drinks, soft drinks, chocolate milk and chocolate snacks. If you can’t sleep, avoid stimulants! Avoid other stimulants such as nicotine and other drugs too close to bedtime. Some prescription medications can cause sleep issues, you may need to discuss this with your doctor. The same goes for supplements, seek advice on timing and suitability of supplements for you.

Establish an evening pre-sleep ritual

Starting 30-60 minutes before bed. Turn the lights down, have a chamomile or alternative calming herbal tea, a warm bath or a few minutes of reading or listening to something calming. This lets your body know it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep.

Waking throughout the night

If you wake up throughout the night and can’t get back to sleep, you might like to get up but don’t watch tv or jump on the internet, just do one of the quiet activities you normally do before bed such as quiet reading or put your relaxation audio on again.

Natural light exposure

Ensure adequate exposure to natural light without sunglasses (even just 5 minutes outside per day). Light exposure helps your body to make melatonin a neurotransmitter which is essential for sleep.

The answers lie in looking for the cause of your sleep issue, not just taking a sleeping pill. If you have sleep issues that you can’t resolve, you wake up feeling tired or have trouble getting to sleep. Seek help from a health professional. Sleep is so fundamentally important; it needs to be addressed before you can resolve most other health issues.

Fiona Kane is a Nutritional Medicine Practitioner, Holistic Counsellor, Transformational Life Coach, Professional Speaker, Podcaster and writer on Health and Nutrition and the founder of Informed Health Pty Ltd, holding an Advanced Diploma of Nutritional Medicine, Diploma in Holistic Counselling and Life Care and Certificate in Transformational Life Coaching. Fiona is registered and accredited with Australian Traditional-Medicine Society (ATMS), Australia’s largest professional association of complementary medicine practitioners. Fiona has been in practice for 11 years.
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