Every single organism on earth engages in some form of sleep. Whilst we humans are not faced with the threat of predators to the same extent as an antelope being vulnerable and fearful of being eaten by a lion when they close their eyes, sleep is a crucial component of life for all living creatures. The restorative mechanism of sleep is a necessity for all, and the assumption that it wastes precious productive time is a lie that needs to be dismantled.
In the 1950s, most people regularly participated in approximately eight hours of sleep every single night, however, since the 1980s, this view of sleep has changed drastically. From Margaret Thatcher claiming ‘sleep is for wimps’ and Thomas’ Edison’s invention of the light bulb allowing us to work in the darkness at night, believing ‘sleep is a criminal waste of time and heritage from our cave days,’ became commonplace and accepted. So it comes as no surprise that the concept of needing sufficient sleep every night has become lost.
Nonetheless, sleep is as essential to survival as food, shelter and water, with lack of sleep heightening mortality and can cause early death. And if you need any more reason to believe in sleep’s power, lack of sleep is one of the greatest risk factors in obesity, with those not getting enough sleep (less than 7 hours) being 55% more likely to be obese and three times more likely to develop a cold. But how can the simple act of closing our eyes have such a drastic impact on our overall health and wellbeing?
Just like many cleaning companies clean offices at night time to prepare the office space for the next day, sleep is the cleaning company for your brain. In a similar way to muscles producing toxic by-products after working out, the brain produces similar toxins. When it is engaged in processing during the day, cells are busy using energy supplies that are rapidly broken down and accumulate in the brain. Much of this removal of toxins occurs when you sleep. The space between neurons that has accumulated with toxins opens up, flushing away and cleaning your brain of toxins whilst sleeping.
The day job of your brain is obvious and crucial for motor and cognitive functions, however, at night, your brain remains highly active as it engages in a host of functions that only turn on during sleep. For example, sleeping more than 5 hours per night inhibits the release of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. This is important because an absence of ghrelin reduces your appetite and signals to the brain it does not need more food. With the production of this hormone, individuals find themselves with cravings for carbohydates and sugars and deceased appetite control, leading to an increased likelihood of weight gain.
Sleep is the petrol station for your brain
The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain crucial for executive function and performing higher level cognitive processes such as decision making and attentional control. Neuroscientists have found that this brain area cannot cope with little sleep. Therefore, to perform at its optimal, sleep is needed to produce dopamine which fuels these crucial processes. This is similar to other areas of the brain, where during the night when you sleep, all the fuel that was used in the previous day is both restored and replenished.
Getting a good night’s rest is more under your control than you may think. Here are four sleep hygiene tips to help improve your sleeping:
1. Promote your body’s production of melatonin:
Melatonin is the body’s natural sleep hormone and is enhanced by environmental cues signaling it is time to sleep, such as the sun going down. However, in the modern world, unnatural lights from phones, computers and televisions can confuse this hormone into thinking it is still day time (rather than promoting sleep as it should do naturally). Whilst night time modes on phones and laptops are an improvement from the normal blue light emitted from these devices, the best step for getting to sleep easily and having quality rest is to completely stop using such devices an hour before bed.
2. Challenge your inner child and adopt a bedtime habit:
Human beings are habitual creatures and so adopting a simple habit when it comes to sleep can lead to drastic improvements. This can be as simple as brushing your teeth, followed by reading a chapter of a book and then going to sleep. Such habits can be built in to make the transition to sleep an automatic behavior every single night – your mind will thank you in the morning.
3. Make your bed a place of rest:
Linked to making sleep automatic, it is important to associate your bed as a place of rest so when you are in your bed, your body recognises it as a time to fall asleep and not engage in any other task. As easy as it may be to pick up the laptop and respond to emails in bed, try to resist the urge, making the distinction between your bed as a place of rest as opposed to a place of work.
4. Engage in some form of exercise:
Exercise is a double weapon; helping you both fall asleep faster and engage in more sound sleep. Exercise increases the body’s release of cortisol and consequently increases the time spent in deep restorative sleep. This helps boost immune function and overall wellbeing.
The research recommends having between 7-9 hours of sleep every day, however every individual is different in what they need and no one shoe size fits all. Conduct your own scientific experiment to see what routine, habits and slumber can make the difference between getting a restless and restful sleep for you. Making small adjustments to your sleep routine can be incredibly helpful for your health and wellbeing. So sleep on it and see if you notice a difference.