How to Sleep and Why We Need It
Why We Sleep
It’s one of those things we simply can’t do without, but so rarely make enough time for. When we do, it can be unfathomably difficult to get a good night’s sleep. But mental as well as physical wellness and sleep go hand in hand.
It’s during sleep that our body’s tissues are repaired, and its reserves restored and so for the sake of our health, it may be a good time to look at just how well we sleep.
Why Can’t I Sleep?
We live in an information age, and sleep can offer us a welcome reprieve from the constant bombardment of the senses by things like our bright phones and tablets. Indeed, it may well be one of the only retreats we have from the outside world, and therefore ensuring that the rest we get is as good quality as possible should become imperative. But the bombardment of the senses takes its toll on the ability of our minds to ‘switch off’ so we can’t sleep.
There are three types of insomnia: the first is the type that simply won’t let you drift off in the first place; the second takes the form of waking you up repeatedly during the night, and the third is the type that wakes you up early in the morning and prevents you from falling back to sleep.
How to Get to Sleep
There are three principal factors to take into consideration if you want to improve the quality of your sleep
Ensuring that you sleep in a dark room can greatly improve the quality of your sleep. Tryptophan is the rarest of the amino acids. Under good dietary conditions, tryptophan is metabolised into serotonin, the ‘happy’ chemical which reduces anxiety and enhances mood.
In the dark, serotonin is metabolised into melatonin, the brain’s sleep hormone. So, try blocking out as much light as possible from your windows, and consider investing in a good eye mask.
You might also want to check the temperature of your bedroom. Ideally, your room will be 21 degrees. Similarly, check the noise level in your bedroom at night. Earplugs might be useful too.
Routine can be important in establishing a healthy sleep pattern when you can’t sleep. But admittedly it can be difficult to achieve. You should aim to wind down about an hour before you go to bed.
Do something you find relaxing, play sleep music, switch off the tv and computer, lower the lights. Try to associate your bed only with sleep. Avoid watching tv or reading (particularly more engaging books) in bed.
Although a good level of exercise is good for you and can aid healthy sleep, try to avoid exercising just before going to bed. Whether you’re exercising at home or going out, choose to exercise in the morning or late afternoon.
We’ve already identified tryptophan as important in aiding sleep. Tryptophan is a component of protein, but simply by eating protein-rich foods may not help. In fact, it can make things worse. Tryptophan can only access the right part of the brain to induce sleep if combined with a carbohydrate. Tryptophan-rich foods include pumpkin and squash seeds.
So, while moving towards a higher-protein diet will help overall, we need to ensure we consume a certain amount of carbohydrates too and try to avoid the tendency to overload our plates with protein at dinner time. We have lost our healthy intuition when it comes to food, and because of the way the modern world works, we often don’t eat the right combination of foods at the right time.
Try to include a rich source of protein in combination with a carbohydrate at breakfast time (breakfast cereals for example tend to be carb-heavy, and more often than not, they consist of high GI carbs). It’s also far better to have a bigger meal at lunchtime in order to avoid the need to over-consume protein closer to bedtime. If you ensure you consume good sources of protein at breakfast and lunchtime, this will help.
When it comes to diet, you might also want to check your caffeine intake. Caffeine has a stimulating effect, and it accumulates in your body, so try to avoid drinking caffeinated drinks after lunch. There are plenty of herb teas out there to be enjoyed as alternatives.
Alcohol can also impede healthy sleep patterns. Although we might fall to sleep more quickly after a glass or two, alcohol suppresses our ability to experience deep sleep so we’re unlikely to wake up feeling well-rested.
Many people are magnesium deficient and because it affects the ability to sleep and ensures a good depth of sleep, it’s worth trying a magnesium supplement before going to bed.
Magnesium occurs in many foods and is present in the highest levels in dark green vegetables, being the prime constituent of chlorophyll. Magnesium is essential in many other body processes such as enabling calcium to build strong bones. Unfortunately, even if we consume lots of green vegetables, much of what we consume can be stripped out just as fast because the body tries to neutralise the acids produced in digesting acid-forming foods such as white flour, all sugars and refined foods, dairy, meat and so-on.
If you have a magnesium deficiency that is affecting your sleep, many people experience an improvement overnight after the first dose of magnesium. This can take the form of a tablet, a powder dissolved in water (or a sugar-free drink), or even a cream or spray to be applied directly to the skin. It’s also important to take a look at your diet as a whole, find out more about what makes a healthy diet.
You can try this for yourself by popping into the shop for a free sample and if you wish, a little personal advice from one of our lovely advisors.
How Much Sleep Do I Need?
People have different needs when it comes to the quantity of sleep required. On average we sleep 2 hours less than our relatives only 50 years ago. While they used to sleep 9 hours a night on average, now we only sleep 7. And many of us won’t always manage that!
If you can’t sleep, try waiting until you’re tired before going to bed (but avoid going beyond tiredness too). You can also try adopting the 15-minute rule: if you don’t fall asleep within 15 minutes of getting into bed, get up and do something else for a while, in another room even, before you try again. It’s important to try and avoid getting anxious because you can’t sleep as this will only exacerbate the problem.
Written by Olivia Desborough