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WHY SLEEP IS IMPORTANT?– Part Two

This is Part Two of Why Sleep is Important. See Part One here.


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WHERE AND HOW SHOULD WE SLEEP?


As mentioned in part one, the body's circadian rhythm responds to stimuli like light and temperature. At night, during sleep time, it prefers somewhere cool and dark. Which is what your bedroom should facilitate near total darkness by blocking out light from the windows and by being devoid of light from electronic devices. The ideal temperature range for sleeping varies among individuals, however, extreme temperatures tend to disrupt sleep. And the room itself should be quiet and possess an overall aura of calmness and serenity. It should feel like a place of rest and relaxation.


That's the "where" of sleep. What about the "how"? This is a question easiest to answer by splitting sleep down into three stages: pre-, peri- and post-sleep.


The period of "pre-sleep" is usually defined as one-to-two hours out from when your eyes close and you drift off into dreamland. In that time, it's best to ensure that a few things happen:


1) Excessive amounts of foods and liquids are not consumed.


2) Exposure to bright natural or artificial light is limited.


3) Screen use ceases altogether.


4) Mentally stimulating activities--like answering work emails or playing complex games--are avoided.


5) Intense physical activity is avoided.


These things may seem arbitrary but the reason for their exclusion from the pre-sleep period is that they all mess with the natural, biological rhythms of relaxation and destimulation that come before a night of sleep. Perhaps the easiest way to ensure they get handled every night is to institute an evening routine. Human beings are creatures of routine and habit--we tend to do the same things, in the same way, every day. And pre-sleep is no different.


Some people develop formal and stringent bedtime routines. At precisely the same time each evening, they write in their journal, do ten minutes of relaxation exercises, brush their teeth, then get into bed. Most people aren't so strict, but they still end up developing an informal evening routine or ritual. For example, at the same time each night, they turn off the TV, lock the doors, turn off the lights, go to the toilet and brush their teeth, put their pajamas on, get into bed, and read a chapter of a book before turning off the bedroom light and going to sleep. There is nothing particularly special about any of the components of the routine, but they're performed in the same sequence each night and signal to the person that it is time for sleep.


What about peri-sleep? Well, you're asleep. What control do you have? None, really. But you can control what you do during the day, and so how you sleep during the night. There are three main things that affect the quality of a night's sleep. What you eat, what you drink, and what you do.


When it comes to sleep, it doesn't really matter what diet you are on. What matters is the proximity of meals to your bedtime, their volume, and their sugar content. Meals consumed two or three hours before bedtime will linger in your stomach and digestive system. As I mentioned above, sleep is supposed to be a restful time for your digestive system, and eating shortly before that time disallows the possibility of that rest. So, ideally, it's best to not eat within three hours of bedtime. But if you must, try to make the meal small and light. And definitely try to avoid sugar before bedtime: it spikes your energy levels, which in turn interferes with the winding down of the brain (amongst other things), and generally will make it harder for you to get to sleep and affect the quality of the sleep you do get.


Concerning the impact of what you drink on how you sleep, there are three beverages to look out for. The first, for reasons stated above, is sugary drinks. Sodas, juices, mixers, anything like that.


The second is alcohol. The belief that alcohol smooths the descent into a sleepy state is untrue. It reduces wakefulness--that is true--but at the cost of fragmenting sleep. Not only does alcohol dehydrate and make you need to urinate, if consumed close to sleep time it interferes with the restorative processes that typically take place during the night. Some may be able to get away with a small glass of wine, but the effect of alcohol on a person's sleep is hard, anecdotally, to determine as the sleeper doesn't directly experience the fragmented sleep.


The final beverage to watch out for is, obviously, caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that induces the body to release chemicals that usually would only come into play during high-stress, high-intensity scenarios. And while small doses can be cognitively effective during the day, at night and in the evening they disrupt sleep, even if the sleeper has normalized the intake of caffeine. Taking a stimulant like caffeine at night amps up the body's senses and organs, the opposite of what needs to occur for a night of good and restful sleep.


The final thing that affects the peri-sleep period is what you do, which comes down to two main factors: stress and exercise.


My husband and I have a rule: when one of us is traveling and we talk on the phone in the evening, we don't discuss anything that occurred during the day that might upset or worry the other person. As I said above, evenings are for winding down. Hearing about new (or old problems) instantly sets off a chain reaction where you try to understand the problem and formulate a solution to it. This is why common advice like, "don't check your emails after 7:00 pm", exists. Individual events like hearing about a problem from a loved one or getting an email about that meeting tomorrow can be classed as acute stress, and they affect the wind-down period necessary for good sleep. Chronic stress, on the other hand, doesn't just affect your relaxation pre-bed--it affects the entirety of your sleep.


Chronically stressed people will typically have high levels of cortisol circulating around their body. Cortisol isn't absolutely bad. In fact, in the morning our cortisol levels rise so that we become alert and active. Exactly what we don't want in the evening and exactly what is present around the clock in highly stressed individuals. High levels of cortisol in the body throw a lot of things out of alignment. Things like your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, the release and absorption of hormones and enzymes: all are affected, to some degree, by cortisol.

So, stress is bad for sleep. But exercise is good, especially when it comes to sleep, and especially when not undertaken too close to bedtime. Have you ever had a week off of work and not done anything? Barely even left the house? Do you remember how you slept that week? And how about after a day of walking while on holiday? How did you sleep then? Better, I suspect. Exercise stresses the body and makes sleep during the night more peaceful.


But exercising too close to your sleeping period can have a negative effect. Your core temperature, which needs to fall in the evening, will be elevated and the hormones that enable optimum performance while exercising will still be lingering in your body.


That's peri-sleep. Which leaves the post-sleep period.


Waking up, in an ideal world, occurs biologically. When adequately saturated with sleep, your body acts like your alarm clock and you come back into consciousness. Unfortunately, most of our lives are lived under time constraints so we need external assistance to be up at the right time. Enter the screeching, screaming alarm clock.


Yet, there's more to the wake up period than just the initial moment provided by your biology, simulated sunlight or a loud alarm or phone. The waking up period, like the pre-sleep period, is best transitioned through gradually. The body shouldn't just instantaneously be made to shift from sleep to full function. It needs some time to turn everything back on. That means a gentle wake up (if possible), soft light in the house until you're fully functioning, little noise, and minimal mental stimulation (hint: don't roll over and look at your phone).


Supercars are built to go from zero to one hundred and back to zero in the smallest amount of time possible. Our minds and our bodies aren't; they prefer a gentle descent into and out of sleep. Help give them that.


A BRIEF NOTE ON QUANTITY


I've done my fair share of reading about sleep and it seems that a magical number keeps popping up: eight. Many experts have agreed that eight hours of sleep (seven at the least and nine at the most, depending on age and other factors) is the ideal amount. Less than that impairs practically every physical and mental function; more than that has no appreciable benefit.


Sure, you can scrape by on five or six hours a night, but you won't feel good, and more importantly, most of the things you do will be less efficient and less effective. So give yourself a break and sleep more--who knows, it might turn out that with more sleep in the bank you can actually accomplish everything you need to do in a smaller window of time...


THE TOP FIVE


Sleep affects everything we do. So it's wise to ensure we get a good quantity of good quality sleep. Above, I've outlined how to go about that. But there's a lot of things to consider--timing, environment, pre- and post-sleep behaviors, food, drink, stress, exercise--so I thought I'd make a list of five simple things you can do today to get better sleep tonight.


1) Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and alcohol and heavy meals close to bedtime.


2) Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day.


3) Create a sleep-inducing environment. Darken the room, remove electronic devices and gadgets, and don't use the bedroom as an office or a place to watch TV and films.


4) Practice a relaxing pre-sleep routine. Figure out the things you do in the last 30 minutes to an hour before bed and do them in the same order every night.


5) Exercise daily. Vigorous training sessions and light activities like walking and stretching will all help you sleep better. Just don't do them too close to bedtime.


As with all behavior modification, the slow accumulation of small changes over a long period of time will have a better result than dramatic, sweeping changes instituted quickly. So choose from the five above--or select your own--and start to.