The how and why of a good night’s sleep

Most of us have positive associations with sleep. We tell one another, “Good night,” and “Sweet dreams” as we stumble off for our beauty sleep. We say we “slept like a baby,” when we wake refreshed and we hate ‘nightmares’ because they ruin things. Yet many kids fight sleep like crazy, and some of us grownups are no better! ‘Burning the candle at both ends’ is a reality as much as a saying for many. We don’t always get a good night’s sleep

Sleep is a necessary part of life – nobody functions long without it. Certainly not well. In fact, after being awake 17-19 hours you function exactly as if you have a blood alcohol level of 0.05. Scary, given all you need to do is be up at seven in the morning and still awake at midnight to behave in ways you avoid in the cause of responsible drinking!

The exact amount you need varies across age, individual and gender, but the least most of us need is 7-9 hours per night.  Sigh. That sounds like a dream to me! Yet if we don’t get enough sleep, we start accumulating a sleep debt. It’s not like you can skimp on what you need and get away with it; eventually you have to pay. And in the meantime, your daily living is worse for your tiredness.

What does sleep – that seemingly inefficient time of doing nothing but rest achieve? Well, as it turns out, a lot. Whilst researchers continue to discover more, here are three key benefits of good sleep we already know about:

1. Your body regenerates

All that living, exercising and doing which happens during the day uses energy and creates breakdown and waste at a cellular level. Whilst some repair can happen when you stop for a rest, most of it goes on when you get a good night’s sleep. We’re physically restored and rejuvenated when we lie down. Muscles grow, tissue and cells repair, and hormones synthesise when you’re asleep. Think about it: All those beauty creams go on your face at night because that’s when they do their best work!

2. You improve your brain

It seems odd that tuning out and sleeping could actually build your brain, but it’s true. Scientists watching people’s brains at sleep have noted that some areas of our brain seem to become more active whilst we get our Z’s. Processing all the input of the day, sorting it and laying down memory is just some of what they think happens, though it’s going to take decades to work the details out. But we already know this: if you want to be clever, get enough sleep.

3. You function optimally during the day

According to some Australian research, five nights of even partial sleep deprivation will mean three drinks affect you like six ordinarily would. Don’t like the sound of that? Get enough sleep. Then you’ll give yourself the best chance of sailing through the day. Your reflexes will be faster, your thinking sharper and your ability to handle any bad feelings so much higher. Judgement, motivation, mood and learning are just some of the areas you’ll perform better in with enough sleep under your belt.

How to get a good night’s sleep?

That’s all well and good, but what are some possible sleep solutions or tweaks we could make if we’re, perhaps, um, not getting enough sleep right now? I’m so glad you asked:

1. Set the same hours

Apparently, falling into bed at 9pm one evening and midnight the next confuses our body clocks. Going to bed within the same hour and rising at the same time (mostly) keeps our bodies on a more even keel. I even find that limiting my sleep-in on weekends means I have better energy through the day (unless I’m paying off sleep debt, of course!). Perhaps you could try it next Saturday or Sunday and see what happens. Of course, going to bed a little earlier would probably help too…

2. Get yourself into a routine

Much like keeping close to the same hours, repeating similar behaviours on your way to bed sends signals to your brain to prepare for your good night’s sleep. At least, that’s what the experts suggest. I guess that’s where warm glasses of milk, brushing teeth and bedtime stories come from. You don’t have to keep childhood habits, but patterns which repeat are part of a good sleep solution even for grown ups. My routine includes stacking the last things into the dishwasher, saying goodnight to my husband (if he’s not in bed already) and a final check on the kids. Nothing fun or interesting, but easy to repeat all the same. What’s yours?

3. Ban the electronics for the last hour before shut eye

The light emanating from our electronic devices is unnatural and has been proven to be detrimental to going to sleep easily. That’s even with the ‘night time’ adjustments made of late! In fact, current advice is to turn off phones, computers, laptops, iPad’s and even TV’s at least 60 minutes before trying to sleep. Limiting other stimulating activities is also suggested. I personally find this one hard, as I tend to want one last peek at my games, texts or emails, but I’ve noticed it makes a difference on the evenings I comply. Right now I’m experimenting with a 15 minute electronic gap (when I follow my routine as above), and may push it out to 30 minutes later in the year. What tweak could you try?

4. Leave the blue and green lights outside

I mean of your bedroom, not the house! A terrifying number of people, especially women and girls, take their devices to bed with them. Bad idea! Truly, you don’t need to be woken when your bestie gets home from her date or if she can’t sleep – that’s taking friendship too far! Even switching to silent won’t stop those light flashes as messages come in. Those tiny luminous rays disturb your sleep cycle even if you don’t wake! A neural switch in your brain then triggers a decline in one of the sleep hormones within minutes. You pay for that flash of light with poor rest, which in turn creates a lesser functioning you tomorrow. Is it really worth it?

The same issue also applies to alarm clocks and our latest wrist-worn exercise monitors. I’ve woken more than once by a random flashing caused (I assume!) by some sleepy banging! In an attempt to get a good night’s sleep my latest solution’s turning the clock to face the wall. It’s a nuisance, cos if I want to know the time in the night I have to get up. On the other hand at least most of the time I sleep better. As a test, leave your phones etc in another room for a week and see if things improve.

Apply the same rule to your kids too. All our gadgets recharge in either our kitchen or study, and I think we all benefit from that.

You probably knew some of the above, which is fine. Having information’s important, but building good attitudes and actions off that is even more so! Why not tweak your sleep habits this week and see if they result in better days? I want you to have a good night’s sleep for my sake, as well as yours!