Sleep – A Natural Wellbeing Elixir

By Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi (Consultant Psychiatrist)

One of the most damaging myths of the 21st century is that productivity can be increased by cutting down on adequate sleep time. Sleep powers the mind, restores the body, regulates metabolism, fortifies virtually every system in the body; and is crucial for optimal functioning.

Sleep Science

According to the UK Sleep Council, 40% of people in the UK suffer from sleep issues, and 25% of schoolchildren do not get enough sleep. The question to ask is: “how much sleep is adequate for me?” Every person is different when it comes to the exact amount of sleep that is optimal for them, but most people fall into a range depending on their age. Authorities agree that for newborns up to 3 months, 14 to 17 hours of sleep is required, progressively falling to 8 to 10 hours for older teenagers, and 9 to 11 hours for school-age children between 6 and 13. Adults need an average of between 6 to 9 hours every night, bearing in mind individual level of activity and general health.

Some indicators that you may not be getting enough sleep include:
– Requiring a caffeine fix to get through the day.
– Poor concentration and irritability.
– Diminished productivity.
– Sleeping more than usual when you have an open schedule.

Thousands of brain cells are switched off during sleep. These changes are crucial for cognitive functions such as memory consolidation and normal brain function when awake. Other body changes include fluctuations in the production of growth hormones responsible for growth; Cortisol- stress regulating hormone; and Leptin and Ghrelin – appetite regulators. Some links have been made between poor sleep and weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, premature ageing, and road accident deaths.

Sleep and mental health

There is a complex interplay between sleep and mental health conditions. Mental health problems can cause sleep disturbance and poor sleep can affect mental wellbeing. For instance, anxiety can make it difficult to turn the mind off at night; and depression can result in waking up too early or oversleeping; whilst post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be marked with nightmares that cause interruptions. Disruption of natural sleep schedules can trigger relapses in mental health conditions. Unwanted effects of medication could also cause excessive sedation or insomnia.

Sleep Hygiene Tips

Establishing a regular bedtime routine that lets you unwind and sends a signal to your brain that it is time to sleep is the first step to promoting good sleep. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, including weekends, programs the brain for better sleep.

Consider a wind-down routine that includes reading, scriptural meditation, listening to calming music, journaling, having a warm bath, and taking a warm milky drink or herbal tea. YouTube has a range of Christian sleep music recordings and there is the Soultime App, which is also a free Christian relaxation resource. The NHS free Sleep App Pzizz is available on both the App Store and Google Play.

Keeping the bedroom comfortable by paying attention to temperature, ambience, lighting, and mattress firmness is another quick win approach. Based on the knowledge that the body lowers its temperature when going to sleep, there is some thinking that the optimal bedroom temperature is between 16 to 19 Celsius. Using earplugs to block out noise, investing in a firm comfortable mattress and pillows, and using blackout shades to control lightning are other actions worth considering. One study showed that 42 minutes of extra sleep were gained when swapping an old bed for a new one (UK Sleep Council)

Use your bed only for sleep or intimacy to train your brain to associate it with sleep. If you struggle to sleep, get up and do something relaxing like listening to soft music or reading until you feel sleepy.

Regular exercise, best avoided near bedtime is another approach that works. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, spicy and fried foods right before bedtime. Whilst alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, it will interrupt your sleep later in the night. It is also important to keep an eye on your total daily caffeine intake as excessive use is associated with sleep disruption and anxiety. According to the Food and Drug Agency, up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. “That is roughly the amount of caffeine in 4 cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or 2 energy shot drinks” (Mayo Clinic).

Avoid using smartphones, tablets, and screen devices in the evenings especially, at least an hour before bedtime. The light from screens can have a negative effect on sleep, along with social media, news, and games as these all stimulate your brain, resulting in anxiety.

If self-help is ineffective, speak to your GP who will look for underlying causes, may suggest further lifestyle changes, consider short-term sleeping pills, and explore specialist sleep clinic referral.

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