It was National Sleep Awareness Week last week, so I thought it would be an excellent time to discuss sleep hygiene. Too often we neglect sleep in favour of a busy lifestyle, an early gym class or a late night Netflix binge - or, simply, we try to prioritise it but find we’re just waking up feeling tired. Sound familiar?
One of my favourite quotes from Dr Allen Rechtschaffen really sums up how vital sleep is for our health:
“If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is probably the biggest evolutionary mistake that’s ever been made.”
Inadequate sleep has been associated with increased morbidity and mortality from all causes and this is primarily because sleep affects every single aspect of our physiology from detox capacity, to immune health, cardiovascular health, stress and blood sugar regulation (and more). One of the main issues with sleep deprivation is that we don’t realise how sleep deprived we are, in fact, in studies participants consistently underestimated how impaired they were from sleep deprivation and over years and years you acclimatise to your level of underperformance, energy levels and alertness. If you’re someone that ‘only needs 5 hours,’ then evolution and science is here to tell you that, unfortunately, you’re wrong!
Before I get into the sleep hygiene hacks, and ways to improve and support your sleep cycle so that you can start to wake up feeling more refreshed, here’s a useful checklist to assess whether you’re getting enough sleep:
- Can I function optimally without caffeine before noon?
- Do I have to set an alarm in the morning to wake at the same time each day?
- Would I sleep past my alarm if I didn’t have one set?
- Do I drag myself out of bed?
- Do I sleep in on the weekends?
- Do I get less than 7 hours of sleep per night or even once or twice a week?
I mentioned briefly at the beginning that sleep affects every system in the body, but here are some specific and VITAL functions that would be seriously impaired if sleep quality wasn’t optimal:
- Certain things only happen at night when we’re asleep. These include: muscle growth, tissue repair, formation of new proteins, release of Growth Hormone.
- Brain detox. Our brains need a special system of detoxification, unlike our bodies which can use the liver and kidneys, and this only takes place at night. Because our brains use 25% of our total energy, they also create a lot of metabolic waste which needs to be eliminated to maintain healthy function.
- Energy regulation: This one is pretty obvious. If we didn’t sleep, we wouldn’t be able to get up the next day and hunt and catch food (which these days translates to go to work in an office, cope with daily stressors and raise our children etc)
So, on to the good part. How do we support all of these vital systems and make sure that we’re getting good quality sleep every night?
- The most crucial thing for me is your light environment. Yes, I know, there’s so much hype in the media these days and in the biohacking spheres about blue light that you’d be forgiven for thinking that blue light blocking glasses were just another money grabbing ploy (like celery juice being able to cure all ills, remember that?!) But too much blue light once the sun has gone down messes with your internal sleep-wake cycle and makes the body think that it’s midday which is when it typically gets the brightest white-blue light from the sun. Put screens firmly away ideally a couple of hours before bed, or make sure you’re wearing proper blue blocking glasses. I say proper because there are hundreds advertised as blue blocking these days that simply aren’t. If they have clear lenses they aren’t blocking blue light. They need dark orange lenses to do the job properly.
- Create a bedtime routine to sleep-train yourself. It’s not just babies that need sleep training, adults can really benefit from a solid nighttime routine as well - the body loves routine. I highly recommend curating a routine that works for you, involves things you enjoy, that you stick to daily. For example, 2 hours before you want to be falling asleep you close down your screens, pop your blue blocking glasses on, have a sleepy tea, run a hot bath with epsom salts, then do 10 mins for gentle stretching or a meditation before getting into bed to read for 30 minutes before you turn off your lights. Same time every day.
- Create the right environment in your bedroom for sleep. Ideally about 18.3 degrees, we sleep much better in a cool room, with black out blinds and no noise. If you live in a busy city you may well need a decent eye mask and ear plugs. I also highly recommend investing in some very low level lighting, either a red lamp (i.e. with no blue light) or a lamp with a filament bulb - anything but LEDs.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol. This is important as caffeine, depending on how quickly you metabolise it, can hang around in our bodies for a lot longer than we think (it has a half life of 12 hours!), affecting our ability to get good quality sleep later on. Alcohol, which may feel relaxing after a long day’s work, is actually a stimulant and whilst people often find it doesn’t affect their ability to fall asleep, it certainly affects their ability to have a deep and restful sleep. We also become less able to regulate blood sugar effectively the morning after having alcohol - which means you’ll likely wake up craving sugar.
- Magnesium supplementation can help aid restful sleep too, plus most of us are deficient in magnesium anyway. I’m also a huge fan of epsom salt baths which are a great way to absorb magnesium through the skin. Supplement wise my favourite is a Magnesium Glycinate with B6 from Elivide: https://www.elivide.co.uk/?ref=swFgT0EM0Dz-
- Diet is also key for optimising sleep - sugary snacks late at night wreak havoc with blood sugar balance and usually result in blood sugar dips overnight which wake us up - the body has no in-built mechanism to bring blood sugar levels up by itself, and it can be quite dangerous hence the safest thing to do is to wake the body up and elevate cortisol - which releases stored glucose into the bloodstream. Tryptophan containing foods consumed at dinner time are also really useful, as tryptophan is a precursor for melatonin - turkey, chicken, whole milk, oats and cheese. Whatever you have in the evening needs to be balanced, i.e. a good mix of protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Sleep Duration and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies (PubMed)