Updated: May 2, 2020
The importance of good sleep
We’ve all had periods in our lives in which we’ve had problems getting a restful night. Whether it’s because of stress, an emotional upset, disease, or any other unknown causes, we all remember how awful we felt. We either felt emotional, angry, grumpy, sluggish, we couldn’t really process information or do anything else as a matter of fact. This is because sleep is a basic human need, like eating, drinking, and breathing. Like these other needs, sleeping is a vital part of the foundation for good health (mental and physiological) and well-being throughout our lifetime.
How does sleep work?
There are two main factors which determine when we want to sleep and when we want to be awake. The first factor is a signal beamed out from our internal 24h clock located deep within our brains. This clock creates a day-night rhythm that makes us feel tired or tired at regular times. The second factor is the production of melatonin - a hormone that builds up in the body and eventually puts pressure on you to go to sleep. The balance between these two factors determine how well we sleep, when and how.
Another important factor to take into consideration is that we don’t all function on the same rhythm or sleep pattern. Some of us are “morning larks” and some are “night owls” and as Matthew Walker explains in his wonderful book “Why we Sleep” , it's only in the early morning hours that owls can drift off . They are unable to function well in the morning even though they are “awake” their brains remain in a more sleep-like state throughout the early morning. This is particularly true of the prefrontal cortex which controls high level of reasoning and help keep our emotions in check and when a night owl is forced to wake up too early they prefrontal cortex is “disabled” and needs time to warm up to reach optimum functioning . Morning types by contrast are very happy to get up early and find it quite hard to stay awake late. Why are we one or the other? Blame or thank your parents and genes! If you are a night owl, then one of your parents was probably one too.
It’s also important to understand that sleep evolves all throughout our lives and a baby is not supposed to have the same sleep pattern as an adult. Newborns sleep 10 to 18 hours per day, more than any other age group. Infants over three months—sleep nine to 12 hours per day, plus naps. In comparison, adults average less than seven hours of sleep per night. Adults spend about 20 to 25 percent of the night in REM sleep (deep restorative sleep), and each sleep cycle takes about 90 to 120 minutes. Furthermore, baby sleep cycles are shorter, lasting only about 50 minutes for the first nine months of life. While many adults sleep straight through the night—perhaps waking once—because a baby’s sleep cycle is so short, he or she is prone to fully or partially waking up during the transition from deep sleep to light sleep. As a baby grows, the sleep cycles will start to look more and more like an adult’s version. Less and less time is spent in REM sleep while simultaneously the sleep cycle itself lengthens. Eventually, by school age, your child will be sleeping in cycles of 90 to 100 minutes.
These are guidelines from the sleep foundation.org when it comes to the little ones https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/when-do-babies-sleep-through-night
Birth to three months: every baby is different, but most infants this age will sleep between 14 and 17 hours a day, including naps. Some newborns might get by on less (11 to 13 hours) and a few prefer more sleep time (18 or 19 hours). Rest when your baby does, and know that waking several times at night to feed is completely normal.
Three to Six Months: after four months of age, your baby will likely sleep between 12 and 15 hours a day, including naps. And many infants between three and six months are able to sleep five hours at a time, which experts consider “sleeping through the night.”
Six to Nine Months: by six months of age, many infants no longer require night feedings, and the majority of sleep will now occur after dark, along with a couple of naps during the day. As you begin to catch up on some much-needed sleep yourself, there is more to look forward to: during your child’s first year, she’ll likely move on to sleep a full 10 hours at night.
The benefits of sleep for the body and the brain.
1. Without enough sleep, it's harder to focus and take in new information.
2. Sleep helps you process your emotions. Your mind needs this time in order to recognize and react the right way. When you cut that short, you tend to have more negative emotional reactions and fewer positive ones.
3. While you sleep, your blood pressure goes down, giving your heart and blood vessels a bit of a rest
4. Sleep helps your body fight against infection and sickness by deploying all sorts of fighting agents within your immune system, cladding you with protection. If you do fall ill, your immune system actively stimulates the sleep system asking for more rest to help fight the culprit agents. It’s a virtuous circle.
5. During the deep, slow-wave part of your sleep cycle, the amount of glucose in your blood drops. Not enough time in this deepest stage means you don't get that break to allow a reset - like leaving the volume turned up. Your body will have a harder time responding to your cells' needs and blood sugar levels. Allow yourself to reach and remain in this deep sleep, and you're less likely to get type 2 diabetes.
6. When you are well-rested, you're less hungry. Being sleep-deprived messes with the hormones in your brain -- leptin and ghrelin -- that control appetite. With those out of balance, your resistance to the temptation of unhealthy foods goes way down. And when you're tired, you're less likely to want to get up and move your body. Together, it's a recipe for putting on pounds.
The enemies of restful sleep
Stimulants such as alcohol, coffee, tea and chocolate for some people can play havoc with your sleep. Cutting these out completely or trying to reduce as much as possible is highly recommended. Did you know that coffee has an average half-life from 5 to 7 hours? That’s the amount of time it takes your body to remove 50% of any substance concentration in the body. If you are having a coffee after dinner let’s say 7.30, 50% of that caffeine may still be active and circulating throughout your brain tissue. And just look at the effect on spiders when given coffee as well as other drugs (1) Alcohol blocks the brain’s ability to generate REM sleep which is the most restorative part of our sleep cycle, it also helps with memory integration and association. Other negative factors that may influence your sleep include; financial worries, stress at work, bereavement, emotional or psychological issues, ill health.
How to wake up happy, rested and ready for the day.
Tackling sleep issues can be complex and multifactorial depending on how long you have been suffering from sleep deprivation and at what age the problems lies. As we’ve seen earlier, we are all different when it comes to sleep patterns and one size definitely doesn’t fit all. However here are some recommendations that will definitely help you get on the right track and starting with a good sleep hygiene is a start:
Follow a regular sleep routine (go to bed and wake up at the same time every day even at the weekend or on holiday)
Avoid napping or sleeping late afternoon.
Develop a bedtime relaxation routine by practising breathing exercises, meditation and mindfulness has also been proven to help increase your sleep quality by helping with your stress levels (2).
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapies), Dr. Allison Harvey from the University of California Berkeley has been using successfully a Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia and symptoms and severity in conditions as diverse as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder have been regularised and the sleep of these patients has been enhanced. Her CBT was recognised to have helped these conditions tremendously (3).
Avoid watching television or your phone (evening digital lights suppress melatonin and delays our sleep timing) or anything too anxiety driven.
Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature (ideally between 17.5 and 20 degree Celsius).
Avoid large late suppers.
The natural way
Lavender essential oil is a lovely calming oil and has a sedative effect. Put few drops on your pillow or diffuse it before going to bed to instil a sensation of calm and be ready to have a good night. Children respond well to lavender oil too.
- Magnesium promotes sleep as it’s involved in the synthesis of melatonin your natural sleep-inducing hormone. Magnesium also has a relaxing effect on muscles and helps to prevent restless legs syndrome.
- Valerian is a traditional herbal remedy that reduces anxiety and helps improve sleep quality. Valerian appears to work in a similar way to a calming brain chemical called GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid). This reduces anxiety and restlessness, with a calming action that reduces frantic thoughts and allows you to achieve a deeper level of sleep more quickly.