We’ve all read that getting adequate amounts of shut eye is essential to our wellbeing, and yet hitting the sack at a reasonable time can be one of the hardest habits for most of us to maintain. Of course, long working hours, stressful times, and busy family lives all contribute to late nights and poor-quality rest, but how much do we really understand about the specifics of why sleep is essential to so many processes involved with the functioning of our bodies? And what can we do to improve our relationship with rest?
In honor of National Sleep Day in the USA (March 18), M&F talked to the “Sleep Doctor,” Dr. Michael Breus, Ph.D., a renowned expert in the importance of hitting the hay. Dr Breus is a clinical psychologist, a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. With qualifications like this, it’s no wonder that a good doctor is widely considered to be one of the most influential people in this field, so we put a range of questions to him and came away with this superb guide to getting better sleep.
Most Americans get less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night. What does this mean for our health?
This study from Mute Nasal Dilators finds that we’re averaging less than 6-hours of sleep and 37% of us are unhappy with the quality of sleep that we get. Your body can go for quite a while on mild sleep deprivation but over time you will suffer from a variety of consequences:
- Physically: You may gain weight, have less sex, look and feel older, suffer a heightened risk for injury, won’t heal as quickly, and you’ll have lower immune function. Sleep deprivation causes changes to the hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. The hormone leptin suppresses appetite and encourages the body to expend energy but sleep deprivation reduces leptin. The hormone ghrelin, on the other hand, triggers feelings of hunger. Ghrelin levels goes up when you’re short on sleep.
- Cognitively: When lacking sleep, you don’t focus well, your reaction time slows down, you have trouble making and storing memories, your decision making and judgment is off, and you are less creative.
- Emotionally: On less sleep you are more emotionally reactive, likely have a more negative outlook, you more about the future and you feel less connected and thankful for your partner, and your own life.
All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Remember: when you sleep, your body and brain recover from the previous day and get geared up for the day ahead. Not giving your body and brain the time needed to do all that means you’ll start your day not fully recovered and or prepared.
Why is a lack of sleep associated with heightened levels of stress?
When stressed, your body releases cortisol: the main stress hormone. This coincides with sugar, or glucose, entering the bloodstream, which in turn elevates your blood pressure. Soon, your muscles are tensing up, your heart is pumping, and your brain is working overtime. This reaction is best known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, an innate survival mechanism that our bodies activate when we’re in perceived trouble. That response is what makes it hard for us to drift off. Our bodies are hardwired to keep us awake when we’re stressed.
When stress leads to poor sleep, poor sleep can also lead to increased stress and anxiety, making this a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break out of. On the flip side, sleep is a stress reducer. Getting more rest can significantly decrease cortisol levels and restore balance to your body’s systems.
Can we catch up on lost sleep by taking naps?
The quick and accurate answer is no. You simply can’t recoup the healing effects of sleep by napping or sleeping in on weekends. And there are plenty of studies that prove this. In 2003, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research examined the cognitive effects from a week of poor sleep, followed by three days of sleeping at least eight hours per night. The scientists found that the “recovery” sleep did not fully reverse declines in performance on a test of reaction times and other psychomotor tasks. This was especially true for subjects who had been forced to sleep only three or five hours per night.
The good news, though, is that a study carried out this year found people recovered much more quickly from a week of poor sleep when it was preceded by a “banking” week that included nights with 10 hours of sleep.
Snoring is obviously disturbing to our partners, but can it also disrupt our own quality of sleep?
Yes, 100%. Snoring is within the spectrum of sleep disordered breathing, meaning that when you snore you get a restricted amount of oxygen, so the snoring absolutely has a detrimental effect on the snorer. The noisy, and annoying, sounds of snoring occur as a result of a narrowing or obstruction in the airway during sleep. Breath moving through these narrowed passages causes the soft tissues of the airway to vibrate and the vibration creates the sounds of snoring.
Long-term snoring can result in an irregular heartbeat, stroke, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and decreased sexual satisfaction among many other conditions.
What are some of the best ways to prevent snoring?
There are a number of behavioral changes that can significantly improve or even eliminate a snoring habit. Losing weight, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, not drinking excessively, and avoiding alcohol within three to four hours of bedtime will all help.
For those who primarily snore when sleeping on their back, which can narrow the airway, I suggest they try to sleep on their side or use a pillow that supports their head and neck so that the head is slightly elevated.
I also recommend Mute Nasal Dilators. They sit just inside the nose to help increase airflow, improve breathing, and reduce snoring.
Is there any additional benefit from memory foam mattresses over the traditional spring-based products?
Choosing a mattress is a very personal decision. What might be best for one person may not be best for another. I’ve actually developed a mattress buying guide, and it suggests looking at your sleep position first, then the mattress type. Innerspring, memory foam or latex for example. Then look at the firmness. In general, memory foam mattresses provide pressure relief while softly contouring your body. Innerspring mattresses are durable and responsive.
Does our body temperature play a role in sleep?
Our bodies are designed to begin cooling down for sleep and this begins in the late afternoon, continuing into the evening hours. Our body operates a process called thermoregulation, on a 24-hour circadian cycle, as does the sleep-wake cycle. This allows your body to adjust its core temperature. Lowering the body temperature at night helps you fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Rising temperatures signal the body to move into a state of alertness in the morning. So, as your body cools down, it’s a signal to your brain to release Melatonin; the key that starts the engine for sleep.
How important is establishing a routine for gaining control of your sleep and what should the routine include?
I recommend setting aside at least 60-minutes for your “power down hour.” Schedule all your streaming, internet surfing, and social media scrolling to end before this hour begins. Allow 20-minutes of this hour for hygiene and grooming; brushing and flossing, putting on night cream, changing for bed, and taking any required medications. With the remaining 40 minutes, devote 10 minutes each to:
- Something for your mind: Consider meditation, an excellent addition to a power down hour. But it could also be 10-minutes of reading for pleasure. Refrain from bright reading lights and wear blue light blocking glasses if you’re using an e-reader. Or listen to a funny or inspiring podcast, or some music that relaxes you.
- Something for your body: This could involve yoga, tai chi, light stretching, or even a walk around the block with the dog before lights out. Carve out some time to pay attention to relaxing your body and releasing the tension you’ve built up through the day. If you like to have a shower or bath before bed, try and do this 90 minutes before lights out in order to maximize the sleep-inducing benefits of your nightly soak.
- Something for your stomach: A small snack before bed is fine, just don’t let it turn into an entire meal or your sleep will suffer. My rules for a pre-bed snack are to keep to around 250 calories, maintain a balance of protein and complex carbohydrates, and steer clear of the ‘sugar bombs’ that so many of us tend to crave. A bowl of low-sugar cereal, a piece of toast with almond butter, or a small whole-grain muffin are good choices.
- Something for your senses: Too often, we forget about touch and smell as sleep influencers. Essential oils added to your tub, used in a diffuser, or rubbed on your skin can be potent sleep promoters. Spend a few minutes of your power down an hour in the company of sleep-promoting scents if you’re able to.