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What is Sleep and why is it important?
Sleep is a fundamental part of our wellbeing – it affects almost every system in our bodies. There is no other state of wakefulness that provides us with the same benefits that sleep does.
During sleep, our body and mind are recharged, leaving us fresh and alert when we wake up. Sleep also supports our physical health and helps us to fight off diseases. A lack of sleep can lead to higher risks of physical or mental issues. For children and teenagers, sleep is particularly important for growth and development.
What happens when I sleep?
We have an internal body clock that controls our sleep cycle, and it affects when we when we feel refreshed and alert, or tired and ready for bed. This clock operates on a 24 hour cycle called a circadian rhythm. This cycle keeps the body healthy by making sure that all of its processes are well co-ordinated throughout the day. For example, the circadian rhythm helps us to regulate our hormones to match how much energy we are using throughout the day.
How does sleep work?
There are two key processes that influence how much your body needs to sleep. These control your drive towards sleep based on your biological clock, the time of day, how long you’ve already been awake, and how much light you are exposed to.
Sleep-wake homeostasis - The longer you stay conscious, the more sleepy you feel. This is a result of what is called a homeostatic sleep drive, which increases pressure to slumber based on how long you've been awake. This is the same drive that pushes you to sleep longer or deeper after a relatively longer period of insufficient sleep.
The Circadian alerting system – This refers to your 24-hour circadian rhythm as mentioned above, and is influenced largely by exposure to light.
These two processes are also influenced by other environmental factors like how much you eat, how much caffeine you consume, or how much exposure you allow yourself from your electronic devices. Stress and worry also affect your sleep quantity and quality.
How much is enough?
In reality, people vary greatly in their need for sleep. How much sleep you need depends on things like your age, or how active you are throughout the day. Therefore, there is no set rule as to how much sleep you might need, as long as you get good quality sleep on a regular schedule.
However, research has found that getting less than 7 hours of sleep is linked with poorer mental and physical health in adults. People who regularly get less than 7 hours of sleep are more likely to gain weight, be less productive, get into an accident, or suffer from chronic disease such as diabetes, hypertension, depression.
Below are some recommendations for the amount of sleep that we may need along our lifespan.
Newborn – 14-17 hours
Toddler - 11-14 hours
Teenager – 8 to 10 hours
Adult – 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+) – 7-8 hours
How can I improve my sleeping habits?
Many things influence how much and how well we sleep. However, poor sleep patterns are often a result of poor sleep habits! Paying attention to our sleep habits is one of the most straightforward ways that we can set ourselves up for better sleep.
Sleep Hygiene is about putting yourself in the best position to sleep well each and every night. It involves making changes to how and where you sleep, what you do before you sleep, as well as your daily routines to make sure that you are making and keeping habits that leave you feeling well-rested and energized.
Here are some little changes we can all make in our daily life to help improve our sleep:
1 - Set and stick to a sleep schedule by:
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day (including weekends, if possible!)
- Say ‘no’ to skipping sleep to work, study, socialize or exercise
2 - Cultivate pro-sleep habits during the day to support your circadian rhythm and limit disruptions to your sleep:
- Don’t rush into your daily routine as soon as you wake up
- Expose yourself to daylight during the day
- Exercise during the day (but not too close to bedtime)
- Avoid caffeine, particularly before bedtime
- Reduce or avoid drinking alcohol
- Have your dinner at earlier times (try 3-4 hours before bedtime)
- Limit naptimes to 30 minutes in the early afternoon
- Try downloading a smartphone application or use your digital watch to track your sleep cycles!
3 - Make sure that your sleeping environment will help you with your sleep:
- Keep your bed and sleeping environment comfortable and inviting
- Dim your lights when it is time to sleep
- Fine-tune your bedroom temperature to suit your preferences (but err on the cooler side!)
- Use earplugs or thick curtains to control noise levels.
4 - Create a nightly bedtime routine that will help you relax and wind down for sleep. You can use or adapt the checklist below to suit your needs:
- Leave time for personal hygiene (e.g. brushing teeth, skincare)
- Allow around 30 – 60 minutes for winding down
- Avoid using digital devices during this time
- Try listening to soft music or ambient sounds
- Read a book or listen to a podcast
- Try a relaxation technique such as a breathing exercise, meditation, or mindfulness
- Try calming scents like lavender
5 - If you find that you cannot sleep, do not stay in bed for hours. Instead, get up for a bit, and try to do an activity before returning to bed again. This will help to keep your sleeping environment only for sleeping.
How can I evaluate my sleep?
Understanding your personal sleeping pattern is the first step to making the changes you need. Keeping a sleep diary will help to do just that!
With a sleep diary, you can record when you go to bed, how long you sleep, and any factors or activities that might be influencing your sleeping cycle and quality. Then, you can make the changes you need to help you sleep better!
Log the type of day (e.g. work, school, day off), any caffeine, medications, alcohol, exercise, or napping throughout the day, and your stress levels. Eventually, you will have an overview of your sleep- related habits and how these might be affecting your sleep times and sleep quality.
Click here to download a sleep diary template.
If you notice your sleeping pattern is interfering with your day-to-day life or causing you distress, speak to your doctor for support.