The Power of Sleep

This week is National Sleep Awareness Week, concluding with World Sleep Day today, so only fitting I talk about the power of sleep.

We are all aware of the importance of exercise and diet on our health, but often the importance of sleep is overlooked. In my workplace wellbeing business I always spend a lot of time with my clients looking at the impact sleep has on our physical wellbeing. This concept is certainly not new, and I think we are all well aware of how our bodies feel when we don’t get enough sleep. I remember reading somewhere that sleep deprivation has been used in the past as a form of torture, well having had three babies I can certainly attest to understanding how bad you can feel if you don’t get enough sleep! And of course, as a professional athlete sleep was a hugely important part of my training schedule. Not getting enough quality sleep could certainly have had the potential to negatively affect my performance. And as well as finding it hard to physically perform, lack of sleep can lead to reduced immunity, which in turn can lead to illness. So, the power of sleep is not to be underestimated!

But are you also aware of the negative impact sleep can have on your emotional wellbeing? Research shows that sleep is essential for cognitive performance, especially memory consolidation. Sleep deprivation increases activity in the emotional rapid response centre of the brain – an area known as the amygdala. This part of the brain controls our emotional reactions and when we don’t get enough sleep the amygdala goes into overdrive, causing us to respond more intensely in situations. For the one in four that suffer with mental health issues, sleep disturbance exacerbates this, with scientists at the University of California finding that sleep deprivation increases anticipatory anxiety. This past year has been such a challenge mentally for so many of us and making sure we are sleeping well really will make a difference to how we can cope in these uncertain times.

As we get older we often see a change in the quantity and quality of our sleep. Changes in production of hormones, such as melatonin and cortisol, play a role in the disruption of our sleep as we age, whilst sleep disorders such as insomnia, teeth grinding, and sleep apnoea become more common. Because of this it’s really important that those of us who are over 50 do everything we can to achieve a good night’s sleep. Interestingly a study at Northwestern University in the US found that older adults who increased their aerobic exercise found dramatic improvements in their quality of sleep, as well as fewer depressive symptoms, therefore proving how important it is to keep exercising as we age. Something I am very happy about!

Despite sleep problems affecting the quality of life for so many, it’s really important to remember that most are preventable or treatable. To optimise your sleep I recommend following a few simple rules:

- Dim the lights around you an hour before bedtime and turn off all screens including your phone, as the electromagnetic fields from these devices can stimulate us.

- Try not to eat too late in the day, but if you do need to eat certain foods can help with the release of hormones needed for sleep, including salmon, bananas, brazil nuts and cottage cheese.

- Relax your body with a warm bath or some gentle stretches but avoid exercise in the two hours before you sleep.

- Avoid snacking on sugary foods before bed as they raise blood sugar and inhibit sleep, and don’t have any caffeine-based drinks or alcohol after 4pm, try herbal teas instead.

Make your sleeping environment as quiet and dark as possible.

If you are waking in the night to go to the toilet, try and avoid drinking in the three hours before bed.

Remember, whatever your age, regular sleep has the power to contribute to a healthy future.



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