Sleep, according to natural medicine practitioner Dr Joseph Mercola, ‘is one of the great mysteries of life. We still don’t understand exactly why we sleep.’ We do know, however, that too little sleep can damage our health.

Those precious six to eight hours of good sleep every night are vital for good physical, mental and emotional health. Too little or too much can have the adverse effect. In truth, how many of us suffer with insomnia, lie tossing and turning at night, worrying about our problems and watching the hours pass with increasing anxiety?

The sleep cycle

Do you tend to sacrifice sleep because your workday went on longer than planned and you want to watch some late-night TV to chill out? My hand is raised. Is yours? It’s no comfort to know that too little sleep can have serious, far-reaching effects on your health.

Several studies have shown that healthy sleep habits are linked to better cognition, alertness and emotional wellbeing, says US neurologist Dr Ina E. Djonlagic. ‘It’s not just about the amount of time, but also about the timing of our sleep schedules, our biological clocks, that we need to be aware of,’ she says, and offers an example. ‘This is especially important in teenagers who, at the onset of puberty, undergo changes in their circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep. This is linked to the brain’s release of melatonin, the chemical that helps us sleep. Teenage brains tell the body to go to sleep at 23h00. At the same time, their bodies still require at least nine hours of sleep per night. So it’s unsurprising that studies show that students who have later start times get better results and are less depressed and irritable.’

The teenage study group reported being more motivated to do their schoolwork and more able to assimilate new information. The reason? When we sleep, our brains process information from the day, fixing the details in our heads and even finding new insights into problems. That’s why insomnia and other sleep problems need to be addressed.

Too little sleep? Restless sleep? Here’s the bad news

Insomnia or sleep problems can:

  1. Weaken your immune system.
  2. Impair your memory. Even one night of poor sleep (you’ve dozed for a mere four to six hours) can affect your ability to think clearly the next day. And the effects are cumulative. Persistent insomnia and sleep problems can severely impair your ability to function effectively, leaving you struggling to fulfil normal physical or mental tasks.
  3. Make you moody and irritable.
  4. Contribute to the development of some psychiatric disorders, such as depression.
  5. Allow tumors to grow faster – according to Dr Mercola, ‘tumors grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions.’ When your sleeping patterns are disrupted, he continues, your body produces less of the hormone and anti-oxidant melatonin and ‘has less ability to fight cancer, since melatonin helps suppress free radicals that can lead to cancer.’
  6. Make you hungry, even if you’ve already eaten. That’s bad news for weight control and the possibility of diabetes.
  7. Increase your chance of stress-related disorders such as heart disease, stomach ulcers and constipation.
  8. Interrupt your growth hormone production, leading to premature ageing.

How much sleep do you need?

For most people, six to eight hours of good sleep is one of the cornerstones of health.
Insomnia or sleep problems can make your life miserable; persistent lack of sleep can make it unbearable. If you live with insomnia, you need to address your sleep issues. That’s where we come to the good news.

The good news: you can improve your sleep problems

  1. Go to bed at the same time every night. Yes, on weekends too. This will help your body establish a regular sleep pattern, making it easier to fall asleep and get up in the morning.
  2. Put your work away at least one hour before bedtime. Leave the last hour or two before bedtime to unwind. You’ll be less likely to feel anxious about the next day at the office and more likely to fall asleep.
  3. Reserve your bedroom for sleeping. If you usually watch TV or work in bed, you may find it harder to relax and drift off to sleep, so avoid doing these activities in bed. They stimulate the brain, preventing you from falling asleep quickly.
  4. Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Draw the curtains (blackout blinds are the best for sleep); switch off all lights in the house. Shafts of light pass directly through your optic nerve to your hypothalamus, says Dr Mercola, which controls your biological clock. ‘Light signals your brain that it’s time to wake up and starts preparing your body for action.’
  5. Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 15–20 degrees Celsius. Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to sleep problems and insomnia. When you sleep, your body’s internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body’s natural temperature drop.
  6. Don’t drink any fluids within two hours of going to bed to reduce the likelihood of your needing to go to the bathroom, or at least minimise the frequency. Instead, eat a high-protein snack several hours before bed, Dr Mercola recommends. It can provide the L-tryptophan needed for your melatonin and serotonin production. A small piece of fruit can help the tryptophan cross your blood-brain barrier. Try not to have bedtime snacks, especially grains and sugars, which raise your blood sugar and delay sleep.
  7. Take a hot bath or shower before bed. When your body temperature is raised in the late evening, it will fall at bedtime, facilitating slumber. The temperature drop from getting out of the bath signals your body it’s time for bed.
  8. Wear socks to bed. Feet often feel cold before the rest of the body because they have the poorest circulation. A study has shown that wearing socks to bed helps prevent sleep problems.
  9. Read something spiritual or uplifting. This may help you relax. Don’t read anything stimulating, such as a mystery or suspense novel, which has the opposite effect. In addition, if you are really enjoying a gripping book, you might be tempted to go on reading for hours, instead of going to sleep!
  10. Keep a journal.If your mind races at bedtime, it might be helpful to keep a journal and write down your thoughts before bed. It’s one way to put the day’s events behind you and banish insomnia.

Acknowledgements & Photo credits

Article compiled for Flora Force by Judy Beyer.

References

  1. Djonlagic, I. E. How does sleep affect mental wellness? The Huffington Post, Oct. 2012. www.huffingtonpost.com/ina-e-djonlagic-md/sleep-mental-wellness_b_1971107.html
  2. Mercola, J. Want a good night’s sleep? Mercola.com, Oct 2010. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/10/02/secrets-to-a-good-night-sleep.aspx
  3. Sleep and mental health. Harvard Mental Health Newsletter. Harvard Medical School, July 2009. www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2009/July/Sleep-and-mental-health

Photos

  1. Courtesy of Warintr / Pixabay.com