Diet and exercise have long reigned as the cornerstones of human health, with multi-billion dollar industries dedicated to lecturing us that eating well and moving often are the keys to a long life. As it turns out, there is a third piece to the puzzle: sleep.
Studies have been conducted, foundations have been established, and mattress startups have sky-rocketed. The verdict is in: sleep is important. Not just the quantity, but also the quality. A solid nighttime routine is beneficial not only for infants and children, but also for adults. A number of studies suggest that most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep for optimal performance (though some people are able to function on a mere 4 or 5 hours).
Why is sleep important?
- Good quality sleep enables better cognitive function, concentration, and productivity.
- Inconsistent bedtimes may disrupt one’s circadian rhythm, which may lead to weight gain and metabolic disturbances.
- Our satiety levels, hunger cues, and our metabolism are closely connected to two hormones called leptin and ghrelin. Leptin dictates our feelings of satiety, while ghrelin dictates our feelings of hunger. While we sleep, leptin levels increase and ghrelin levels decrease, signalling to our brains that we have sufficient energy and that there is no need to feel hungry. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies don’t produce enough leptin, and don’t reduce ghrelin levels enough. As a result, when we are sleep-deprived, we tend to feel a sensation of constant hunger, and our metabolisms can be slowed down.
- For athletes and moderately active people alike, physical performance is negatively affected by insufficient sleep. Our muscles heal when we sleep, helping us recover from intense exercise and prepare us for further training. Sleep also helps our coordination and mental functioning.
- The relationship between depression and sleep is a complex two-way street: bad sleep can contribute to depression, and depression can cause sleep issues. It is a similar story with anxiety. Trying to improve sleep hygiene could be a good first step toward combatting anxiety and depression.
- A review of 15 studies concluded that sleep-deprived individuals bear a higher risk of heart disease or stroke than individuals who achieve 7–8 hours of sleep per night.
- Getting enough sleep is vital for proper immune system function: one study, which administered individuals with the cold virus, found that those who slept less than seven hours were nearly 3x more likely to develop a cold than those who slept 8+ hours.
As Arianna Huffington (author of the bestselling Sleep Revolution) puts it: “sleep is a fundamental and non-negotiable human need”.
Discover our favourite bed-time tricks for good sleep, ranging from evidence-based to the purely anecdotal.
Full Sensory Deprivation
Especially for those living in a city, sleep masks and earplugs can make a huge difference by blocking out light and noise pollution. Our circadian rhythm (internal clock) is affected by light, and we’re more likely to fall asleep when we are in the dark.
On that note: reduce or eliminate screen time before bed. In an ideal world, keep all technology (TVs, phones, and computers) in a separate room, and allow only a reading lamp before bedtime.
Write it Out
If you find yourself tossing and turning with thoughts racing through your head, write down your thought-stream (with pen and paper, not on a device). If you’re anxious about the next day’s tasks, try the Ivy Lee method: every night, write down tomorrow’s six most crucial tasks, in order of importance. The next day, complete them one at a time, only moving on once the current one is completed. This simple method forces you to prioritize your goals and helps eliminate decision fatigue.
Sweat – at the right time
Exercising regularly can help you not only fall asleep faster, but also stay asleep. Experts recommend exercising at least three hours before bedtime, ideally in the afternoon.
Snack & drink strategically
Caffeine and sugar can all affect the quality of our sleep, which in turn makes us dependent on more caffeine and sugar to stay awake the following day – a vicious cycle which is difficult to break. Phase out caffeine and sugar intake in the afternoon, and try herbal teas instead. Experts also recommend not eating heavy meals too close to bedtime, as they might hinder you from falling asleep.
Some expert-recommended nighttime foods include:
Almonds: a good source of magnesium and melatonin, almonds are a reliable nighttime snack – an ounce or about a handful should be enough.
Turkey is a source of the amino acid tryptophan, which is known to promote sleepiness. It is also composed of mostly protein, which has been shown to improve sleep quality and help you stay asleep through the night.
Herbal teas: non-caffeinated teas can help promote a sense of calm in the evening. Try a blend of lime blossoms, liquorice root, and moringa leaves.
Set the scene
The average person spends 33 years of their life asleep (or trying to fall asleep) – so you might as well make them count. Invest in comfortable pyjamas, a high-quality mattress and cozy bed-sheets. Bonus tip: silk pillowcases reduce friction, skin irritation and hair tangling – so you wake up feeling and looking fresh-faced.
Take a look at your current sleep routine, pinpoint the causes of any issues, and tackle them one by one – but have patience. Stressing out about not sleeping enough is nothing but counterproductive, so if a night doesn’t go according to plan, try again next evening. Sooner than you think, you will drift off in no time and wake up ready to face the day. .