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Preventive Health & Prioritising Good Quality Sleep

Relax, Restore, Rebalance: Prioritising good quality sleep.

Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the research on Sleep Health and provide tips and strategies that will help those who wish to establish more health conducive sleep habits and routines in our ‘Sleep Hygiene Series’.

PREVENTIVE HEALTH & SLEEP: PART I

Instinctively, we all know our ABCs of health: eat well, drink water & exercise in order to keep our body running well, and to help stave off preventable ailments – from the inhibitive (wear and tear injuries due to lack of conditioning, aches and pains from carrying a little extra weight), to the chronic (Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure & cholesterol, arthritis & other inflammatory auto-immune issues). But more often than not, despite being told to ‘rest up & heal’ or to prioritise a good night’s sleep, we consider THIS advice to be a soft suggestion, and not a health necessity.

SOCIETY & ATTITUDES

The interesting thing about this attitude is that it carries the opposite to the ‘shame’ label we collectively use if we are neglecting our basic health ABCs. When we don’t exercise, or we eat too many sugary snacks, we often feel guilty, feel we are being ‘bad’, and try to explain ourselves to others – or make pronouncements that we are going to change our habits once and for all. We gain social credit and admiration if we post photos of our daily walk/run/gym session. We get applauded for our discipline if we say ‘no’ to dessert.

BUT… when we grumble about the amount of sleep we are getting, it isn’t received as a label worthy of shame. It is instead seen as a badge of honour: that we are strong, that we are warriors, marching on through fatigue, unable to find enough hours in the day, and finding sleep to be the one thing that is dispensable on our list of to-do’s. Yes, we feel a deep empathy when someone speaks about being kept up all night with the kids, or with stress-induced broken sleep, but we admire that they carry on regardless. We miss what they are really telling us: ‘my complex body is running on fumes’.

RUNNING ON EMPTY

Let’s think about this in terms of what it is saying about our relationship to our bodies: we are saying that our body must serve us, must run on caffeine, nutrient poor snacks and determination, because we have duties and need to get things done. But we won’t let it do what it needs to, in order to do these things well: REST.

Anyone running on little (or poor quality) sleep knows too well the consequences: brain fog, irritability, hypersensitivity, anxiety, sluggish digestion, palpitations (exacerbated by the artificial ‘fuel’ we require). Our ability to concentrate, to pay attention to detail, can cause disastrous mistakes in the work that we are depriving ourselves of sleep in order to prioritise – ie, it is self-defeating.  It can affect your ability to drive, to problem solve, to parent, to keep up with your daily responsibilities. It can make us clumsy or careless in important tasks. It affects motivation. You may nod off or become dazed during important conversations. In other words: lack of sleep affects our social, interpersonal, mental & parental functioning/wellbeing.

STUDIES SHOW THAT THE LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES OF POOR SLEEP ARE SERIOUS

“For the cardiovascular system, insufficient or fragmented sleep can contribute to problems with blood pressure and heighten the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes and stroke.” (Sleep Foundation)

It is clinically proven that poor quality sleep affects all of our systems – including/not limited to: Endocrine (hormonal), Cardiovascular/Respiratory, Nervous System, Digestive System. It can make us insulin resistant, leading to complications with fertility and diabetes. It can lead to compromised heart health and hindered aerobic capacity; it can make us anxious or prone to mood swings beyond our control (creating personal/professional obstacles); and it can disrupt our gut microbiome – making us sluggish, lowering immunity, and creating discomfort that can lead to more serious gut ailments (IBS, food intolerances, Crohn’s).

“Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information”

“Sleep plays an important role in your physical health. For example, sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity. For example, one study of teenagers showed that with each hour of sleep lost, the odds of becoming obese went up. Sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity in other age groups as well. Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than if you were well rested.” (NHLBI – National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (US))

IF WE WANT TO DO WELL, WE NEED TO BE WELL

Sleep issues are endemic, and pervasive attitudes such as ‘Work hard to prove your worth’, ‘Work hard, play hard’, or ‘Sleep when you’re dead’ are not just cavalier, but a result of a society wide value system. We need to change our relationship with sleep; to first and foremost recognise that it is the foundational block in actually being ABLE to work hard, do well, and be a more competent person, parent, friend, and colleague.

WHAT CAN WE DO? SLEEP HYGIENE

Sleep Hygiene is a school of thought that centres on creating routines and sleep cues that will help your body begin to unwind and prepare for sleep. The aim is to make it easier to fall asleep, and to ensure a better quality of sleep (that is unbroken and successfully rests the body). Sleep hygiene is a fast growing area of research, and there is a lot of knowledge being uncovered by dedicated institutes. Over the next month, we will look at tips and advice from experts and look at recent research to help guide you to find your own particular Sleep Hygiene habits.

It’s important to note that chronic classified sleep issues such as insomnia are much more difficult to solve than simply changing our value system. These are very real and very hard afflictions to deal with and not everyone can simply just get more sleep because we want to or know we must.

For those who are suffering with chronic sleep issues, whether related to anxiety, stress or a lifelong circadian disruption, it is of vital importance to seek help from professionals. Your GP can advise you or refer you to expert consultants who are trained to help you with your specific relationship with sleep.

RESOURCES

http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/health

https://www2.hse.ie/mental-health-issues/sleep/

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/

https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/education-and-awareness/sleep-health