Sleep and It's Impact on Our Wellbeing

Why We Sleep? By Matthew Walker - A Brief Summary of a Must Read

I have just finished reading a book about something that occupies us for around a third of our lives; sleep. Far from helping me drift off at bedtime, I have barely been able to put this book down. Sleep fascinates me, and while I have always known its importance to my own health, wellbeing and mental state, (and as a mother of two young boys I have experienced my fair share of sleep deprivation), I have gained a new insight into why the right amount of sleep is so important to us all.

Matthew Walker starts his book with the question; “do you think you got enough sleep this past week?”

I was startled to learn that even having one or two hours less sleep than the recommended eight hours a night can have detrimental effects to our immune system, increases risk of chronic disease and contributes to poor mental health just as a start.

One of the factors that determine sleep is a chemical called adenosine. This wonderful component continues to naturally increase in our bodies every moment we are awake. This means that when we are ready to sleep at night we have enough sleep tension to fall asleep quickly and naturally. This concentration peak will happen in most people after twelve to sixteen hours of being awake. However there is a commonly consumed stimulant that artificially mutes the sleep signal of adenosine; caffeine. Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive (a chemical that changes a persons mental state) stimulant in the world.

The effects of caffeine will peak in our systems about half an hour after consumption and can then take five to seven hours for half of the caffeine to leave our system. This may explain why caffeine can affect our sleep even though it was early afternoon since our last caffeine hit. Caffeine is of course in coffee and tea but also in energy drinks, chocolate, ice cream, cereals and puddings. Even decaffeinated drinks can contain 15-30% of the caffeine of regular caffeinated drinks.

I worry when I think about how much coffee some people consume to get them through the day, and am even more concerned when I see the volume of energy drinks that many teenagers consume on a daily basis.

Sleep has also been linked to how effectively we learn and retain information, how quickly we recover from illness and injury and most interestingly for me, the effects on our mental health. Walker’s research showed that when we are sleep deprived the emotion centres of the brain are excessively reactive. In further investigation he found that the amygdala (the emotional gas pedal) and pre-frontal cortex of the brain (the regulatory brake) work together to regulate our emotions, and when sleep is lacking, the strong coupling between these two regions is lost. This can cause an inappropriate stress response to something you wouldn’t usually get stressed about as well as causing mood swings and hyperactivity at times.

Why We Sleep highlights the importance of sleep to every factor of our being, including our mental health. There are many factors in our modern world that prevent us from sleeping adequately and these include caffeine, alcohol, LED lights from screens and artificial lighting, constant heating and rooms being too warm, as well as sleeping tablets (as these induce sedation and not a natural sleep). It seems that the modern world presents us with many barriers to sleep; potentially inhibiting the very thing that could make the greatest improvement to our wellbeing.

I have only scratched the surface of what this insightful book has to offer, it is jammed pack full of research, statistics and one man’s passion about sleep and wellbeing.

Here are 12 tips for better sleep from NIH Medline plus:

1) Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day

2) Exercise 30 minutes a day and no later than 8pm

3) Avoid alcohol

4) Avoid caffeine and nicotine

5) Avoid large meals in the evening

6) Avoid medication that delays or disrupts sleep

7) If you nap do it before 3pm

8) Relax before bed perhaps read a book or listen to music

9) Take a hot bath

10) Ensure your bedroom is dark, cool and free from gadgets

11) Have exposure to natural sunlight during the day

12) If it takes longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep and you feel anxious or are worrying about something, get up rather and engage in some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy then try again.

I hope this has inspired you to get a goodnight sleep but for now I’m off for a nap!