Last Updated on 15th March 2019
Clinical Psychologist and Counsellor, India
“And He it is Who has made the night a covering for you, and Who has made sleep for rest, and has made the day for rising up.” (The Holy Quran, Ch.25: V.48)
Sleep is one of those things that should come naturally, and for many it does. However for some individuals, a restless night is a routine. Our bodies require a tranquil “rest and relaxation” period in order to revitalise themselves. To understand more on why sleep is important, think of your body as a factory carrying out vital functions or tasks and as you drift off to sleep, your body begins its night shift work. An adequate amount of sleep is crucial to mental, emotional and physical health. The widespread practice of “burning the candle at both ends” in industrialised societies (meaning overworking yourself) has created so much sleep deprivation that it has now become the norm.
Improper sleep leads to more than just the feeling of being tired or groggy, it actually interferes with one’s cognitive functions which includes impairments of attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, problem solving and decision making abilities. This places people at risk for automobile and work-related accidents. In children, sleep deprivation can lead to learning disabilities and poor memory.
Recent research has shown that sleep plays a role in “consolidating” memories in the mind; if you don’t get sufficient sleep, you may find it difficult to retreive information learnt from the previous day.
On the other hand, sleep is an integral part of emotional regulation and a lack of it leaves your emotions unstable and in disarray. One often feels grumpy, irritable, angry and impatient after a poor night’s sleep. Chronic sleep loss can adversely affect life by contributing to the development of health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
In the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, using mice, researchers showed for the first time that the space between brain cells may increase during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins that build up during waking hours. This evidence showed a good night’s sleep may literally clear the mind.
Understanding the sleep cycle
A closer look at sleep shows a good deal of activity occurring throughout the night and understanding what happens during sleep also means understanding the sleep cycle, which consists of two recurring phases: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). In addition to be termed as good quality sleep, these phases are imperative.
NREM sleep typically occupies most of the total sleep each night. There are many health benefits of this such as tissue growth and repair, while energy is restored and essential hormones for growth and development are released.
Most of your dreaming occurs during the REM stage. Dreaming is essential to our minds for processing and consolidating emotions and memories. It is also thought to be vital for learning and developing new skills.
If the REM and NREM cycles are interrupted multiple times throughout the night, either due to snoring, difficulties breathing or waking up frequently through the night, then we miss out on critical body and mind processes.
How much sleep is required
The amount of sleep each person needs depends on many factors, including age. Infant’s generally need about 16 hours a day, while teenagers need about 9 hours. For most adults, experts generally recommend at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
The amount of sleep a person requires also increases if a person has been deprived of sleep in previous days. Getting too little sleep creates a “sleep debt”, and eventually, your body will demand that the debt be repaid.
It normally takes 10-30 minutes to fall asleep once you climb into bed (this is called sleep latency). If it takes more than this, then your body may be trying to tell you something. The first step here would be to try to improve your sleep hygiene, which brings us to the question, what is sleep hygiene?
While the word “hygiene” conjures up images of brushing teeth, washing hands and grooming hair, but sleep hygiene is different. It is a variety of different practices and behaviours that are necessary to have a good night sleep resulting in full daytime alertness.
Keeping your sleep time “clean” from waking activities will improve your sleep and overall quality of life as well.
Use the following practices to get a good night’s sleep:
Make good sleep a priority: Block out 7 hours for a full uninterrupted sleep. Develop sleep promoting slow bedtime routine; do the same things in the same order to cue your body and mind to slow down and relax
Maintain regularity: Set and stick to a bedtime schedule, sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every day to set your circadian rhythm or, in other words, your body’s internal or biological clock. This includes weekends and holidays too
Avoid stimulants: Alcohol, coffee, soft drinks, chocolates and nicotine post sunset should be avoided. These stimulants hamper one’s quality of sleep by decreasing the time spent in deep sleep leading to fragmented sleep and nocturnal restlessness. Try to avoid engaging in tasks that require attention and concentration including studying or any stimulating conversations
Keep it cool: Sleep in a slightly cool room as this helps the temperature in the brain to drop and helps you fall asleep quicker. Most importantly, don’t ever go to bed angry as this will not only feed the mind with racing thoughts, but will negatively affect relationships and cause persistent sleep disturbances.
Melatonin – the sleep hormone: We need darkness in the evening to allow the release of a hormone called melatonin (the chemical of sleep). This hormone prepares you for sleep and is inhibited by bright light. In this modern era, we are severely deprived of darkness, so try to dim lights down in your home an hour before bed; stay away from LED screens as they emit blue light that actually puts breaks on melatonin production and fools the brain into thinking it’s still daytime
Keep your bedroom for sleep only: The room should be a relaxing space, avoid working, studying or eating on the bed
Do not stay in bed awake: If you haven’t fallen asleep within 30 minutes of getting into bed or have woken up and finding difficult to fall asleep, the advice is to get up, go to another room and in a dim light try to meditate. Take in deep belly breaths; don’t use electronics, and definitely no food! Only when you feel sleepy should you return to bed, and that way your brain can actually re-learn the association between the bed being a place of sleep, rather than a place to stay awake
Sleep aiding accessories: Get earplugs, eye masks and sound conditioners. Extraneous noises in the bedroom can disrupt sleep; use whatever you need to create a serene environment. Try to ensure that the noise is consistent like white noise and not variable like a radio or television; the latter can disrupt your sleep rather than help it. There are many sleep trackers in the market to measure your quality of light and deep sleep. Tracking your sleep can give you vital insights into your overall health and well-being
Get a power nap: A short sleep session during the day ideally between 1-3pm, which should last no longer than 30 minutes can help you recharge and improve mood and performance. Any longer than 30 minutes and you run the risk of developing “sleep inertia” – the unpleasant muzzy feeling that takes a considerable amount of time to shake off
Avoid large meals 2 to 3 hours before bed: Try eating a salad or drinking a protein rich smoothie at night as this keeps your digestive system at ease and helps you fall asleep quicker and keeps acidity and indigestion at bay. Also, avoid consumption of large amounts of water close to bedtime for obvious reasons. Limit yourself to simple healthy and light snacks like nuts or seeds when studying late at night
Exercise to promote good quality sleep: Exercising during the day fosters sleep at night. Make physical activity a regular part of your life. 15-20 minutes of aerobic exercise such as brisk walking and cycling can positively affect sleep quality, especially in drastically reducing the time you take to fall asleep. However, exercising too close to bedtime may keep you wired and make it difficult to settle down, so always keep a 3 hour gap between your exercise and sleep time. If you are planning to workout in late evenings, more relaxing exercises like yoga with diaphragmatic breathing can help unwind real quick
Stress: If you find you are stressing over all the things you have to do, write them down in a sleep journal. Your prefrontal cortex is assigned to keep all these things active in your working memory. Writing the racing thoughts down can help alleviate stress to a great extent
Try magnesium rich foods like fish or fish oil, almonds, bananas, pumpkin seeds, warm milk, cherries or a glass of cherry juice before bed, mushrooms and dark leafy green vegetables in dinner. Magnesium relaxes muscles and eases anxiety around bedtime
Try a herbal route: Have a cup of chamomile tea 30 minutes before bed. Chamomile is regarded as a mild tranquiliser and sleep inducer as it aids in relaxing muscles and nerves and helps you fall asleep quicker
A few signs of poor sleep hygiene
Frequent sleep disturbances and day time sleepiness are the most telling signs of poor sleep hygiene. In addition, if you are taking too long to fall asleep, you should consider re-evaluating your sleep habits.
It is normal to have an occasional sleepless night, but if you find that it’s becoming a routine, then you should consider seeing a therapist to sort out deeper reasons behind sleepless nights.
You may be having conflicts that you are unaware of, which might be preventing you from sleeping peacefully. The therapist can help you develop a plan to address its causes and thereby help you accomplish a good night’s sleep every night.