If your health score assessment has highlighted sleep as an area of improvement then please read this resource as it contains some useful information and resources to help you improve your sleep health.
Why sleep is so important
Imagine an intervention that could achieve the following and more:
- Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
- Improve your ability to maintain good body composition
- Manage appetite and food cravings
- Reduce your risk of injury
- Improve physical and mental performance
- Reduce your risk of cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s
- Improve areas of the immune system associated with reducing cancer risk or fighting cancer
- Improve your motivation levels and combat all types of mood disorders
Now imagine that this intervention was free and something that you have almost 100% control over.
If this was a medication or a supplement, it would be the most powerful substance known to man.
Welcome to the world of sleep!
The prevalence of poor sleep
Interestingly 36% of your life will be spent asleep. Let’s say you live to 82 years old, the current UK average life expectancy; this means you will spend just short of 30 years sleeping.
Many people will look at the above statistic and think “what a waste of time”. As a species we significantly undervalue sleep, in fact we are the only species on this planet that intentionally tries to limit its sleep. Instead we as humans often buy into the sayings “I’ll sleep when I die” or as Margaret Thatcher is reported to have once said, “sleep is for wimps”.
The truth of the matter is, if you want to be a wimp then deprive yourself of sleep. Statistically the more you deprive yourself of sleep the higher your risk of all-cause mortality, that basically says the less sleep you have the higher the risk of death.
Only 100 years ago the average sleep was around 7.9 hours per night and these days we are averaging around 6.3hours sleep per night. That is around a 15% decrease in an activity that our body has evolved over 3.6 million years to prioritise 1/3 of our lives to it. This doesn’t even take into consideration the quality of the average 6.3 hours that most people get these days.
The challenge that we often have is that subjectively we think that our sleep is fine and that it is not impacting our ability to function, much the same way a drink driver may not think their physical capabilities are impacted by 1-2 drinks at lunch. This however is far from the truth, in fact sleep restriction has been shown to make you perform similar to someone who has had a few alcoholic drinks, both physically and mentally.
I scored high in the sleep section, what next?
In my forthcoming book The SEMBR Solution, covers my five foundations of optimal health:
The first foundational area I speak about is sleep. I will be going into more detail about sleep, how it impacts our physiology, what imbalances and conditions have been associated with poor sleep and what the primary changes are that you can make to optimise your sleep and safeguard your health.
Until my book is released, I wanted to at least provide some initial recommendations and links to useful resources, so you can make some initial changes or engage in content from sleep experts that I have already learnt so much from, and of which much of my work will be refining and summarising.
Three areas to help optimise your sleep health
Establish a pre-sleep & daytime routines
Pre-sleep routines are about putting in place measures that support your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). The release of hormones and brain chemicals that support sleep or support being in a more wakeful state are influenced by areas such as the light we expose ourselves to, the time of day we eat and the general activities that we do throughout the day.
Here are some routine based tips you may want to consider:
- For at least 30 minutes, but ideally more like 90 minutes, minimise or eliminate any exposure to blue light. That’s the type of light you get from phones, tablets/ipads, TV, laptops etc. If you do have to use a device then switch it to night-mode or buy yourself some blue light glasses that you can wear to help block out the blue light.
- Avoid eating for at least 90 minutes, but ideally more like 180 minutes before going to bed. In the evening the natural rhythm is such that the ability to digest food reduces and poor digestion of food can also disturb sleep. In fact, you can use meal timing to help the body overcome jet lag more efficiently (more about that in the book). If you are craving food after your evening meal, try changing your routine, brush your teeth early, take a gentle walk etc to help break that cycle.
- Have a work cut off time, try and make this at least 2 hours before your ideal going to bedtime. Working right up to going to bed is not an option. Work needs to fit around self-care not the other way around. If you are struggling to know how to do this without quitting your job then this is where I recommend 1-2-1 coaching.
- Be consistent with what time you go to bed and more importantly what time you wake up in the morning. Expose yourself to as much light as possible in the early part of the day and throughout the day. This means getting outside, ideally in nature/natural environments. Light exposure in the day and being in nature can do wonders for sleep quality at night.
- Keep intensive exercise to during the day. High intensity exercise can significantly increase adrenaline and cortisol causing the body to feel more awake. Following exercise, it can take a little time for the cortisol to lower and then allow the sleep hormone melatonin to increase. Some stretching exercises, taking a walk etc are options for movement in the 2-3 hours before bed if you so wish.
- Spread your water intake through the day rather than drinking loads at night before bed. High levels at the back end of the day is more likely to cause night-time urination.
Manage caffeine and alcohol appropriately
Now we are talking about the substances that can have negative impacts on the ability to get to sleep, stay asleep or the quality of sleep.
Two of the most frequently used substances are two of the worst substances for sleep health.
Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, cola, chocolate etc is a stimulant with a half-life of around 4-8 hours (depending on the individual). These means after 4-8 hours there is still half the amount of caffeine in your system from the original dose. Caffeine is well established as a substance that negatively impacts sleep.
If you have really poor sleep I recommend a break from caffeine for at least a month or a significant reduction and no caffeine after 12pm.
Alcohol is less well known for its ability to negatively impact sleep, however it is equally as detrimental, perhaps more detrimental. Whilst alcohol does have sedative effects, meaning you may find it useful to shut down and get to sleep, the impact on the quality of sleep and particular stages of sleep is disastrous. Unfortunately, because of its use as a sedative we can build up a positive association with alcohol and getting to sleep. This often puts people off wanting to remove alcohol because of the association and dependency that they have developed.
If shutting down is a challenge for you, other areas need to be worked on and alcohol cannot continue to be the sedative that you rely upon. Instead review tip one about establishing a pre-bed routine again. In addition, try adding something in to replace the alcohol.
- Meditation and mindfulness practice are especially good when there are pre-existing dependencies, and someone feels wired and unable to sleep. Apps like Calm and Headspace I have found to be very useful. We also offer Meditation and Mindfulness coaching with my colleague David Behrens (Add link to mindfulness page).
- Read a book or consider an audiobook. You can even have a bedtime story read to you on the Calm app.
- Take an Epsom salt bath. Epsom salts are magnesium sulphate. Magnesium can be absorbed transdermally through the skin and when blood levels of magnesium increase this can aid in relaxing the muscles and also the mind. The process of running a bath and taking time out for one’s self, I think, is also an important part of the relaxing nature of an Epsom salt bath.
- Do intense exercise in the daytime and relaxing exercise in the evening. Exerting yourself in the day can help to manage stress and improve your resilience to stress, whilst stretching or taking a walk in the evening may help to lower stress levels and wind down the mind.
Create an environment for sleep
Your bedroom is not an extension of your office, living room or dining room table. Your bedroom is a place for sleep and hopefully sex.
This means refraining from bringing work into your bedroom, avoiding eating in your bedroom and avoiding watching the latest Netflix or Prime series in your bedroom.
Some other areas of consideration to help improve your sleep environment include:
- Temperature. We sleep better in cooler environments. If your bedroom gets hot, especially in the summer then do what you can to cool it, whether that is purchasing an air conditioning unit, opening the window etc. You can also choose to sleep naked if you so wish as well. Interestingly taking a warm shower before bed can help to cool your core temperature and thus positively impacting sleep.
- Choose a mattress and pillow that helps to maintain proper spinal alignment.
- Ensure you do not have any allergies to any of the bedding/pillows etc that you are using. Also wash your sheets regularly to remove any pollen, dirt etc that might impact breathing. A blocked nose can lead to decreased nasal breathing (something that is associated with poorer sleep) and as a result cause mouth breathing and a dry mouth. This can disturb your sleep as you reach for a glass of water through the night.
- Get in sync with your partner. All too often I hear of couples sleeping at different times. One is a night owl and the other is not. Unfortunately, they end up disturbing each other’s sleep. Conversations need to take place to find a routine that enables both to get adequate sleep without being disturbed.
- Address the disturbances in the night. Whether it is kids always wanting to sleep with you or a partner snoring their head off. You will need to address the other people that influence your sleep. This cannot be ignored and if the family need a sleep coach or if the partner needs to address their sleep position or lose some weight to stop snoring then so be it.
I hope you have found this content useful. If you feel that you could benefit from additional support in this area, don’t hesitate to get in touch using the enquiry form below.
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- Wy we sleep by Matthew Walker
- Sleep by Nick Littlehales
- The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Meadows
- The Effortless Sleep Method by Sasha Stephens