We hear it often: sleep is so important! But why is that? What is the science behind the importance of sleep? Today we will explore how the body uses sleep and what happens as a result when we are well rested. I will explain how sleep relates so vitally to our personal self care routine.
To understand sleep, we must first start with a basic explanation of circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythm is a term used to describe the cycle of our mental and physical changes
in a 24 hour period as a response to light and temperature. This has been widely observed and demonstrated in people, animals, and even plants. Also referred to as the “body clock,” it is our body’s way of regulating many physiologic functions. For a more depth explanation, click here.
But essentially, our body is designed in a way to use the environmental cues around us to perform the functions necessary for us to live. And it does it in a way that maximizes efficiency by using cues like daylight or darkness to figure out when to start those functions!
Sleep is one of those important functions. During sleep, our bodies complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. We go through a night cycle pattern that lasts for approximately 90 minutes and alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). This cycle repeats throughout the night.
Things that happen during this cycle: we become disengaged from our surroundings, we have regular breathing and heart rate patterns, our core body temperature drops, our blood pressure drops, our muscles are relaxed and blood supply to those muscles increase, tissue growth and repair occurs, energy is restored, and hormones are released (such as growth hormone). Our body becomes immobile and relaxed, muscles are turned off. Cortisol levels drop while we sleep, and then increase when we wake, promoting alertness in the morning.
With regard to other hormones, our immune system is supported and we balance our appetites by helping to regulate levels of ghrelin and leptin, which play a role in our feelings of hunger and fullness.
Adults need between 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and kids need even more sleep than adults:
- Teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night.
- School-aged children need 9 to 12 hours of sleep each night.
- Preschoolers need to sleep between 10 and 13 hours a day (including naps).
- Toddlers need to sleep between 11 and 14 hours a day (including naps).
- Babies need to sleep between 12 and 16 hours a day (including naps).
Whew! That’s a lot of science! So what does that mean to us? Keep reading.
Sleep has been shown to do many positive things for us, such as:
- Decreasing illness
- Helping with weight control
- Lowering Risk for Diseases (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer)
- Reducing stress
- Improve mood
- Increase Memory
- Clarity in thinking (which allows us to make better decisions!)
Getting enough sleep isn’t only about total hours spent sleeping in a 24 hour period. It’s also about getting quality sleep on a regular basis. Here are some tips to help you develop a good sleep routine:
- Create a comfortable sleep environment~ make the room dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature. Use room darkening shades, ask others in the house to keep the noise down (or use a sound machine to drown outside noise). And get cozy bedding!
- Set a bedtime routine~ no media 30 minutes before sleep, do something relaxing such as reading a book, gentle stretching, taking a bath or shower, listening to music, or meditation
- Try to keep sleep and wake times consistent: this can sometimes be difficult, especially when you work different shifts. However, do your best to set the same hours of sleep per night, and see if you can set your schedule at work to “clump” your late shifts together so that there is consistency in those few days.
- Limit daytime naps. It is tempting when you are exhausted, and sometimes a power-nap is exactly what you need. Therefore if you need a nap, make it quick and no more than 20-40 minutes. Try to take it earlier in the day so that you can fall asleep in the evening at your planned bedtime.
- Get outside for some fresh air daily. This doesn’t have to be a strenuous exercise, even just a nice walk after dinner works! Or sitting outside having a cup of tea. Just sitting, breathing in the fresh air can help you get a good night’s sleep.
- Do not eat a big meal within 4 hours of sleep. Certain foods take longer to digest and sit heavily in the stomach. This can cause heartburn and indigestion which can interfere with sleep, so healthcare providers recommend nothing to eat 4 hours prior to bed.
- Try to clear your mind. If you have things that your are worried about, then journal. If you have a busy week, make a list. Studies show that writing things down helps our mind “let go” and fall asleep with less stress.
Many things can make it harder for you to not only fall asleep, but stay asleep as well. These include pain (chronic or acute), stress, anxiety, caffeine, alcohol, certain medications, and medical disorders such as sleep apnea, heartburn, or asthma. If you are having sleep difficulties, keep a journal. Evaluate your day: what did you eat/drink? how was your stress level? what were the things that woke you up in the middle of the night? what was on your mind as you were falling asleep? Then as you identify patterns and possible causes for your poor sleep, follow up. Make sure to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider if you are concerned with underlying medical causes.
I know this is a lot of information, and each area can be explored more in depth. But for now, this is a good starting point and has shown how important sleep really is! What is your nightly sleep routine? Comment below!