Why do we need sleep anyway? | R.L.

Did you know that the quality and number of hours sleep we get is strongly associated with how long we live and our overall health. Research shows that those who get less than 6 hours sleep a night are 12% more likely to die prematurely than those who get at least 8 hours. Not only that but chronic sleep deprivation is associated with heart disease, poor cognition or brain function and may even contribute to early onset Alzheimers disease.

With so much depending on good quality slumber, why do we struggle to look after this element of our health. An American study reported that one in 3 people rate their sleep quality as ‘poor’. 1 in 5 wake up feeling ‘unrefreshed’ and just as tired as before they go to bed!

Many of us take it for granted that our sleep will be interrupted. Perhaps you have young children who like to snuggle at night and who enjoy kicking you to a pulp while they dream away peacefully. Maybe you work night shifts and your home during the day is a hive of activity, noise and light, preventing you from getting proper rest. It may seem there is little you can do to help get uninterrupted time to rejuvenate at night.

Why do we need sleep anyway? Why can’t we just keep on going? Why is it necessary? Without sleep we are at risk of sudden death. Deliberate sleep deprivation, when people have been deprived of rest for 7 or more days has a high risk of collapse and seizure. It seems our brains need the downtime to eliminate waste products and reload our neurological cells with the right chemicals to help us function. All the thinking, sensory processing, body muscle movement and other automated activity that the brain is responsible for, requires a daily clean out of waste metabolites and a system reset to continue. It’s a bit like leaving your laptop on without ever accepting the software updates; eventually all the applications grind to a halt. Other body organs also need sleep and rest time to recover. Our muscles use this time to repair micro damage and our immune system sends specialist cells around the body mopping up infection. Sleep may even determine how well we can protect ourselves from cancer. Melatonin and cortisol are two hormones thought to be regulators for the development of cancer. The production of both hormones is affected by a lack of sleep.

With that in mind, what can you do to improve your chances of of getting a good night’s rest. Sleep hygiene is all important. No caffeine after 3pm. Harsh I know, but caffeine hangs around in your bloodstream for a long time. If you have an espresso after dinner you will be likely be staring at the ceiling when you could be dreaming instead. No screens, phones, laptops or television in bed. Blue light emitted from screens alters the production of Melatonin and makes it much harder to sleep. Your body responds to blue light as if it is dawn and it causes you to remain alert. Watch your fluid and especially alcohol intake. Your kidneys continue to produce urine (more after alcohol) at night. A full bladder sends a repeat alarm signal to your brain to wake you.

Try not to drink anything after 7pm. If you enjoy exercise, again try to exercise early in the day as going to bed with lots of adrenaline and a pounding heart after a late burst of energy will prevent you switching off your mind.

Address stress and unresolved conflict in your life. Our subconscious has a way of raising its hand in the middle of the night to ask questions. If left unattended, we may wake up to recurrent troublesome thoughts, leaving us exhausted in the morning. As lovely as it is to cuddle, take the time to train your kids to sleep in their own beds. Ask your snoring partner to see the doctor about their noisy nose.

Finally, if you can afford to, spend a little money on a good bed, a decent mattress and a comfortable set of covers; afterall you will spend up to a third of our lives in the scratcher. Given the health benefits it will be worth every bit of your investment.