I was coaching a client recently who had been reprimanded by their manager for an emotional outburst at a leadership team meeting. Not just a mild emotional outburst but one that involved him throwing a coffee cup across a boardroom table at a peer who just wouldn’t let up. And yes, the coffee cup was full and still pretty hot! A potential career-limiting move, not to mention a safety risk.
It turns out that my client hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, and the pressure he was under at work had been unrelenting for several months. ‘If I get 4 hours a night (of sleep) I am lucky” he lamented. Even my partner has moved to our spare room because they cannot take the tossing and turning during the night.
Lack of sleep raises our stress levels, and high-stress levels affect our sleep. We know from research that 75% of insomnia is caused by stress and that a night of poor sleep can make us cranky the next day. Now, this doesn’t mean that we start throwing coffee cups around when we are tired. However, if we are exhausted and energy depleted due to lack of sleep, the chances are that we are more emotionally labile, less patient and willing to compromise and more likely to react to situations versus respond thoughtfully and deliberately.
Getting quality sleep regularly can help improve all sorts of issues, from our mood to our ability to focus. If you are one of those “I only need 3-4 hours of sleep a night thank you very much” then it would be worth highlighting what a good night’s sleep can do for us. And when we talk about a good night’s sleep, sleep studies show that 8-9 hours of sleep is ideal regardless of our adult age. Yes, isn’t that nirvana you may be thinking; however, it is worth looking at why.
Have you ever found it difficult to concentrate or recall information after a lousy night’s sleep? That’s because sleep plays a big part in both learning and memory. Without enough sleep, it’s tough to focus and take in new information. Our brain also doesn’t have enough time to properly store memories so we can pull them up later. Sleep lets our brain catch up, so we’re ready for what’s next.
Our brain processes emotions while we sleep. When we cut our sleep short, we tend to have more negative emotional reactions and fewer positive ones. Long term sleep deprivation has also been linked to mood disorders. A large study showed that when we have insomnia, we are five times more likely to develop depression. Our odds of developing anxiety and panic disorders are also higher. One of the first questions a doctor should ask when a person comes to them because they are feeling down is ‘How are you sleeping?”
Sleep allows our blood pressure to go down, which in turn gives our heart and blood vessels a ‘rest.’ The less we sleep, the less cardiovascular rest we get during a 24-hour cycle. This is particularly significant if we already have a higher than normal blood pressure because what we know is that high blood pressure leads to heart disease and stroke. The message is clear – short-term downtime can have long-term payoffs.
Sleep enables our bodies to repair muscle and replenish our energy banks. It goes without saying that low energy and poor muscle repair and recovery will impact our workouts and the benefit we gain from exercise. Lack of sleep also saps our motivation to exercise, and we find it a harder mental and physical challenge to get to the finishing line. Not to mention that our reaction time is slower. Resting properly sets us up for our best performance.
Blood Sugar Stability
During the deep, slow-wave part of our sleep cycle, the amount of glucose in our blood drops. If we do not spend enough time in this stage of sleep, it means that we don’t get that break to reset. It is like turning the volume up on our car radio and leaving it up. As a result, our bodies have a harder time responding to our cells’ need for sugar and managing our blood sugar levels. Allowing ourselves to reach and remain in this deep sleep phase, reduces our chances of developing diabetes in adulthood.
Insomnia changes the way our immune cells identify and destroy bacteria and viruses in our body. They may not attack as quickly, and we could get sick more often. Have you ever wondered why you can’t get rid of that cold that has been hanging around for weeks instead of the standard 3-4 days? It could be your sleep.
So, what can I do about it you may ask? Enough of the ‘why sleep is important’ and tell me more about the how. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following tips on how to get a good night’s sleep.
- Have a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including on weekends. This effectively regulates your body’s clock and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
- Have a relaxing bedtime routine. Try activities that are relaxing before bedtime. Put the TV, your laptop and mobile phone off, ideally an hour before you go to bed. Turn the lights down so that your brain gets the message that it is heading to bed and can start producing melatonin, the hormone needed for sleep.
- Avoid naps during the day (especially the afternoon) if you have trouble sleeping at night. Many of us may take a power nap to help us get through the day, however, if you are not sleeping well at night eliminating these short catnaps may help.
- Daily exercise. An exercise that gets your heart rate up is the best; however, even light exercise is better than none. Walking, jogging, cycling can be done at any time of the day, so make some time to include exercise in your weekly routine.
- Bedroom bliss. Have a look at your bedroom to determine if you have a ‘sleep-inducing’ environment. Do you have a comfortable mattress because we know that the lifetime of an average good quality mattress is 8-9 years? What is the temperature in your room, as an ideal temperature for sleep is 21 degrees Celsius? Is your room too light at night? Perhaps black-out curtains or eye shades may help as the darker the room, the more your brain will switch to sleep. Finally, is your partner noisy? A big snorer? Or is their white noise such as humidifiers, fans, “white noise” machines. Using earplugs is an option.
- Alcohol, cigarettes, coffee and heavy meals in the evening. We know that all four can disrupt sleep. Try to avoid eating large meals for 2-3 hours before bedtime. Spicy and big meals can also cause indigestion which can make it hard to sleep. Ever tossed and turned at night after that spicy Indian curry? If you are still hungry, try a light snack 45 minutes before you go to bed.
- Winding down is underrated. Because your body needs to switch into sleep mode, try and focus on calming activities at least an hour before you go to bed. Don’t take your laptop to bed as the blue light causes the brain to think it is daytime and not sleep time. The same goes for that phone of yours. Don’t have it next to your bed and charge it outside of the bedroom. This will make it harder for you to lean over and grab it if you find you are struggling to get to sleep..
- Sleep and sex. Use your bed only for rest and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep. This is the reason sleep experts instruct parents not to allow their children to play in bed, because the brain then associates bed with play, and not sleep only. If we regularly do work on our laptop while in bed our brain thinks bed is for work.
And if you are still having trouble sleeping, no matter what you try, chat to your doctor who will be able to assess if there is anything else causing your sleep issues, and perhaps a referral to a sleep specialist may be in order.
In closing, I wanted to look to the Irish and this old proverb …
“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book”.