Are you getting enough sleep? Chances are you’re not. As a sleep therapist, I see a never-ending stream of patients coming through my doors, all looking for one thing: a great night’s kip.
I’m here to tell you what I tell them, that drifting off is easier than you think.
Nobody sleeps perfectly, and that’s OK.
But getting enough is a vital piece in the jigsaw puzzle of health and wellbeing. And small changes can be all it takes to make a real difference.
What is sleep and why do we need it?
When we sleep we enter a specific state that lies somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. The body is at rest, but the brain remains highly active and hard at work.
Sleep is absolutely vital for our survival and a whole range of biological functions can only be undertaken while we are in this state.
Getting decent rest is good for mood regulation, detoxification, memory and learning, heart and blood pressure, appetite management, immunity, cell repair and skin health.
How much sleep do we need?
The amount of nightly sleep we need changes as we age. Newborns require the most sleep (around 17 hours per day) and older adults the least. But everyone needs at least six hours.
As a rule of thumb, if you are often drowsy in the day, or find yourself reaching for a quick caffeine fix in the afternoon, then you probably need more sleep.
Why does sleep get worse as you age?
It’s completely normal for your body’s sleep needs to change across your lifetime. But it’s the shift in circadian rhythms – your internal clock – plus other physical changes, that can cause disrupted sleep for older people.
As we age, less exposure to natural light, plus a natural decline in melatonin can mean we’re lacking the natural cues that tell us when to sleep and wake.
Issues that come with age, for example stiffer joints, may mean it’s harder to get and stay comfortable in bed. What’s more, as we age the metabolism slows down, which for some can mean an increase in weight.
If significant, this can lead to snoring or disrupted sleep.
Is beauty sleep real?
One look at the dark circles under your eyes after a bad night is enough to tell you that sleep can have a real effect on how you look.
Over the course of the night, the body performs important regeneration functions and skin damage is repaired. During deep sleep, the brain releases growth hormone, which increases collagen production.
A delay in falling asleep reduces the amount of collagen produced.
Antioxidants are also released. Melatonin levels increase between 2am and 4am.
As well as keeping you asleep, melatonin acts as an antioxidant to protect skin from free radicals – unstable atoms that attach to skin cells, causing inflammation and damage.
How do I stop my mind racing so I can sleep?
Sometimes the speed thoughts race through the mind can feel overwhelming, and can leave you struggling to nod off. For sleep to come, you must switch your brain from a state of high alert to deep relaxation.
Try mindfulness exercises to put the brakes on whirring thoughts.
Breathe deeply, in through your nose for a count of five, then out through your mouth for a count of seven.
Can menopause affect sleep?
In short, yes. Fluctuating levels of oestrogen can lead to night sweats and hot flushes, while a drop in progesterone can cause anxiety, depression and weight gain, all of which can interfere with sleep.
The sleep hormone melatonin also declines, which is influenced both by age and decreasing oestrogen and progesterone.
This can lead to many people either being unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, or waking up too early to feel properly rested.
Are naps helpful or harmful?
Napping is part of the culture in many countries – more than half of all people worldwide habitually enjoy 40 winks in the daytime.
When it comes to napping, one size doesn’t fit all. A nap in the day can help some to make it through the afternoon, for others it can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
The timing and length of the nap generally determines how beneficial it is to our sleep routine.
Nap between 1pm and 4pm. Shuteye between this time – and no later – can boost mental and physical alertness. Stick to 30 minutes or less for a natural energy boost.