Health & Psychology

Sleep – The bedrock of good health

Sleep is the one single (in)action that we can take to reset our physical and mental health every day: a nightly rinse and repair of our brain and body. Yet, unfortunately, humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep.

Most of us need 7-9 hours every night, and sleep cannot be banked. Losing just one hour a night impacts our memory, ability to learn, and overall health and has been associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us find it difficult to sleep, with anxiety and stress being the main causes of insomnia.  The problem is that poor sleep worsens the symptoms of mental distress, so we find ourselves in a spiralling cycle of deficient sleep and increasing stress.

The resulting tiredness leads many of us to turn to caffeine to help us focus and alcohol to help us get to sleep.  Unfortunately, both have a disastrous impact on our sleep. Caffeine, which blocks our natural sleep-onset hormone, hangs around in our body for up to 12 hours, meaning that the coffee we had at lunchtime can prevent us from falling asleep at bedtime. Alcohol induces anaesthesia, not sleep, and both liquid stressors impact sleep quality, so we awake unrefreshed the next day. 

Blue light from screens at night-time blocks our natural sleep cycle by turning off the important sleep hormone melatonin, vital for communicating the message to our brain that sleep should start.  

A good night’s sleep starts in the morning by getting good light: just 20 minutes of daylight sends a strong message to the brain to wake up and sets up our 24-hour clock for the day ahead.  To keep this clock well-calibrated, we should ensure a regular bedtime routine 7 days a week.  Setting the alarm in the evening to begin the night-time wind down can help fine-tune the accuracy of our internal clocks. Dim the lights an hour before bed, lower the temperature in your room to 18 degrees and take a nice hot bath, both to relax and to cool your core temperature down.  Our body temperature naturally falls as we go to sleep, along with our heart rate and blood pressure, so anything that drives these up hampers our sleep.

And if you wake up in the night and cannot get back to sleep, the best thing to do is to get up: retrain your brain that your bed is for sleeping in. 

How about you? How is your sleep right now? Are you waking refreshed in the morning, or do you need a coffee to get started? What do you do to help get to sleep each night?

HealthFirst Sleep Well, Live Well Checklist:

  1. Start the day with a dose of bright daylight: go outside for 20-30 minutes in the morning, ideally before beginning your working day, to stimulate your 24-hour clock. 
  2. Set your evening sleep routine alarm clock to start your evening wind down to get ready for sleep.  Aim for the same 7-days a week bedtime and wake-up time to help stabilise your 24-hour clock. 
  3. Avoid bright light in the evening: tone down your evening lighting to softer yellow shades to help stimulate the night-time release of melatonin.  Gradually toning this down will mimic the setting sun and send a message to your brain to start preparing for sleep.
  4. Avoid eating your evening meal too late so your body can have a chance to digest it before sleep.
  5. Avoid exercise in the 3 hours before sleep to help calm your heart rate and body before bed.
  6. Avoid afternoon naps post 3 pm. They can interfere with your night-time sleep pattern.
  7. Take a hot bath before bed, not only to relax but also to help lower your body temperature before sleep.
  8. Lower the temperature of your bedroom to 18 degrees; a cooler room helps the onset of sleep.
  9. Avoid screens and devices before going to sleep, not only to reduce the blue LED light stimulation that impairs melatonin release but also to help calm the mind.  Those last-minute emails may also lead to a spike in stress that can counteract the onset of sleep.
  10. Keep your bedroom dark when you are asleep.
  11. Avoid clock faces in your room. If you do wake up in the night, do not look at the clock.
  12. Bedrooms are for sleeping in: if you wake up in the night, get up.  Move to another room, sit quietly in a darkened place, listen to music, or read a book until you feel tired and ready for sleep.  Prevent your brain from associating bed with being awake.
  13. Avoid liquid stressors: no caffeine after lunchtime and beware of the alcoholic nightcap.
  14. Keep a journal and a pen beside your bed and write down your worries if they wake you at night. Putting your ‘to-do’ list, worrying thoughts or even 3 things you are grateful for on paper can really help quiet your mind. 
  15. Switch off your snooze button. Then, if you must set the alarm to wake you in the morning, you do not need to relive the stress impact more than once!

Our HealthFirst Sleep Well, Live Well Checklist provides tips to improve your sleep – mother nature’s built-in repair and replenishment system. 

Dr Mecky McNeil and Dr Michelle Wright from HealthFirst (www.healthfirst.ch) offer physical and mental well-being services and First Aid training online and face-to-face to individuals and organisations throughout Switzerland and globally. 

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