3 sleep habits to boost your wellbeing

Jonathan Pittam (Mental Health Educator, Mind Body Consulting) explores sleep habits that will boost your wellbeing and improve your sleep.

When striving to improve our wellbeing many of us decide to start exercising more, eating more healthily, or maybe drinking more water. And those three areas have a huge impact on our wellbeing, but what if there was a way to supercharge them?

Well there is, and we all have access to it. It’s what Neuroscientist, and sleep researcher Matthew Walker refers to as “one of the most sophisticated, potent and powerful (not to mention legal) performance enhancers”. Something that most of us don’t get nearly enough of. SLEEP!!

So what can we do to get a daily dose of this powerful physical and mental performance enhancer? How can we harness it to maximise our physical and emotional wellbeing? Well, there are a whole range of things that can get you moving towards better sleep, but I’ve picked three of the handful that have been shown to have the most dramatic effects, therefore you should start reaping the benefits tomorrow…

Quick fix 1 – Step away from the light

Every living creature on earth that lives for more than a few days has a built in clock, also known as a ‘Circadian Rhythm’. (circa = about dian = day) This internal rhythm communicates its daily rhythm (of 24 hours, 15 minutes on average) to your brain, and just about every organ in your body. Moods, emotions, metabolic rate and appetite are just some of the many aspects influenced by this in built clock.

Cleverly this rhythm tells the body when to begin cooling down, and when to start the process of falling asleep. So left to its own devices the body will begin to initiate sleep. That is unless it receives signals that it shouldn’t do so. Light being one of those key signals.

Night time use of laptops, smartphones, tv’s and Gameboys emit light that fools the brain and your internal clock into believing that the sun hasn’t really gone down. So whilst at around 8pm, melatonin, the hormone that kicks off the sleep cascade wants to begin doing its thing, it will actually be held back if you’ve got the light from Eastenders glaring in your retina.

So its easy to see how this clever internal clock that’s linked to just about all of our physical and mental processes begins to be thrown out of sync due to our light trickery in the evenings. When you consider that humanity has evolved to rise and sleep with the sun’s rhythms its understandable to see how false lighting at night is implicated with health factors.

So what to do about it? Well, the most simple action we can take is to mimic the sun’s patterns indoors. If the sun starts to go down, we can dim the lights inside and choose wind down activities that don’t require screens. Maybe its time to get stuck into that novel you always wanted to read, or learn to play chopsticks on the piano. The world is your oyster, so long as its not an artificially illuminated oyster.

Check 2 – Chill out dude

Ever noticed how you sleep better after a nice hot bath, or even just washing your face? It’d be easy to believe that the reason for this is because we sleep better when we feel nice and clean, or that a hot bath leaves us nice and toasty, but we’d be wrong on both counts. The reason we sleep better after a bath or washing our face is because both help us to reduce our core body temperature, which in turn improves our ability to sleep.

To get to sleep our core body temperature needs to drop by about 1 degree C. Our bedtime sleep hormone Melatonin is influenced by the evening drop in temperature, as well as light exposure, so cooling down actually assists in the sleep process.

The body uses our skin surface as a way to cool itself down, especially the hands, feet and head. Ever wondered why you feel the urge to stick your toes or hands out from under the sheets when you’re trying to get off to sleep? The hands, feet and head are great at radiating heat outwards, as The contain lots of blood vessels, allowing blood to be spread across a large area, and being cooled when it comes in contact with the surrounding air.

This is why baths and face washing help the body to cool, as they help remove heat from the body’s core, and out into the surrounding air. Think back to the last time you had a bath, all of that steam coming off you, and your face looking like a tomato, as the blood vessels in your skin let off heat

In the same way that the invention of the lightbulb has impacted our sleep patterns and quality, so too has the advent of central heating. This is because we can now override the natural cooling process that happens in the evenings by flicking on the boiler.

So, what can you do? A good starting point is to aim for the ideal bedroom temperature for most people, which is 18.3 degrees C. This is assuming you don’t wear too thick a onesie and have too high a tog-rating for your duvet. Alongside this, a hot bath before bed or washing the face will help the body with the cooling process that’s essential to a good night’s sleep.

Check 3 – Don’t be a bottle it at bedtime

Have you ever drank a bit too much on a weekend night, slept 15 hours, then woke up the next afternoon feeling rough and shattered, despite sleeping the equivalent of almost two working days?

Alcohol’s a crafty so and so, as many of us believe it helps us fall asleep more easily, and helps us sleep more deeply through the night. But neither of these are actually true…

It often surprises people when they hear that alcohol is a sedative, as it causes us to do all sorts of ‘stimulative’ things like breakdancing, and traffic cones on heads. But the ‘sedative’ aspect refers to how alcohol actually sedates the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for controlling our impulses, inhibitions and restraining our behaviour (see traffic cones above), before slowly sedating the rest of the brain. This is why we feel merry initially, and become more sluggish as the drinking goes on longer.

A few drinks in the evening actually fragments rather than solidifies our sleep. If you were to watch yourself on a sleep monitor after a few glasses, you’d see that you actually wake up for very brief but quite frequent periods. Sedation isn’t the same as sleep. Similar to sleeping pills, alcohol doesn’t create natural sleep, which is why after drinking we wake up still tired rather than refreshed.

Alcohol also deprives us of dream sleep (also known as REM sleep), which is thought to be essential for our emotional wellbeing. So, what can you do? Unfortunately, there’s no way around it, you have to decide which is more important to you, a nightly tipple, or waking up energised, and with a healthy, razor sharp mind each day

It’s easy to see how modern inventions like the lightbulb and central heating can lead to us falling out of sync with our inbuilt clock that evolved over the millennia. Once we realise this and make changes that allow us to fall back into step with our internal rhythm, we’re likely to see improvements in our physical and emotional wellbeing. In short, the further we stray from our natural clock the more detrimental effects we’re likely to see. And vice versa, the closer we align ourselves with this natural rhythm (by following the steps above) the better the wellbeing outcomes we’re likely to experience. Happy sleeping!

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