Make better sleep your goal

Let’s begin with a quote from Mathew Walker’s, ‘Why We Sleep’…  

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer.  It enhances your memory and makes you more creative.  It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings.  It protects you from cancer and dementia.  It wards off colds and flu.  It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious.  Are you interested?” 

This quote of course relates to sleep and whilst it might seem a tad radical, Walker goes on to say that there is nothing in this quote that is inaccurate.  

Sleep plays an absolutely vital role in our physical and mental health and wellbeing.

After a decent night’s kip, we essentially wake up with a rested and reconfigured mind, our emotions in check and a number of the body’s systems rested and restored. 

According to the NHS, the average adult needs about 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night.

However, for many people sleep is a challenge or perceived luxury. Something that is easily deprioritized in favor of a busy schedule, or saved for weekends.

My goal, in writing this blog, is to provide you with an enhanced understanding of the importance of getting a good night’s sleep; to share ideas on how you might go about getting one; and to inspire you to put sleep high up on your wellbeing goals.    

Getting support

Before we dive in, a word to the wise. 

This is a generic blog aimed at informing and inspiring those wanting to enhance their sleep. 

It is not aimed at those who have deep set sleep challenges or are suffering with insomnia. 

If this is you, I recommend seeking the support of a medical professional or sleep specialist. 

Otherwise, here goes … 

How sleep works

If we are going to do anything about enhancing our sleep, it makes sense that we first need to understand a bit about how sleep works.  Whilst this is a huge and complex subject, I will endeavour to keep it high level and light… so I hopefully don’t send you to sleep!  

The rhythm of life 

Have you ever considered how every living thing – humans, plants, animals – knows when to wake up and when to go sleep? 

Obviously, it’s light in the morning and dark at night which helps, but it is not quite that simple. 

What is really running the show is an internal master clock, that we each come equipped with, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (yawn!).  This governs our sleep/wake cycle over approximately a 24-hour period. 

It is supported by 2 principle biological rhythms: the circadian rhythm and the ultradian rhythm, summarised below. 

Circadian rhythm 

I like to think of this as a kind of sleep/wake blueprint for each species. 

Some animals are nocturnal, others hibernate and there are places around the world that never see daylight – hence it not being quite as clear as night and day. 

For us humans, we are designed to function for about 16 hours each day before needing to sleep and refuel for about 8 hours each night. 

But outside of that we each operate slightly differently.  For instance, some of us are up with the lark and others night owls.  Some of us like to eat early and others late. 

The above and similar functions, such as hormone release and body temperature, are determined by your circadian rhythm which responds to internal and external cues … more on that later. 

If you have ever lived or worked with someone who’s circadian rhythm is completely different than your own, you will know how ingrained it is! 

Ultradian rhythm 

Nathaniel Kleitman, one of the early sleep researchers, discovered that we operate in 90 to 120-minute cycles.  Kleitman called these “basic rest-activity cycles’ but they have come to be known as ultradian rhythms which work alongside circadian rhythms. 

Throughout the day, this rhythm moves you naturally between high and low energy. 

During the ‘high’ your brain is working in a high frequency pattern where it chews up more resources, so it makes sense that you can’t sustain it for too long. 

After this time, the brain activity will want to shift gears and have a break.  It apparently takes about 20 minutes before you are allocated the next quota of fuel. 

If a sound night’s sleep gives you a full tank to play with during the day, the ultradian rhythm essentially ensures you don’t expend it all at once. 

If you ignore this call to rest, you are likely to feel a bit fatigued and your concentration is likely to wane. 

Continue to ignore it, and your body is likely to kick off the stress response, to put you in a heightened state to get you through a perceived threat.  From an evolutionary perspective, why else would you continue to push past the point of healthy if you weren’t in danger?

The cycle of sleep 

It is not just during the day that we move through 90-to-120 minute cycles. This also happens at night and is known as a sleep cycle. 

During each sleep cycle, we alternate between stages of Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM). 

The cycle repeats around 3-5 times a night equating to around 35 sleep cycles each week.   

There are many varying descriptions of what happens during each stage but, again for simplicity, I’ve knocked together a table from the National Sleep Foundation article ‘What are the sleep stages’  

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) 
Stage 1 

  • Light phase of sleep 
  • Can be easily woken up 
  • Heartbeat and breathing slows 
Stage 2 

  • Light phase of sleep but less likely to be awakened 
  • Heartbeat and breathing continue to slow 
  • Body temperature drops 
  • Sleep spindles occur 

 

Stage 3 

  • Deep and restorative sleep state 
  • Difficult to awaken 
  • Body repairs muscles and tissue, encourages growth and development and improves immune functioning 

 

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) 
  • Eyes dart back and forth behind eyelids 
  • Characterised by the dream state 
  • Inability to move – to stop us playing out our dreams 
  • Faster and irregular breathing and heart rate 
  • Critical for learning, memory, daytime concentration, and mood 

 

Whilst the whole sleep cycle has its place, unsurprisingly, NREM stage 3 and REM are where the greatest benefits are derived.

The National Sleep Foundation go on to say that “One to two hours of Stage 3 deep sleep per night will keep the average adult feeling restored and healthy. If you’re regularly waking up tired, it could be that you’re not spending enough time in that deep sleep phase. Meanwhile, REM sleep helps your brain consolidate new information and maintain your mood – both critical for daily life” 

Fun fact, from Mathew Walker’s ‘Why we Sleep’, is that more NREM is experienced earlier in the night and more REM later in the night.   Go to bed too late and you will short change yourself of the amount of NREM you get.  Equally, get up too early and you will short change yourself of the amount of REM you get. 

Falling and staying asleep 

Last sciencey bit – so please bear with!   

From the moment you wake up you have a chemical called adenosine building in your brain.  The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine you will have and the more desire you will have to go to sleep. The pressure to go to sleep will usually occur after around 12 to 15 hours of being awake.  

Around dusk, a hormone called melatonin is released by the pineal gland, and this sends a signal to your brain that it is time to go to sleep. 

At night, your unique rhythms, sleep pressure from adenosine and the signal from melatonin combine to see you drifting off to sleep.   

Following a decent night’s sleep, adenosine and melatonin disburse and the circadian rhythm kicks back in to wake you back up. 

Whilst asleep you disconnect from the external world and lose track of time. Your senses are largely blocked by a part of the brain called the thalamus. This stops you being woken up by every minor disturbance.  

The thalamus is governed by the hypothalamus, which tells it when to switch off your senses and when to switch them back on. The hypothalamus lives in the same area of the brain as the 24-hour master biological clock. 

Impressive right? 

Well, it is when it works as designed and when our modern world doesn’t get in the way! 

Sleep deprivation 

I doubt you need me to tell you how it feels to lack sleep.  When adenosine is not disbursed sufficiently overnight it can feel like a sleep hangover. Fatigue, brain fog, irritability, mood swings, cravings, and a lack of motivation – just some of the resulting fallout. 

Generally, all overcome by a night or two of sound sleep. 

However, when sleep deprivation is long-term it is a great deal more concerning. 

If you want a pretty confronting read, check out an article by Sleep Health Solutions ’10 Effects of Long-Term Sleep Deprivation’.  Here you can read about the casual links to:  

  • Hypertension 
  • Heart Attack and Stroke 
  • Weight Gain and Obesity 
  • Diabetes 
  • Depression and Anxiety 
  • Faulty Brain Function 
  • Memory Loss 
  • Immune Insufficiency 
  • Decreased Fertility 
  • Psychiatric Disorders 

Suffice to say, sleep is absolutely crucial to mental and physical health, wellbeing and potentially longevity. 

What gets in the way? 

In truth, there are many things that effect sleep onset and sleep quality.  These include age, health conditions, genetics, stress levels, worry, noise, environment, and ageing – to name a few. 

Whilst some factors are outside of our control, others are very much within our ability to influence.   The latter is this focus of this section, along with how our modern world may be inhibiting our best laid sleep plans.

Light

As mentioned previously, each of us has a 24-hour master clock which responds to internal and external cues.   

A loss of daylight, picked up through the eyes and eyelids, is one such cue and signal to the brain and body that nighttime has arrived and bedtime is imminent. 

Our ancestors would have had to down tools at the onset of darkness and probably hit the sack soon after. 

Of course, in our modern world, electricity has enabled us to switch between day and night at will.  This can however come at the cost of dulling the release of melatonin and the call to sleep.

Blue LED lights (think laptops, ipads, smartphones etc) also have a greater impact on the release of melatonin, than their fellow warmer yellow lights (think softer home lighting). This is why it is so important to soften lighting and turn off technology well before bedtime.

Body temperature

Another key sleep cue is core body temperature.  This needs to drop by a couple of degrees (fahrenheit) to initiate sleep – gauged by our friend the hypothalamus and neighbor of the 24-hour master clock. 

Once the hypothalamus gets the nod that the body temperature has sufficiently dropped, and light has sufficiently diminished, melatonin is released (individually and synergistically) and voila – sleep here we come.   

It’s worth noting that heat is predominantly released through your hands, feet and head via blood vessels which live close to the skin’s surface.   Splashing cool (not freezing!) water on your hands and face can help to dissipate heat from the surface of the skin.   

Equally, having a warm bath before bed can be helpful.  When you get out of the bath your core body temperature will naturally drop.   

Both methods support the signal and release of melatonin.

A body temperature that is too high, or too low, has been shown to negatively influence both sleep onset and sleep quality.  According to the Sleep Foundation, the ideal room temperature is approximately 65 °F. 

Eating late 

I expect most of us have experienced an uncomfortable night’s sleep, as a result of a meal sitting heavy. 

And it is not just poor sleep that can come with the body trying to digest a large or inappropriate meal overnight.  Slower metabolism, weight gain, acid reflux, indigestion and heartburn – can all be exacerbated – according to the article ‘Is Eating Before Bed Bad For You’ by verywell health.

Their recommendation is to wait 3 hours after eating before sleep or as a minimum keep any pre-bed snacks light. If you are looking for some ideas on what to eat, you might like to check out the Healthline article ’15 bedtime snacks to help you sleep through the night’. 

Hydration is also a factor to consider.  Drink too much too close to bedtime and you are likely to wake up more often to use the bathroom but, like with most things, it’s about striking the middle ground.  Go to be bed hungry and dehydrated and your body will likely wake you up in need of food and water. 

Caffeine

We are probably all aware that caffeine can disrupt sleep?   

According to Mathew Walker, it can take 5 to 7 hours for 50% of caffeine to leave the body.  Whilst decaf is often considered to be a better option, he goes on to say that it still contains about 15 – 30% caffeine.   

This is where the advice, to not drink coffee after 3pm or preferably only in the mornings, comes from.  Or to rule it out if sleep is a challenge. 

Alcohol

Generally getting to sleep isn’t generally the challenge following a few alcoholic beverages.  It is the un-natural sleep and periods of wakefulness that tend to accompany it. 

Additionally, as the body metabolizes alcohol it produces byproduct chemicals called aldehydes and ketones which are known suppressors of REM.

Again, one to be avoided if sleep is a challenge and certainly not one to turn to as a sleep aid.

Stress

Our ancestors lived with the fear of actual threats, such as the good old proverbial saber tooth tiger. 

In the modern world our stressors have shifted more towards our busy schedules, personal challenges, and world events. 

Whatever the trigger, stress causes a physiological response – preparing us to ‘fight and flight’ from perceived danger.  

Fantastic mechanism, given to us by nature for a very good reason, but not one that is conducive to sleep. You can’t say to a saber tooth tiger that it is past your bedtime and to come back in the morning!  

So, it makes sense that the celestial design committee put in a mechanism to override sleep when threat is imminent.  

Taking steps to tackle stress and to come down before bed can support the body in moving to a more optimal state and in aiding sleep. 

Getting a good night’s sleep 

Hopefully, you are feeling more informed and inspired to prioritise your sleep? 

We have seen that managing light, core temperature, food and drink, and stress – can all support the sleep process. 

Let’s look at what else we might do? 

Align to your natural rhythms 

If you recall, we each have an ultradian rhythm that moves us though periods of high and low energy throughout the day – approximately every 90 to120-minutes. 

Unfortunately, the modern world seems to favour soldiering on and many of us have lost contact with our natural rhythms or are deliberately bypassing them. 

I have heard every excuse … and probably used a fair few of them too! 

  • When I am on a roll I just keep going, so I don’t lose my train of thought or flow. 
  • I don’t have time to take breaks. 
  • No one else takes breaks. 
  • I work best under pressure 

Fine but how are your stress levels and your sleep and what might this be doing to your wellbeing? 

In many ways we need to be preparing for sleep from the minute we wake up. 

Taking breaks to rest, to disperse stress hormones and to bring your nervous system down throughout the day, will help your stress levels – fact.  

It will also give your nervous system a better chance of staying down so you can get to and stay asleep – fact. 

Doesn’t need to be complicated.  Taking a break mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon is a great place to start. 

It is also proven that when we work in 90–120-minute cycles and then rest, we are more effective.  So there really is no reason not to do it. 

Utilise relaxation techniques 

The following techniques both work to elicit the opposite aspect of the nervous system to the stress response, the relaxation response, and to disperse stress. 

Perfect for your breaks or for helping you to come down after a busy day.

A body scan 

Stress and tension are often held in the body and in the breath. You may have had the experience when you get home from a long day, and wonder what on earth you have done to your neck or shoulders, or anywhere else you tend to hold tension?  

This may be because, under the stress response, your pain receptors can switch off making you unaware that tension is building.  When you begin to relax, the pain receptors switch back on and ‘ouch!’  

Stress and tension in the body is not conducive to sleep.  A body scan, example below, is one way to bring awareness to where it is building and to proactively let some of it go. 

  • Take a few moments to settle in, either feeling your body as it connects to your chair or your body lying on the surface beneath you.  Either gaze to one point or close your eyes.   
  • Bring awareness to your breath, observing it for a few rounds as it comes in and out through your nostrils.  
  • Next rotate your awareness around your body, observing how it feels and any sensations you can become aware of.   
  • Notice the parts of your body that are already at ease and relaxed. 
  • Notice tension, tight spots or aches and pains in the body.  Perhaps focussing on a few places where we tend to hold tension such as the face, jaw, shoulders, belly, and hips.  Aim to let go of any tension as you go by actively relaxing the area of the body feeling tense.   
  • When you have finished, take a few moments to notice how you feel and to connect to your breath.  And to feel the surface beneath you once more.

The more you do this, the more practised you will become at noticing and letting go of building stress and tension throughout the day – before it takes hold. 

4-7-8

A popular breathing practice, developed by Dr Andrew Weil of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, is believed to reduce stress, calm anxiety, and support sleep.    

Here’s how you do it:  

  • Inhale through the nose to a count of 4 
  • Hold your breath for a count of 7 
  • Breathe out through the nose to a count of 8 

1 count refers to about 1 second.  

Repeat for a few rounds, as required. 

Exercise 

We all know that regular exercise is good for us.  It boosts circulation, the lymphatic system, energises and supports the overall health of the body and mind.  What you might not be as familiar with is how it can support sleep. 

If you recall, under the stress response our body goes into a physical state of preparation ready to fight or flight from a perceived threat and that this is not conducive to sleep? 

One of the best things we can give it, when the stress response is triggered, is a physical response.  This helps to burn off stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and release endorphins that help restore you to a more calm and relaxed state. 

Sensibly paced walking, yoga, tai chi etc are all renowned for helping to elicit the relaxation response and to balance the nervous system. 

If going to classes or fitness centres is not your thing, then you might like to look for ways to build more movement into your daily routine.    

For example, taking a daytime walk or cycle or a doing spot of gardening – all good exercise options that come with the added benefit of light exposure which can also help to regulate your circadian rhythm. 

Create your sleep environment 

Your bedroom should be a quiet and peaceful haven that is worthy of the third of your day you spend there. 

If it is anything but, it might be time to give it an overhaul. 

Healthline, in the aptly named blog ‘how to create the bedroom of your dreams’, provide lots of thoughts and ideas to get you started. 

Set a routine 

Whilst we can’t make ourselves sleep soundly, we can set up the conditions to give ourselves the best chance of getting to and staying asleep.  

A sleep routine can be a helpful tool, in preparing the body and mind for sleep, and I highly recommend you take the time to create one for yourself. 

Aim to do your routine every night, regardless of whether you are in period of experiencing sleep challenges or not.  This helps your body and mind to become familiar with the routine and recognise it as a signal that it’s time to sleep.   It will also help it to remain effective when you need sleep support. 

It doesn’t need to be a long or complicated process.  Here are some ideas that you may wish to consider in developing your own sleep routine: 

  • Have a cup of sleep support tea. 
  • End the day on a positive note by reflecting or writing down a few things that went well or that you’re thankful for. This can help to release a few feel-good hormones, such as serotonin, and balance out daily challenges. 
  • Unplug from technology and have a read of a book that won’t over stimulate your thinking. 
  • Place a couple of drops of lavender (a known sleep support oil) on a handkerchief, fold (so that the oil is encased) and place in your pillow case.   
  • Use a relaxation technique, such as a body scan or 4-7-8, to help relax your nervous system.

Another routine to consider is the time you go to bed and get up each morning. Setting and sticking to this, as best you can, is another way to support sleep. 

What to do if you can’t sleep? 

Sometimes despite our best efforts, sleep eludes us. 

Get up if you need to and leave the bedroom returning when you feel tired enough to sleep.  Perhaps doing one of the relaxation techniques or repeating your sleep routine on route. 

Try and stay away from the temptation of scrolling through social media, or the likes of, as this may make things worse. 

If you find yourself still staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep, know that you are still giving your body the required sleep opportunity and time to at least rest. 

Consider how you use your inner voice – speak to yourself as if you were a child.  Use more enthusiasm in the morning and less frustration at night. 

The benefits of a good night’s sleep 

Let’s end as we began with the quote from Mathew Walker’s, ‘Why We Sleep’ (a read I would highly recommend for those wanting to explore the subject of sleep further). 

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer.  It enhances your memory and makes you more creative.  It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings.  It protects you from cancer and dementia.  It wards off colds and flu.  It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious.  Are you interested?” 

Still not convinced?  Check out Business Insider’s ‘23 Incredible Benefits of Getting More Sleep’ 

Oh, and did I mention that sleep it is completely free?!


Bev Alderson

Bev Alderson is a Mindfulness, Yoga and Stress Management Consultant who works with individuals, groups and workplaces.

Having spent 18+ years in management in the IT industry, in both the UK and Australia, Bev learnt first-hand the impacts of a high-pressure environment and lifestyle and how, left unchecked, this can negatively impact performance and health.

Today, through her business Practically Balanced, Bev brings authenticity to the work she does, drawing upon her personal experiences, management capabilities and expertise in mindfulness, stress resilience, yoga and more.

Bev completed a Diploma in Yoga with the highly respected Qi Yoga School in Sydney in 2012 and with Sivananda in India in 2015. She also completed a Certificate in Stress Management with the London Centre for Coaching and Counselling in 2014, an ILM with the Stress Management Society in 2014 and a Diploma in Meditation with the British School of Meditation in 2016.


With many thanks to Bev for this blog. If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our nutritionist team via e-mail or phone:

nutrition@cytoplan.co.uk
01684 310099

Last updated on 20th December 2023 by cytoffice


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10 thoughts on “Make better sleep your goal

  1. In one beautifully composed article one is given all there is to know about sleep in a connected fashion, succinctly, concisely, precisely and in a language untainted by jargon.

    I am going to keep this article on the Desktop of my computer and dive into it from time to time to remind me of its contents and where I go wrong and why I suffer from lack of sleep.

    I congratulate Cytoplan and Bev Alderson, the writer of this article.

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