Sleep is killing us - why and what you can do to change that

Poor sleep is killing us – why and what to do about it

The science:

Getting good quality REM sleep means that your brain can properly process and get rid of dead cells and grow new ones. The brain has millions of cells that need energy to work which means they have to absorb sugar and oxygen to regenerate – this leads to waste then that needs to be disposed of. A series of ‘tubes’ carry fresh fluid to the brain, mix the fresh fluid with the waste-filled fluid that surrounds the brain cells and then flush out the mix of the brain into the blood – its called the glymphatic system and can largely only happen when in deep sleep. The brain actually washes itself in this process called the glymphatic system.

This is why those with brain injuries are recommended to sleep as much as possible in the first two years post injury – so their brains have as much opportunity to repair which can only happen in deep sleep. There are also strong links with chronic poor sleep and Alzheimer’s disease because the brain cannot regenerate cells so it starts to decay. If the brain cannot wash itself with the cerebrospinal fluid then toxins begin to build up which lead to memory loss and other cognitive impairments. But don’t worry if you have a long time of poor sleep, thousands do its not a death sentence but it is important to build in good habits. As we age, naturally our brains become less active so older people tend to sleep less and have less quality sleep.

What can you do to help the sleep process?

It starts with how you begin your day and what you get up to but I’m not going to focus on this here as there are too many nuances – so regardless of your day read through this guide it covers everything.

  • Get into a disciplined sleep routine – we all did this as kids, our parents would have us eat together and then a bath or shower, help settling into bed and perhaps a book. We still need to do this as adults! No phone two hours before bed, if this feels too much then drop it to one hour and keep the phone out of the bedroom. If you need the alarm then buy an old fashioned clock particularly if its too tempting to pick up your phone. The phone gives off blue light which stimulates the brain and reduces melatonin production – which we need to help us sleep. *melatonin is a naturally occurring chemical in the brain released when it starts to get dark.
  • If you have had a busy day rushing around, go to bed even earlier because this will be the first time in your day you would have slowed down to be present – hardly surprising then that you experience a sudden increase in thoughts and feelings. Being busy has kept you distracted. Thinking of things you have or haven’t done activates the brain again by releasing dopamine which inhibits the release of a hormone called norepinephrine which increases alertness so heart rate goes up! Try instead to have a warm milky drink – this contains an amino acid called tryptophan which increases levels of serotonin in the brain which will increase mood and in turn increase a sense of relaxation 
  • Drop your room temperature – sleep with the window open, ideally you want your bedroom to between 14-19’c degrees. Its better to be cooler than hotter in your bedroom.
  • Breathing techniques – this will help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system that you need to be able to access sleep (if you can feel your heart rate this is a good indicator you need to do a paced breathing technique).
  • White noise in the bedroom – i.e. a fan or playing a playlist of specific white noise, this also helps train the brain to let it know this sound = time to sleep
  • Avoid eating a large meal less than 3 hrs before bed – yes it will make you sleepy (everyone feels sleepy after a large Christmas lunch) but you won’t get full quality sleep. Equally eating a large meal means your body has to fire up energy to process it at a time when you are wanting to slow down.
  • The obvious ones we know about are alcohol and caffeine. Have none after 2pm – this includes energy drinks and avoid all alcohol. Often I hear that folk feel tired after drinking alcohol which is true but alcohol disables the full sleep cycle and it also increases your heart rate because the body has to work hard to process it, higher heart rate = body activated which is far from ideal for sleep.
  • Hormones: we don’t talk about period cycles enough – low levels of estrogen and progesterone often lead to lower mood and higher anxiety, we know that mood impacts sleep. The week leading up to your period likely to experience less quality sleep (REM). Even if you have a sleep tracking device that suggests you slept well.
  • Never hit the snooze button!

‘Stuff’ that supports good quality sleep (only use to support a disciplined routine described above!)

  • Have a cup of chamomile tea as you unwind for the evening
  • Magnesium (either as a tablet supplement or in food such as green vegetables)
  • Eat a kiwi two hours before bed (they contain high levels of melatonin, anthocyanins, flabonoids, carotenoids, potassium, magnesium, folate, calcium)
  • Handful of nuts (almonds or walnuts)
  • Melatonin tablets

Sleep supporting smoothie

  • Cherries
  • Cottage cheese
  • Walnuts (100mg = 158mg magnesium, 441mg potassium, 98mcg folate, 98mg calcium) they are naturally high in melatonin, both calcium and potassium are key for muscle relaxation
  • Chamomile

Sleeping tablets are not the answer and simply don’t work – yes they will get you shut eye but they don’t allow the brain to go through the crucial sleep cycle. I’ve never met anyone who has ever woken from a general anesthetic feeling refreshed – yet you are technically asleep and this is because sleep in a brain process of multiple steps.

Key things to remember:

  • Sleeping tablets aren’t the answer and won’t help you get quality sleep
  • Sleep in an active, intentional process – not passive, you need to plan it in the same way

Friday 1st December 2023