Unfortunately though, stress can cause sleepless nights. This lack of sleep can then become a source of stress itself. I have found myself in this vicious circle many times. You are left feeling irritable, run-down and discontent. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you want to feel healthy, revitalised and full of vitality, you need to get enough good-quality sleep. But did you also know that it has been proven that if you sleep well, you will live longer?
Before we get to that, let’s take a look at some of the many other reasons why consistent sleep patterns are essential for well-being and energy.
Why Sleep is Good for You
Dreaming regenerates your mind
The most critical periods of sleep (at least as far as the mind is concerned) are the bursts of rapid eye movement sleep (or REM); this is when dreams occur most frequently. Studies show that these generally begin after about an hour of sleep. They tend to last for about half an hour and take place five to seven times a night on average. Of course, the more sleep you get, the longer the REM phases last. This is the reason why at least seven hours sleep per night is required by most people.
If you are deprived of REM sleep (especially for sustained periods of time) you will wake feeling unrested and are much more likely to suffer from depression. Your mind needs this time whilst you sleep to compute the events of your daily routine. It is believed that dreams are important for emotional and mental health.
Sleep improves your memory
During these periods of REM sleep, your brain creates different kinds of neurotransmitters. These include serotonin, which helps you be happy and content, and noradrenaline, which keeps the mind stimulated and inquisitive.
One other essential function of serotonin is that it improves your memory. Sleep is essential for helping compute what you have learnt during the day. You don’t remember new information as well if you don’t get six to eight hours sleep. After this amount of deep sleep your ability to perform a task you have recently learnt increases dramatically. In other words, without sleep and without dreams, you'll find it much more difficult to retain what you have learnt.
Sleep promotes good moods
Another helpful function of serotonin is that it improves your outlook on life (your mood). As we know, serotonin is produced during sleep. Interestingly both alcohol and many antidepressants suppress REM sleep. Ever wondered why you wake up grumpy and grouchy after a night of excess? It’s greatly due to having a disturbed night’s sleep.
Sleep rejuvenates your body
All through the night, and particularly during deep sleep and REM periods, the brain makes greater volumes of the human growth hormone. So, within a short time of having fallen asleep, your body literally starts to rejuvenate itself. The human growth hormone aides both the reparation and replacement of tissue and bone. Growth hormone levels are much lower during the daytime.
Also, when you feel stressed you produce very high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This acts to further suppress the growth hormone and steals energy away from repair and ploughs it into coping with the demands of a stressful situation.
Normally when you sleep, the levels of cortisol are significantly lower. However, if you are particularly anxious or stressed out, cortisol levels may not fall low enough. What this means is that tissue repair and renewal is overpowered and becomes insufficient. In turn., the ageing process is effectively sped up. So ideally, you should go to bed in a fully relaxed, unstressed state. It’s probably best to avoid horror movies, news or anything that is likely to make you panic or feel tense last thing at night. It may sound obvious, but swapping the activity for something soothing and relaxing could work wonders for your sleep patterns.
And yes, sleep contributes to a longer life
Funnily enough, it is not just too little sleep that is related to an earlier death, it is also too much. It’s important to optimise your sleep times, in order to extend the length of your life. Between 6 and 9 hours sleep a night correlates with the longest lifespan of a human being.
As we get older, it becomes increasingly important to get just the right amount of sleep. Increased mortality correlates more strongly with not enough (less than 5 hours) or too much (more than 9 hours). 7 hours of good sleep a night is linked with the lowest death rate.
However, it’s not just about the amount of time you spend sleeping. Equally important is the quality of that sleep. As they get older, many people have more disturbed or fragmented sleep and don’t get nearly enough REM sleep.
How much sleep you need
Before the electric light bulb was invented, people averaged around 10 hours sleep a night, particularly in the winter months. By the 1960s, it had dropped to around 8 hours. This number continues to fall, with one in three people getting 6 hours or less sleep per night.
You should ideally get 7-8 hours sleep a night to stay happy and healthy.
How to get a good night’s sleep
The factors that can disturb a good night’s sleep are endless; noise, light and stimulants such as caffeine are just three examples. Coffee and other high-caffeine beverages should be avoided for 6 hours prior to going to bed. Caffeine lowers melatonin, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for making you sleepy at night time.
Also make sure you balance your blood sugar level (by not consuming too much sugar or refined carbohydrates) and deal with the stresses of the day before getting into bed.
If you struggle to sleep, it may be that you need more magnesium in your diet; eat plenty of seeds, fruits and vegetables (particularly dark green vegetables). You could also try supplementing 300mg of magnesium in the evening.
You could also try taking the herb kava, the amino acid 5-HTP or valerian.