Sleep – The New Superfood!

By Louise Don Personal Fitness Trainer and Nutritional Therapist

One of the single most valuable things you can do for your health is to get enough good quality sleep.

Yes – sleep – seems a bit too simple and easy maybe? But actually how many of us find it easy to get enough sleep? And then we have to ask – how is the quality of our sleep? Because this is absolutely key.

Especially at this time of the year – with colder weather, longer nights and less daylight!

WHY SLEEP?

So, why do we need to sleep? And why do we feel the detrimental effects of lack of sleep more in the winter?

The explanation for why we need to sleep is based on the long- held belief that sleep in some way serves to restore and replenish what our body uses up while we are awake and active. Sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself.

In recent years, there have been many human and animal studies that support this idea. It can be seen that many of the major restorative functions of the body such as muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, detoxification, immune system regeneration and production of essential hormones occur mostly, and in some cases only, when we are asleep.

More and more research is showing that the effects of sleep deprivation can include increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke! Click here for a really informative article that has links to many recent research studies.

Other rejuvenating aspects of sleep are specific to the brain and cognitive function. When we have learnt new things during the day, for example if we are in school or studying or training, then during sleep, our brain integrates and consolidates this new knowledge – this is why we often learn better when we study things day after day, rather than give ourselves a marathon session on one day, and then not look at it again.

So, we can see that if we get enough good quality sleep, then all the functions in our body that we use to manage stress during the day will be in much better shape and we will find ourselves more resilient and able to handle difficult situations that come our way.

And, this is especially true in the winter, when the daylight hours are so much shorter than in the summer. Before the invention of the light bulb and television, we would have been much more likely to go to sleep as soon as it got dark, and wake again when it got light. So, actually our bodies have evolved to thrive on having more sleep in the winter, and to stop being active when it’s dark.

So, as much as your lifestyle will allow, try going to bed by 11pm and getting up at 7am. If this is not possible for you, then at least try to manage this just one or two days a week, and it will make a huge difference to how able you are to manage your stress levels. Remember – swapping an hour of television for an hour of sleep will pay significant dividends for your long-term health.

THREE TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP

1) Go to bed by 11pm

Our bodies live by a universal rhythm, and during the evening our bodies are naturally winding down in preparation for sleep. From 11pm onwards they are actually already building up their energy for waking up the next morning, and they can do this best when the body is already sleeping. So if you can regularly be asleep by 11pm, you will feel more alert and awake when you wake up in the morning.

And for those night owls who seem to get their second wind around 11pm, be aware that this is a stress response and will have detrimental effects if you continually give in to this extra surge in energy and stay awake. If your body is still active and awake at 11pm, the messages that your brain is getting are that there is an emergency that you need to stay awake for, and thus your adrenal glands will produce stress hormones to trigger the body’s systems to get ready for action to deal with this emergency. Break the cycle by winding down and getting ready for bed by 11pm.

2) Turn off the TV, computer and phone by 9pm

TVs and computers are highly stimulating to the brain, and again are sending signals that the body needs to take awake.

From 9pm onwards, help your body get ready for sleep and be good to your body. Spend relaxing time with those that you love. Do some relaxing, restorative yoga or yoga nidra. Have a relaxing bath. Spend some time appreciating the wonderful things that have happened during your day. Drink a soothing tea, such as chamomile, lavender, oat flower or valerian. Read a relaxing book. Listen to some relaxing music.

3) Make sure you have exercised during the day

It is well known that regular exercise can help us sleep better. If you have a sedentary job, then it is vital that you find some time in your day to exercise, even if it is just 20 minutes. This will help release a build up of tension which is essential to improving our sleep and health. We were born to run, move and be out in the fresh air – not to be stuck behind a desk in a concrete building!

And do ensure that you exercise at least 3 hours before you go to bed, otherwise the stimulation that comes from exercise can keep you awake.

Sweet dreams!

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