How to Optimise Sleep for Health and Performance?

  • 1st Revision: Shikha Javaharlal
  • 2nd Revision: Tamsin Rose
  • 3rd Revision: Kelma Jean

Do you often feel tired? Getting a good night’s rest is vital as it helps maintain all aspects of your health and wellbeing. Here is a breakdown of the importance of sleep and some simple yet effective ways to improve the quality of your sleep.

Introduction to Sleep

Getting a good night's rest is vital. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, sleep plays a role in good health and wellbeing throughout your life. This is because when we sleep, our bodies work to support healthy brain function and maintain physical development. This enables us to function optimally throughout the day.

Therefore, we must pay attention to our sleep patterns and implement ways to improve them where possible.

Benefits of Sleep

Since our brains can fully be at rest when we sleep, by getting a good night’s rest, we don’t only become healthier physically but also mentally! It also allows us to feel happier and become more productive. 

Some more benefits of sleep include:

  • Improved mental health
  • Reduction in and a better ability to cope with anxiety and stress
  • Increased ability to fight against  illness as it improves the immune system
  • Better memory retention
  • Improved productivity during the day
  • Lower blood pressure

Foster Good Habits during the Day

Now we know that getting good, quality sleep is important. There are a few steps you can take to achieve this. There is a lot of advice available on this subject, so here is a little a nutshell of it:

1. Increase light exposure during the day

There is increasing evidence showing that exposure to light during the day, particularly in the morning, is beneficial to our health: due to its positive effects on mood alertness and biological metabolism. The Circadian rhythm (our body clock and its regulation) helps us maintain our health. For this, it is helpful that our body recognises the difference between night and day so that we can sleep soundly at night.

2. Exercise regularly

The Sleep Foundation suggests that exercising improves our sleep cycles. Moderate to vigorous exercise can increase the quality of sleep for adults. This is because it often reduces sleep onset time (the overall amount of time that we lie awake in bed before we fall asleep). In other words, exercise can tire our physical body to the point where falling and staying asleep becomes easier and more natural.

Studies show that exercise is an effective alternative to pharmacological treatment (medication such as sleeping tablets) for disturbed sleep.2

3. Avoid caffeine and alcohol later in the day

Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance found in many foods and drinks. Adenosine is a sleep-promoting chemical that the brain produces. As we go about our daily routine, the amount of adenosine we have in our brain slowly builds up, and this helps us fall asleep at night.  Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in our brain; consequently, our body does not recognise the adenosine, and we don't feel tired when we should. With caffeine blocking this process, we find ourselves staying awake and alert for longer than is healthy. Therefore, if you want a good night’s rest, it is advisable to avoid drinking coffee or high energy drinks in the evening.

Regularly drinking alcohol towards the end of the night interrupts the three main stages of sleep and can impair the overall quality of your sleep. These 3 stages of sleep include:

  • Deep sleep - your physical body can get the fullest amount of rest necessary to grow, repair and develop
  • Light sleep - composes the majority of your sleep and allows you to restore energy levels.
  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep- the stage of sleep associated with dreaming and memory consolidation.

4. Power naps over long naps

According to the Sleep Foundation, there are many benefits of taking a nap during the day. For example, it can help you to relax, reduce fatigue and improve your mood. These benefits are specific to power naps. These are defined as short intervals of sleep taken during the day and are usually done to increase alertness.

Not everybody likes or needs a nap during the day and there are a few negative effects to look out for, such as feeling groggy and disoriented when waking up. Naps may also interfere with your circadian rhythm and may result in difficulties falling asleep at night. This is why power naps (around 10 to 20 minutes) during the early afternoon are recommended over long naps.

5. Create a pro-sleep evening routine

Having a more intentional schedule and routine in the evening can optimise the quality of your sleep. Below are a few examples of what you can implement:

  • Regularise your bed and wake up time

This might sound boring but going to bed around the same time and also setting your alarm to get up at the same time will help your body clock to recognise the difference between day and night and make it easier to fall asleep. 

  • Take a warm bath or shower

Taking a bath or shower before bed will help you unwind, relax your muscles and create a positive environment for you to end your day. Additionally, nice smelling aromas can help you relax as well! 

  • Limit blue light exposure

It is theorised that blue light can disrupt the circadian rhythm.4  This is part of the spectrum of light emitted by phones, tablets and screens on electronic devices. Many modern devices have blue light filters which you can turn on at night. However, in all fairness, it is good practice to put your technology away an hour before you plan to sleep. Not only will this reduce your exposure to blue light, but it will also reduce your chances of scrolling through social media or playing one more round of that addictive game you like so much instead of sleeping. 

  • Practise mindfulness

Sometimes it can be difficult to relax. This is where practising mindfulness comes in handy. Mindfulness is a form of meditation and is a good way to slowly switch off your mind before sleep. If you are not sure where to start, there are many apps available that help you practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques. 

The Perfect Sleep Environment

Having a healthy environment that encourages relaxation will also encourage a good night’s rest. Some ways you can do this include:

1. Set your bedroom to a cool temperature

The optimum bedroom temperature is 16 to 19 degrees celsius. A fan in the summer and a trusty extra duvet in the winter will help you achieve this

2. Choose comfortable pillows, mattress and bed

There is nothing worse than being uncomfortable when trying to fall asleep. Make sure your bedding is clean and feels exactly how you need it to feel, for example, not itchy or too light/heavy. Good hygiene is also helpful for a good night's rest. 

Sleep disorders

If getting to sleep or staying asleep is still a struggle after trying the recommendations provided in this article, then you must seek advice from your doctor to find out why. Seeking guidance and assistance would especially be useful if you’re experiencing insomnia (the inability to sleep continuously). Some other examples of common sleep disorders include:

  • Sleep Apnea - respiratory (breathing) problems when sleeping.
  • Narcolepsy- a chemical imbalance causing the individual to suddenly fall asleep unplanned.
  • Restless Leg Syndrome - spasms and unwanted leg movements keeping an individual awake.
  • Parasomnias - a sleep disorder disrupting sleep, REM sleep and causing an individual to act out their dreams physically.
  • Non-24 hour sleep-wake disorder - disruption of Circadian rhythm.
  • Excessive sleepiness - is a symptom of many other disorders.

Summary

Getting enough sleep and consistently having a good night’s rest can improve your quality of life in a variety of ways.  To do so, you can increase your sun exposure during the daytime, engage in exercise regularly, have healthy dietary habits, take power naps when necessary, and create a restful environment and routine that best suits your needs. If these changes still don’t help, it may be best to seek medical advice from your GP.

References

  1. Sleep deprivation and deficiency - what are sleep deprivation and deficiency? | nhlbi, nih [Internet]. [cited 2022 Jun 3]. Available from: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation
  2. How can exercise affect sleep? [Internet]. Sleep Foundation. 2013 [cited 2022 Jun 3]. Available from: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-activity/exercise-and-sleep
  3. Napping: health benefits & tips for your best nap [Internet]. Sleep Foundation. 2009 [cited 2022 Jun 3]. Available from: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene/napping
  4. Blume C, Garbazza C, Spitschan M. Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie (Berl) [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Jun 3];23(3):147–56. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751071/

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