Sleep and our wellbeing

by | 2 Jul 2023 | Mental Health, Wellbeing

Sleep should be a priority when thinking about your wellbeing.  Sufficient high-quality sleep is vital for our overall physical and mental health, yet an area we often overlook.

Getting enough sleep

We tend to have a very casual relationship with sleep and only give it consideration when we are short of it and notice the impact of tiredness.  However, extensive research shows we should give sufficient high-quality sleep much greater attention.  Whilst we might think we are just sleeping to recharge our battery for the next day, our amazing body and brain is hard at work processing, filing, replenishing, and repairing.

Lack of sleep, considered to be less than 6 hours, has significant impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.  Do you notice your levels of patience are lower when tired?  Or maybe you struggle to concentrate?

Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain (Walker, 2017).    In Britain only a minority of people (15%) say they wake up feeling refreshed and it has been estimated that we now sleep over an hour less each night than people did a century ago.  This has an impact on all areas of our health and wellbeing.

The impact of poor sleep

We all know after a bad night’s sleep we struggle to concentrate and remember things; our patience is reduced and our resources are generally lower.  In fact, it may take 10x longer for our brain to reply to something and our ability to focus is the first casualty of a shortage of sleep.

However, it also affects our immune system, our ability to recover from illness, consolidate memories, and deal with stress.  Research shows a shortage of sleep links to obesity.  The reasons are complex but are connected to how sleep deprivation interrupts hormone production which is needed for regulating a healthy weight.

It is not just about the number of hours sleep (between 6-8 works for most adults) it is the type of sleep we have.  Again, we have all experienced the difference between waking up refreshed and recharged after a good night’s sleep, and the mornings when we feel we have tossed and turned all night.

Our natural sleep cycle

A vital part of getting quality sleep is alignment with our own internal circadian rhythm which connects with the natural cycles of day and night.  At a simplistic level, we are designed to sleep when it is dark and be awake when it is light.  The invention of artificial lighting has had a significant impact on this with some research saying we are exposed to ten thousand times as much light at night than three centuries ago.  It is why the use of technology late in the evening is so damaging for our sleep.

After just a few days of a sleep shortage there is an impact at a cellular level with genes linked to a range of serious illness increasing in activity.  It also lowers our ability to cope with stress.

What happens when we sleep

There are two main types of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). 

During each night we go through phases of sleep and follow the cycle through the night four or five times.   We start with NREM Stage 1 as the lightest stage of sleep when we first fall asleep and only lasts for a short while.  We then go into a deeper stage of NREM sleep when the brain is sorting out information from the day.  We spend just under half the time in this stage. The third stage of NREM sleep is when the deep levels of processing and repair take place, and the element we need to wake up feeling rested.

REM sleep is when we dream, deal with trauma and process things.  It is a deep level of sleep and we spend about a quarter of the time in this type of sleep.

Be aware that if you are one of those people that say they can sleep after caffeine, alcohol, using electronic devices, etc, you may at one level be sleeping but the overall quality of sleep will be compromised.

Improving your sleep – To learn more about ways to improve your sleep read the next blog in this series which gives tips for a good night’s sleep.

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