• Kate Maxwell

Sleep - is it really important?

Updated: Oct 7

We all crave a good nights sleep, but how many of us actually prioritise it? In our busy lives it seems as if our days get longer, as our nights get shorter. We sacrifice precious hours of sleep, but to what cost? A night of restful sleep can do wonders for our overall health and wellbeing, and with both physical and mental benefits, it’s time we put sleep at the top of our list.

We all know that exercising and eating a balanced diet are crucial factors in maintaining our general health. But did you know that sleep could be just as important? Getting a decent amount of sleep is an essential part of helping our body to repair and recover – whether it’s fighting off illness, helping to heal an injury or even just recuperate from that heavy gym session after work. Those vital hours at night set your body up to begin it’s necessary healing and restorative processes, helping to regulate blood pressure, repair heart tissue and blood vessels, as well as reducing inflammation within the body. Studies have shown that the negative effects of ongoing sleep deficiency include an increase in high blood pressure, as well as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes – so avoiding sleep deprivation is always the best idea! Quality sleep has also been linked to hormone control, promoting growth and development in children and teens, as well as playing a part in puberty and fertility. To top it off, a deep slumber revitalises and renews our energy, getting us ready for the day’s tasks ahead.

The benefits of a good night’s rest don’t stop when we wake up. Quality sleep has been linked to an increase in both athletic ability and cognitive performance – enhancing learning abilities and attention spans. Studies have shown that adequate sleep can be advantageous in aiding with problem solving, decision-making, reaction times, creativity and productivity. On the opposite side of the coin however, we often use or hear the phrase, “I’m tired” when things start to get hard or we become a little ‘titchy’. Sleep is important for helping us to control our behaviour and emotions. Fatigue or sleep deprivation can affect our ability to cope with change, think logically and make suitable decisions. Over time, a continued pattern of sleep deficiency has been linked to cases of depression, mood swings, loss of motivation and an increase in risk-taking behaviour.

So how much sleep is enough? Like most things in life, each individual has a different set of needs and will therefore benefit from a different amount of sleep. Over the course of our lives, the amount of sleep we require will also change. As infants, we require the most sleep to help nurture and grow our bodies and mind – around 12-16 hours a day – through to about 10-14 hours a day for young children. As a general rule adolescents tend to require anywhere from 8-12 hours sleep each night, while adults can get by with an average of 7-8 hours. Some may discover although that this magic number isn’t quite right, or they may still find they begin to feel sleepy throughout the day. Naps can be of great short-term benefit, providing a quick boost in performance and alertness. However it is important to note that while a quick siesta can help get you through the day, it won’t make up for lost sleep long-term as they don’t provide the same benefits as a night of decent sleep. For adults, an afternoon nap should last around 20 minutes.

So how can we look to improve our nightly slumber? Check out the below tips to incorporate into your daily routine to ensure you’re getting the best quality from your hours of rest.

· Set a sleep schedule and daily wake-up time: One thing our body clock’s love is routine. By waking up and going to bed around the same time each morning and night, your body will start to form a pattern of a ‘sleep-wake’ rhythm. Try to keep these similar for both weekdays and weekends, as a long sleep in on your day off can disrupt this rhythm.

· Use the hour before bed to relax and unwind: Stress and tension can play a very negative role in effecting an individual’s quality of sleep. Use the hour before bedtime to switch off and wind down for the evening. Avoid bright artificial/ blue lights, as these stimulate your brain into thinking it is time to wake up. You may like to try reading a book, using relaxation techniques, or even having a soak in the bath. Here's an article on changing your perception on stress.

· Avoid caffeine from late afternoon until bedtime: Caffeine is a stimulant, and with effects that can last up to eight hours, it can interfere with your quality of sleep. Caffeine can be found in coffee, teas, energy drinks and some processed foods with high sugar contents.

· Stay physically active and eat a balanced diet: Looking after your general health and fitness greatly aids in supporting a good night’s sleep. When possible, make time to get some fresh air outside each day and aim for a minimum of 20-30 minutes exercise each day – even if it’s just a quick walk in your lunch break. Avoid eating large, heavy meals before sleeping as this increases the body’s energy intake levels, without having a way to trade off energy expenditure during rest.

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