A good night’s sleep: something children beg to avoid and adults beg to have more of. What is sleep, really though? And why is it so important?
Imagine what aliens must think if they were to see a human sleep for the first time:
“They would walk around all day and be OK. And then, once a day, usually after dark, they would lie down on these special platforms and become unconscious. They would stop functioning almost completely, except deep in their minds they would have adventures and experiences that were completely impossible in real life. As they lay there, completely vulnerable to their enemies, their only movements were to occasionally shift from one position to another…” – George Carlin
Sleep is a crucial part of our lives. We need sleep so our bodies can rest, recharge, grow, and repair. You need good sleep hygiene to repair damaged tissues, synthesize hormones, grow muscles, and heal. Sleep is imperative to your overall health more than you may think.
For example, without enough sleep your body can struggle to control blood sugar levels as well as it should, which can increase risk of diabetes. You are also prone to overeating when you don’t get enough sleep, mental health can decline, your immune system needs sleep to stay strong… and so much more!
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is a term that simply means you practice healthy sleep patterns and habits. On average, an adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
You may have previously heard of the term “sleep debt”, where getting extra sleep here and there will eventually make up for lack of sleep on other nights. Not only is that not quite true, but it is also not what the term actually means. According to SleepFoundation.org, sleep debt “is the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs and the amount they actually get. For example, if your body needs eight hours of sleep per night, but only get six- you have two hours of sleep debt.” (source).
So if you have good sleep hygiene, you won’t have any sleep debt!
But what are healthy sleep habits?
Below is a chart from the National Sleep Foundation on their guidelines for how much sleep the average person needs. Based on individual circumstances, some people may require more sleep than others.
The first good sleep habit is getting enough! Many adults get 5-6 hours of sleep a night on average, which science shows is not enough. If you can’t get through your full day without feeling tired, or catch yourself dozing off in front of the TV after dinner, you likely aren’t getting enough sleep.
There is a gene discovered by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, that enables some people to function well on six hours of sleep a night. However, this gene appears in less than 3% of the population. So if you think you are OK only getting 6 hours of sleep each night, think again.
The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has conducted sleep studies in relation to overall health, and concluded that 93% of high schools in the USA start too early in the morning. You can read about some of these studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics, here.
Sleep Hygiene Tips
Here are some changes (big and small), you can make to build better sleep hygiene habits:
- Beds are for sleeping.
Don’t use your bed for eating, watching TV, studying, working, etc. The more activities you do on your bed, the more confused your brain can get. Limit your bed to sleep and intimacy, so your brain easily associates laying in bed to sleep.
- Keep it regular.
Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day of the week. This habit trains your body to be ready for sleep when it is time to sleep, and ready to start the day when it’s time to wake up.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
Some experts say not to take any caffeine or alcohol 4 hours or more before bed to increase your sleep quality and quantity.
Yes, naps are ok! A 10-20 minute nap is sometimes just what the body needs to feel refreshed and conquer the rest of the day. However, try not to nap after 3pm, and remember they are a short-term solution.
- A nice warm bath.
A warm bath or hot shower 1-2 hours before bedtime can help relax your body and mind, raise your body temperature, and get you in the mood to drift right off to sleep.
- A balanced diet.
A properly balanced diet is key to our overall health, and the role it plays in sleep is no exception. Avoid heavy foods right before bed, as well as foods containing caffeine like chocolate and apples.
The Science of Sleep
Let’s take a deeper look at how all these sleep hygiene tips play into what’s happening in your body when you sleep.
The hypothalamus is an almond-sized structure that sits right at the top of the brainstem. The nerves contained inside the hypothalamus control sleep and arousal. Also within the hypothalamus is what’s called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which takes information from your eyes about light exposure that helps control your circadian rhythms.
Your brain stem communicates with the hypothalamus, helping to control your transition between awake and asleep. The brainstem is also the reason we don’t act out our dreams; it sends signals to relax your muscles during REM sleep.
The SCN also sends signals to your pineal gland in order to produce melatonin to help you fall asleep when light exposure goes down (i.e. you turn off the lights).
The basal forebrain helps promote this cycle of wakefulness to sleepiness. It releases a chemical called adenosine, which supports your sleep drive. Caffeine counteracts the effectiveness of adenosine, which is why you shouldn’t consume caffeine before bed.
Next we have the cerebral cortex and the thalamus. The cerebral cortex is the layer covering your cerebrum, and it plays a critical role in almost all brain functions. One of its many jobs is processing information from short term memory into long term memory. (You can read more about the importance of sleep and memory here and here). The thalamus sends sensory information (touch, smell, hearing, touch, taste) to the cerebral cortex. While you sleep, your thalamus is less active until you enter REM sleep where it talks to your cerebral cortex about the world around you, and that information fills your dreams, which is why dreams are more vivid in this stage of your sleep.
Importance of Sleep Hygiene
If you’re looking to explore more about how sleep affects us, we recommend the book “Why We Sleep” by neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker, PhD. No ads, affiliate links or anything here – we genuinely enjoy this book.
If you’ve ever been a client of ours, you’ve probably heard us talk about the importance of hydration, food, and sleep, and how they all play an important role in your recovery. Now you know a little more about why!
Do you have a nagging pain or injury you would like help with? Book an appointment online with one of our expert physiotherapists, or give us a call today!
Strive Physiotherapy & Performance