• Brainz Magazine

Sleep Your Way to Success

Written by: Nicola Hunt, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

If you were offered something that was without side effects and that could make you more creative, improve your memory, concentration and attention, reduce your stress levels, look after your mental health and boost your immune system... helping you become more productive, more successful and achieve the goals you want to achieve, would you be interested?


Well, there is something that can do all of the above, is free and available to everyone .... sleep!


As well as the benefits listed above, sleep also helps to keep you slim and reduce food cravings, protects you from cancer and dementia, lowers your risk of a heart attack or stroke and reduces the risk of depression and anxiety. So with all these benefits available to us and completely free, why do we not prioritize sleep? Why do we feel we are more productive burning the candle at both ends, working late into the night and getting up early to start again?


To be at its best, our brain requires sleep, and different stages of sleep offer different benefits to our brain at different times of the night. Denying our brain sleep denies it the ability to function at its full capacity and then we wonder why we spend our days complaining of brain fog and struggling to maintain focus and attention on the tasks we need to complete.


Let’s look at sleep and memory. We make different types of memory so let’s start with fact-based memory, such as memorizing a person’s name, phone number, or remembering where you parked your car. An area of the brain called the hippocampus receives all the information and creates a record. However, like all storage, the hippocampus can become full. Once full, there is a risk you will not be able to add any further information. Or just like a memory stick… you start writing over the information that is already there, otherwise known as forgetting.


Scientists hypothesize that information is transferred out of the hippocampus either into long-term memory or is discarded during sleep. This means when we wake, our hippocampus is ready to take on our next days memories. So if we deprive ourselves of sleep, we deprive ourselves of the ability to go through our short-term memory and empty it. So we reach a point of information overload. We lose the ability to remember new facts and figures. We become forgetful, maybe missing appointments and life becomes more stressful as we spend more time looking for our keys and phone as we forget where we last put them.


Neuroscientists have also demonstrated a link between lack of sleep and our ability to sustain attention. In part, this is due to sleep deprivation causing micro-sleeps or lapses of attention throughout the daytime, but there is also evidence that lack of sleep affects some of the functions of the frontal lobe, such as being able to sustain attention and problem-solving. No wonder those tasks become harder when we haven’t had our full quota of sleep.


So, are you convinced you can sleep your way to success?

It is pretty clear that sleep is vital, yet many people find it elusive. Ask a good sleeper what they do to go to sleep, and they are likely to answer something along the lines of “go to bed” or “put my head on the pillow”. Those who sleep well rarely do anything to sleep well, but for the poor sleepers, that elusive good night sleep is sought after with special pillow sprays, bedtime rituals and seeking the magic solution.


What can you do if you’re one of the people who find it difficult to get a good night sleep? First let’s understand more about sleep. What happens to our body to make us want to sleep. Our body has a rhythm to it known as the circadian rhythm. Adults have a circadian rhythm of 90 minutes. Every 90 minutes, we cycle through a pattern of fluctuating levels of alertness. We have all experienced that mid-afternoon slump that we battle our way through until 45 minutes later our energy levels have lifted. This is true for adults; babies and children have a shorter circadian rhythm.


So if we have a 90-minute circadian rhythm, why don’t we sleep every 90 minutes? As well as circadian rhythm, we have sleep pressure. In the morning, after a nights sleep, the sleep pressure (the need to sleep) is low, and as the day progresses, sleep pressure builds, hence the afternoon dip, until bedtime, we succumb to the pressure to sleep.


What causes our pressure to sleep? A key factor in how sleep is regulated is exposure to light and darkness and its impact on the hormone melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel less alert and sleepy. Melatonin is a hormone created and stored in the pineal gland in the presence of blue light and released into the bloodstream as the light dims and darkness falls. Therefore melatonin levels are highest in the evening and night-time as natural light fades.


This system worked fine before the negative impact of the invention of electricity. This system was even more negatively affected by the invention of televisions, tablets, and smart phones, all of which emit blue light that we often use when natural light is dimming. To help regulate melatonin production we need our eyes to be exposed to natural light, preferably in the morning, for at least 30 minutes and ideally a couple of hours. This is best achieved by being outside, or at least sitting next to a window and natural daylight. Even on a grey overcast day in the city, approximately 5000 lumens of light are compared to approximately 400 lumens of light from an indoor light source.


We also do not want to continue to produce melatonin close to bedtime. We want to enable it to be released. So not using blue light-emitting screens before bed, ideally in the 2 hours leading up to bedtime, can help you get a good night's sleep.


We also need to understand our sleep chronotype. Some people are natural larks, early to bed early to rise; while others are owls, late to sleep late to rise. We tend to select partners with the opposite chronotype to ourselves, because biologically, this provides the best 24-hour care for our young, with a shorter period of overlap. However, this does not necessarily lead to a harmonious relationship as one tries to fit in with the other's sleep patterns.


It is also interesting to be aware that the circadian rhythms in teenagers are different from adults'. Teenager's natural rhythm is to fall asleep later and to wake later. A teenager who is still asleep at 9:00 am is just living by his natural circadian rhythm. However, one that is still in bed at 1:00 pm is not! So now we understand the physiology of how and why we sleep, let's consider other factors that may positively or negatively impact sleep.


As we start to fall asleep, body temperature naturally decreases by 1 to 2°C compared with our waking body temperature. Therefore a room that is too warm can prevent this natural decrease in body temperature and inhibit sleep. Having a room that is slightly cooler can help you fall asleep. Having a warm bath before bedtime can also help as body temperature drops after having a bath.


Eating before bedtime causes body temperature to rise as we have to digest the food that we have eaten. So while a small snack may be required to stave off hunger through the night a 3 course meal close to bedtime is likely to lead to tossing and turning. Exercise, although beneficial for sleep, needs to be avoided in the 2 hours before bedtime. Exercise has a stimulating effect, making us more alert and raising our body temperature.


The environment we sleep in can also have a positive or negative effect on sleep. A noisy, cluttered environment full of stimulation can prevent us from getting that good night sleep. Keeping the bedroom clutter-free, dark and free of screens can help us achieve better sleep.


A good rule to observe is to limit food, alcohol, exercise, screen use, and nicotine in the 2 hours before bedtime as all of these have a negative effect on sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of approximately 4 hours, meaning that 4 hours later, caffeine's stimulant effect is half as effective as it was when you drank it. Therefore restricting caffeinated drinks to the morning or certainly no later than mid-afternoon can help your sleep pattern.


Stress can have a very negative effect on sleep, particularly falling asleep and early awakening, and stress management techniques can help you nod off and stay asleep.


Sleep is vital for physical and mental health. If self-help techniques aren't enough seeking help from someone trained in sleep management is the next step on the path to a good night's sleep.


Find Nicola at Physiocare for physiotherapy or follow us on Facebook and for coaching find us here!

Nicola Hunt, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Nicola Hunt is a Chartered Physiotherapist and an Executive Coach, dedicated to helping people reach their full potential, whether that is with their physical recovery after injury or helping people be resilient, reach their goals and live their most fulfilling life. Nicola held a leadership role within the NHS and the position of Allied Health Professional Executive alongside developing her own physiotherapy business. Nicola specializes in the prevention and treatment of concussion and brain injury, is a CCMI affiliated concussion clinic and has a Diploma in Professional Coaching and Mentoring and a Diploma in Stress Management. After combining a successful career with the NHS with her own businesses, she now focuses solely on her Physiotherapy and Coaching businesses.

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