Feeling tired? The World Health Organisation confirms that about two thirds of us are not getting enough sleep. But how much do you need, why does it matter and what can you do to give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep? Our Senior Nutritionist Heather Leeson explains….
Why do we need our sleep?
The importance of sleep was poorly understood for many years. But we now know that getting enough sleep is essential for almost every system in our body, from our brain to our heart and even our reproductive system.
Longer term sleep deprivation increases our risk of diabetes, strokes, cancer, obesity, depression, anxiety…. If you are over 45 years old, your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in your lifetime is 200% greater if you have less than 6 hours sleep per night compared to someone sleeping 7 – 8 hours. It is also one of factors that significantly increases your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
And lack of sleep has an almost immediate effect. For example, after one night of poor sleep, your cancer-fighting natural killer cells and your white blood cells are reduced. In a study, participants who slept for only 6 hours per night for 10 days were as performance-impaired as those who had been awake for 24 hours.
One more reason to get more sleep – sleeping less is implicated in increased appetite and weight gain. Inadequate sleep lowers levels of leptin, a hormone that supresses appetite and increases ghrelin, a hormone that increases hunger.
How much sleep do we need?
Like everything, we all have slightly different requirements. The World Health Organisation recommends 8 hours per night for adults and more for children. Younger children need more, for example primary school children need between 9 and 11 hours sleep. Teenagers need between 9 and 9 ½ hours. Any less than this and the teenage mood swings and anti-social behaviour will be even worse. It also impairs academic performance.
Those recommendations refer to sleep time, not time in bed! To give yourself a chance of getting the recommended 8 hours sleep you need to be getting into bed 8 1/2 or even 9 hours before you need to get up.
What can you do?
The statistics about the importance of sleep can be terrifying and that’s no help if you are struggling to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep problems are caused by lots of different issues, so it’s important to look at what might be impacting your sleep. Lifestyle factors that have been shown to help include exercise, especially if earlier in the day. Stress management including meditation and other relaxation techniques can also be helpful. Some of our patients have found apps like calm and Headspace helpful. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown to be helpful and as effective as sleeping tablets in some studies.
Most sleep experts agree on some simple sleep hygiene tips – trying to go to bed at the same time every night, having a cool temperature in your bedroom and avoiding electronics at least one hour before bed can all help. Our Galway Nutritionist Sorcha Molloy compares it to treating your brain like a dimmer switch and ‘turning down’ activity for gradual relaxation. And there are also foods and drinks that can affect sleep.
Caffeine – cut it down or out
Caffeine is a stimulant drug. A small amount can help performance and focus but this peaks at about 2 cups. Caffeine stops us from getting into the deeper REM sleep that our bodies need for recovery. So even if caffeine is not stopping you from getting to sleep, it is stopping you from getting proper recovery sleep. Caffeine has a half life of 6 hours. That means that 6 hours after drinking a mug of coffee, half of that caffeine is still in your system. Having a mug of coffee at 4pm is the same as drinking half a mug of coffee on your way to bed at 10pm. And coffee is not the only culprit! Tea has about half of the amount of caffeine as coffee, as does green tea and cola. Dark chocolate also contains small amounts, as do some pain killers like Panadol Extra. And even decaf coffee still contains a small amount of caffeine together with other stimulants. Our recommendation is to limit yourself to 2 coffees or 4 teas and to have these before lunch.
While some people have a glass of something to help sleep, they might actually be shooting themselves in the foot. Like caffeine, alcohol prevents restorative REM sleep and can make us more prone to snore. This might impair both your sleep and that of the person sleeping beside you!
Magnesium can help sleep
Magnesium has been shown in many studies to help with sleep and with some conditions that interrupt sleep, like restless legs and many people have low levels of magnesium in their diet. It works by supporting neurotransmitters in the brain that facilitate sleep and helps us relax. Food sources include dark green leafy vegetables, like kale and spinach, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, pulses and dairy foods. If you are struggling to sleep, it may be worth trying a magnesium supplement. 400mg is what has been shown to be effective and safe. Another way to increase magnesium levels is to have a bath with Epsom salts or magnesium chloride like Better You Magnesium Salts, where you absorb it through the skin. If you don’t have a bath, even having a foot bath will help.
Have a snack
If you find that your regularly wake during the night, it may help to have a small snack an hour or so before bed. Something like a yoghurt or a rice cake with nut butter can make a good snack to help support blood sugar levels throughout the night.
Chamomile, valerian root, lavender and passionflower are just some of the herbs that have been proven to help and often work best in a combination. They can be taken in tea form and are also available in supplement and tincture form via health food stores and some pharmacies. Teas are generally safe, but get advice if you are taking stronger herbs.
Sleeping tablets can help get over sleep problems in the short term. However, they can be psychologically and physically addictive. Most are forms of sedatives and help you to get to sleep, but the quality of sleep we get when on sleeping tablets is not the same, or as good as ‘normal’ sleep. If you are taking sleeping tablets, I recommend talking to your Dr about reducing these gradually and putting some of the lifestyle factors mentioned in place.
Top tips to help your sleep
- Get some exercise earlier in the day
- Work on your stress levels
- Look at your ‘sleep hygiene’
- Limit caffeine and avoid after lunch
- Have a small snack an hour before bed
- Take magnesium in the evening
- Try a herbal tea for sleep