Sleep – is less more?

On the 19th of September 2016, The American Heart Association released a statement entitled Sleep Duration and Quality: Impact on Lifestyle Behaviours and Cardiometabolic Health. Now this got me interested! Firstly, because I know that my sleep patterns leave much to be desired with often unintentional late-nights, frequent wakings, and early mornings, and secondly, because it is not often that an allopathic medicine cohort acknowledges the role of something “woo-woo”, alternative, and non-pharmacological or non-surgical! So I had to delve deeper and see what I could find.

The statement concludes that insufficient or excess sleep and sleep disorders, such as insomnia and obstructive sleep apnoea, place individuals at a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic complications, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease. Short sleep duration is defined as less than 7 hours per night, and long sleep duration as more than 9 hours per night. Insomnia is a disorder characterised by difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and early morning awakenings more than 3 nights per week for more than 3 months. Obstructive sleep apnoea is a condition where there are periods during sleep of breathing cessation, and it is associated with a history of snoring, morning headaches, and daytime sleepiness. Without going into too much detail (you can click on the hyperlink above to read more), the researchers proposed various hormonal and neuronal mechanisms that became dysregulated as a result of insufficient or excess sleep, leading to an increased risk for cardiometabolic disease.

So right off the bat, the research is sparse – and this is acknowledged by the researchers themselves. But they also acknowledge that its importance is growing and it is not something to be ignored. Considering that this article was published by the American Heart Association (big deal!) in the journal Circulation (some more big deal!), this may be a catalyst for more awareness around sleep and its relationship to disease. It certainly got me thinking about my own sleep habits and resulted in my implementing some strategies to make sure I mitigate many of the modern lifestyle influences on our sleep patterns. I think we live in a culture of “busy-ness” where we clutter our lives with everything from work endeavours to social events to training and competition goals, in an endless pursuit of “balance”, that we forget, and neglect, the very foundation that will enable us to perform each of those aspects more efficiently and effectively… sleep!

So what can we do to improve our sleep habits? A bit of background on how sleep works may help you to better understand the things we can do to make it better!

In short, there’s a thing called a suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN for short) in your brain. It receives light signals from your eyes. When the sun sets, the SCN sends a bunch of signals out: one is to the pineal gland to release melatonin, and one is to the VLPO region in the brain to release GABA. Melatonin counteracts the adrenal hormones which make us “wired and fired” and GABA suppresses all the neurons so that it is harder for them to fire off. All in all you feel that its sleepy time! BUT… enter your phone, your computer, and bright lights which prevent the SCN from telling the pineal gland to pump out some melatonin, and enter your thoughts, your stress, whiney people, intense exercise, and other environmental stimuli which override GABA… and BOOM, you can’t sleep! Or the sleep you do get is just not deep enough. Eish.

But it can’t be all doom and gloom, right? No, it’s not, optimism is key people! Here are some interventions you can implement quite simply to ensure you get those 7-9 restful hours of sleep… and show off how ahead of the game you are as the research into sleep gathers momentum 😉

  1. Block the blue light at least 3 hours before bed: get an app on your phone (iOS 10 has a built in function, Android users can download Twilight), and load “f.lux” on your computer. You can also buy special (nerdy) glasses online.
  2. Dim the lights: only turn on essential lights in the house and dim them if you can.
  3. Calm down: make sure intense exercise is performed 2-3 hours before bed if possible
  4. Stop working: at least one hour before bed, stop emailing, paying bills, Facebooking, Instagramming, programming, studying etc
  5. Make a list: put all the things running through your head onto paper instead so that you can look at them again in the morning and prevent the overthinking from ruining your sleep
  6. Meditate: download an app such as Headspace to help you make it a routine – focusing on your breathing and doing a body scan before bed will help you from ruminating over work, relationships, goals, training etc and ensure a better night’s sleep.

So on that note, it’s time for me to put away the computer and get this out to you guys before the sun sets. I hope you found this beneficial and once again feedback is always appreciated. What do you do to optimise your sleep?

Until next time, have a healthy week xx

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