Todays blog post is about sleep.
The quality of YOUR sleep. Not your patients sleep. You will most likely spend about a third of your life asleep. If you feel like every day you are using your body like a chemistry set trying to balance out coffee because you wake up tired, pain killers for headaches because you’re dehydrated and alcohol or sleeping tablets because you are not getting at least 7 hours of restful sleep consistently every night, read on.
You don’t have to feel exhausted each morning when you wake up! Getting enough sleep is a big deal. The stakes are high. In fact your life depends on it.
What we know about your longevity and healthy ageing is that when the caps that are located on the ends of the stands of your DNA (called telomeres) shorten, you age. Living a stressful life will cause your telomeres to shorten quickly which will then prematurely catapult you into what is known as the disease span normally experienced in later life. The disease span is the part of later life when people experience and succumb to diseases of ageing such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Typically people who live a stressful daytime life don’t de-stress in their nighttime life. You won’t find many people who have a mobile phone glued to their ear during the day and a lot of the night sleeping soundly and waking refreshed. You’re more likely to find that those people are restless during the night and dream about work, they wake up feeling groggy and dehydrated, drink a lot of coffee, eat meals on the go and then try to counteract the headaches, heartburn and insomnia with alcohol and/or medications.
Anyone who is experiencing high levels of adrenaline, will generally feel exhausted most of the time and yet frustratingly cannot sleep well because of the chronic use of adrenaline which is integral to their ‘fight or flight’ or ‘I am not safe’ system. And here’s the sickening thing that is silently but rapidly ageing people in our society right now: heart rate variability (the ability of your cardiovascular system to slow back down to normal after being stimulated such as when you run across the road to avoid oncoming cars) researchers consistently find that many people don’t even realise that they are chronically stressed. Our brains are hardwired to recognise a recurring action and then as the neurons (nerve cells) that fire together to coordinate that action wire together into a faster stronger pathway (to set that action on autopilot) they can then recognise the next event and create a pathway for it if it is recurring.
So, sleep long live long.
There are a number of simple sleep hygiene strategies that you may have heard before but have forgotten to implement such as sleeping in a dark bedroom and optimising your preferred bedroom temperature.
You can dramatically improve the quality of your sleep by going to sleep earlier than you do now. Obviously you can’t just suddenly fall asleep 2 hours earlier tonight just because you read about it today, it is easier to transition through winding down 15 minutes earlier for a week and then adjusting over time.
Cooperate with your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is the system that is designed to make you feel tired when your eyes sense that it’s dark and really switch on your rest and digest systems early in the morning which is when you feel the most exhausted if you are awake at around 3:00am. Wind down when the sun goes down and minimise the number of lights (and their brightness) in your home. In days gone by people would be outdoors during the day then at dusk their eyes would adjust to the dimmer light of a fire or candle light. So back then they had a healthy and cooperative relationship with their circadian rhythm. They weren’t trying to balance out levels of caffeine, sugar or alcohol.
Avoid screens (blue light emitting technology such as TV, smart phone, tablet etc) within the 3 hours before bed as they inhibit the sleep inducing hormone Melatonin.
Charge your phone in a room far away from your bedroom and use an old fashioned alarm clock.
With the knowledge that you will spend a third of your life asleep, we can refine that number down to scheduling your day.
Have you ever gone to bed when you are exhausted from work and when you woke up the next day all that you could recall from the night were dreams about work etc? It is recommended that when you are exhausted and ready for bed you spend some time doing your ‘outlet activity’. It might be yoga or listening to music. Whatever it is, it needs to be something that helps you to cycle down your autonomic nervous system rather than amp it up.
Eat your main meal during the day and have a much smaller meal at night.
Lack of restful sleep amplifies your entire range of emotions.
When you catch yourself watching the clock during a sleepless night and calculating how many hours you have left to sleep before it’s time to get up, STOP! This almost always leads to a cyclic and u helpful rumination about how much sleep you have missed.
Recognise and prepare yourself if you haven’t slept well: allow more time to get ready to go out, avoid making big decisions and avoid people that your find stressful to be around.
Avoid or minimise diuretics. The coffee that you drink in the morning because you consistently wake up tired and the wine or beer that you drank because you drank so much coffee have a diuretic effect on your body (make you need to urinate more often and therefore dehydrate you) in addition to the long lasting effects they have on heart rate and blood pressure. Actively hydrate as soon as you can physically tolerate a lot of water each morning.
If you work night shifts, you need to find a day job. Seriously! Night shifts are physiologically unnatural (they counteract the circadian rhythm, they put you into an extended fight or flight mode and if done over the long term will ultimately shorten your life. If you are in a phase of your life which demands that you work night shifts, follow each of the other steps listed above, consume nutrient dense foods and optimise your sleep routine before during and after the shift. Not to scare you, but definitely to help you to make informed choices, a decade ago the World Health Organisation classified working permanent night shifts as a Class 2B Carcenogen (probably likely to cause cancer). There is a very large cohort long term study into the effect of permanent night shift on nurses in the US with some profound results that I recommend you take a look at.
Sleep plays an important role in being able to regulate negative emotions, especially in people with depression and anxiety. Lack of sleep (which amplifies emotions both good and bad) has significant impacts on quality of life and also general health and wellbeing. For these reasons, over the counter and prescription sleeping medications are regularly used to counteract sleep deficit. But sleeping medications are a band-aid solution to the fatigue. They commonly cause the user to feel ‘groggy’ or routinely experience a hangover, so the user drinks more sugary coffee or excessively sugary energy drinks (which no one should be drinking, literally no one), perpetuating the chemically induced fluctuations of fatigue and adrenaline response.
To wrap up, if you aren’t in the habit of getting at least 7 hours of restful sleep each night you need to take a serious look at the habits of your whole day.
On that note pleasant dreams……zzzz
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