Sleep is one of the most important but forgotten things in our lives
Picture this: you check your phone as you lie in bed, cloaked in dark-ness. The blue light stings your eyes.It has been five whole minutes since the last time you checked, but every five minutes gets that much closer to 2am. You mentally calculate how many hours, minutes and seconds of sleep you will have if you fall asleep this instant, and wake up at 7am. But then, you’re not falling asleep this instant so what does it really matter? In fact, what you are doing is staring at the ceiling with watery eyes, wiggling your toes and readjusting over and over again in your bed. Your feet are too hot, but your nose is ice cold.The wind whistles past your window.How long has it been? What time is it? Should I calculate the new sleep time? It’s five minutes later? Wow. Although you are exhausted, you are wide awake, and contemplating a day of bloodshot eyes, caffeine, and irritability is making it that much harder to relax and snooze.
We’ve all been there. In fact, I was there just last night. Having trouble falling asleep is nothing out of the ordinary. Insomnia, ranging from mild to severe, is extremely common. As young adults trying our best to look after ourselves, trouble with sleep can be frustrating. On average, we will spend 26 years of our lives asleep, and seven years trying to get to sleep. Sleep, for something we spend so much time doing, is not completely understood, even by those who study it. Why do we sleep? How much sleep do I need? And how am I supposed to get that much sleep when I really am extremely busy thank you very much? The importance of sleep cannot be ignored, as its existence, or lack thereof, in our lives has direct effects on our physical, and mental wellbeing.
A lack of sleep can put us at risk of all sorts of health issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It also weakens the immune system, stripping the body of protection against viruses and bacteria. Poor sleep is also linked to inflammation and cell damage, which can lead to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, or Crohn’s disease. Sleep is the body’s time to make repairs, heal damage, grow muscle and synthesize hormones. If this time is too short, there can be serious consequences for one’s health.
A lack of sleep is also linked to depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, inability to focus and difficulty socialising. As humans are highly social creatures, having difficulty socialising and picking up on social cues can foster increased feelings of loneliness. Some of these effects can be attributed to the body’s difficulty regulating hormones on little sleep.
Whilst St Andrews students probably need not worry about it now, a good night’s sleep can ward off the early signs of ageing, because of its involvement in the memory process.
One of sleep’s main roles is to help the brain consolidate and solidify memories. During sleep, the brain processes and stores all the information that it has received throughout the day. Memories are moved from short term to long term memory, meaning that those who get adequate sleep also have an easier time recalling details, or doing memory orient-ed work. In short, a lack of sleep is harmful to our physical and mental health, while those same effects can be harmful to our sleep. Lack of sleep and many health issues can go hand in hand, often contributing to each other.
How much sleep should we be getting though? While it can be easy to know when we are sleep deprived, it can be harder to know instinctively what is the right amount of sleep.
Sleep is split into four cycles. The first three are called “non-rapid eye movement” and get gradually deep-er. The last is called “rapid eye movement” and it is in this stage that we dream. Each stage lasts one and a half hours and we need to experience all four stages to get a good night’s sleep, with no interruptions.
Younger people, however, generally need more sleep because they are developing both physically and mentally at a faster rate. Teenagers need between eight and ten hours of sleep a night, while adults need between seven and nine. University students generally fit into these two categories, with the youngest among us still being teenagers
University students, especially myself, are also prone to procrastination. Unfortunately this does not complement sleep very well. One cannot make up for sleep deprivation by oversleeping another day. The best way to reap the benefits of sleep is to get adequate sleep every night.
While that all sounds very nice, for many of us getting a good night’s sleep is a challenge. Nearly one third of the U.K. suffers from insomnia, meaning that they have trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep as long as they need to. Talk to your GP if you are suffering from insomnia and it is affecting your mental or physical health, as some cases of insomnia require medical expertise and aid. For those of us who sometimes have trouble falling asleep, there are a few ways to help us hit the hay.
Some cases of insomnia can be managed with the use of natural sleep aids like warm milk, herbal tea, or valerian. If it’s just one of those nights, a warm mug of chamomile tea could do the trick, and make your next day a lot easier. Do make sure that if you go down the warm milk route that you make sure it’s in date, as taking a gulp of warmed sour milk is not necessarily conducive to rest, as I found out this past October.
Indeed, there are certain food stuffs that can aid sleep by calming the nervous system and triggering a sleep inducing hormone. Such tasty examples as honey, yoghurt, bananas and whole grains will all do the trick should you need a return ticket to the land of Nod.
Meditation is a simple way to improve sleep quality. It can help make it easier to fall asleep, and stay asleep. Mediation can also help manage conditions that contribute to insomnia such as stress, anxiety, depression, or digestive problems. I personally have found guided meditation to be effective in helping me fall asleep when no amount of counting sheep will.
The digestive system, and sleep are strongly connected, as the gut is one of the areas of the body where melatonin (the sleep hormone) is produced. Both the brain and the gut respond to Circadian cues like sunlight and feeding patterns to regulate digestion, sleep, and hormone production.
Essential oils are another tool in sleep aid. Studies have shown aroma therapy to be helpful in promoting sleep. Roman chamomile, cedar-wood, lavender, sandalwood, and bitter orange are all essential oils that can help in falling asleep. Many companies sell lotions with essential oils that can be used for aromatherapy. I use Sleepy from Lush myself and find it extremely helpful.
Sleep hygiene and lifestyle changes can also be helpful for regulating a healthy sleep schedule. To improve sleep you can try establishing a routine, both in the time that you regularly get to bed, and what you do before, like take a warm shower or reading a book. Limiting nap time to 30 minutes a day, and trying to exercise for at least 10 minutes every day can also help.
Try also to stay away from electronics at bedtime. The presence of phones and other electronics make it hard to fall asleep as the blue light that comes from screens suppress-es the body’s natural production of melatonin. A handy function most phones have now is the “Blue light filter” function, which can be set to turn on late in the evening when you are likely to be in bed, and switch off when your alarm activates in the morning.
Making sure your environment is conducive to sleep is also important.A comfortable bed, pillow, and earplugs if you need them, can make all the difference. These conditions will not be the same for everyone. Some like to listen to music or white noise (Spotify has a “Sleep Timer” now), some need total darkness and quiet, and some need a source of light in the room. Work out what conditions are best for you.
Try to avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol regularly close to your bed-time. Coffee, tea, and soda will make it hard to fall asleep, and alcohol will disrupt the quality of your sleep. The same goes for sugary foods, like sweets and chocolate.
While many of these home remedies for insomnia have been studied and credited, it can be argued that a lot of them can be boiled down to placebos. My response to such a claim would be that if a placebo is helping you to get a full night’s sleep, and maintain your health, then you can consider it a success anyway.
Should all of these techniques fail, and a night of chasing sheep around your head is on the cards, there are ways to minimise its effect the following day.
Once up, expose yourself to bright, natural sunlight within thirty minutes of waking. Of course, I understand that here in sunny Fife this resource is at a premium, so there are other steps that are just as important. The main one is to follow your energy levels, and plan to procrastinate more than usual. It is pointless expecting to maintain similar productivity levels to a day preluded by an excellent night’s sleep, so don’t even try!
Caffeine and sugar boosts are also a no-no, as the high will inevitably come with a swift low, sapping you of all energy in the process and leaving you more tired than you woke up.
While sleep issues can be stressful, and frustrating, there are ways to help yourself, and resources to get help if you need it. Sometimes it is a lot more fun to stay up all night en-joying a night of revelry at the 601, and sometimes it is necessary to finish that essay, and sometimes it just seems impossible, but sleep is a wonderful thing that our bodies rely onto heal, make memories, and keep us going through our days. While it’s not always easy, it’s usually worth it to have a doze, crash, zonk out, catch a wink, and cop some z’s.