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The Art of Healthy Sleep

“Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day." Friedrich Nietzsche Sleep and health are strongly related, and one doesn’t exist without the other. A proper good night sleep is not a lifestyle choice; it’s a necessity that allows our body and brain to rest and renew its natural energy.

Studies show that almost 70 million people in the States alone suffer from chronic sleep deprivation and so-called, wakefulness disorders. Poor sleeping routines have a negative effect on our health increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke and other chronic illnesses. They also contribute to mental disorders and decrease our concentration and daily performance.

Feeling extremely tired and sleepy during the day may be associated with insomnia, but it may also be caused by more complex problems such as hypersomnia or narcolepsy. Hypersomnia is a condition that makes us feel constantly sleepy during the day, despite getting a good night's sleep. Narcolepsy is even more severe than hypersomnia; it’s an excessive daytime sleepiness or longer than average nighttime sleep, caused by the brain’s inability to regulate the natural sleep cycle. Although all the symptoms are similar to insomnia, these conditions are very different and should be treated as such.

How much sleep do we need? According to the National Sleep Foundation, a newborn baby needs 20 hours a day and by the age of 10 it falls into 10 hours a day. When we become adults the average time we sleep is 7-9 hours a day. There is no set amount of sleep that works for everyone, so it’s important to find out how much sleep actually works for you. What is sleep hygiene? Sleep hygiene is a general term used to see how sleep is affected by our lifestyle and environmental factors. The amount of food, caffeine and alcohol we consume in the evening has a direct impact on our sleep patterns. Foods such as rice and oats are sleep inducers as they contain melatonin. It is best to avoid sleeping on an empty stomach or consuming large quantities of foods after 7 pm.

Drinking tea or coffee before going to bed may also affect sleep as it takes some time for a body to process the caffeine. Alcohol acts as a diuretic so it will naturally disrupt the sleeping pattern. Researchers say that the most important natural factors that determine the quality of our sleep are: the temperature, the light and the sound. Here is why:

1. The temperature In the evening, as we become sleepy, the hormone melatonin begins to rise, and the body temperature falls reaching its lowest level around 5 am. In the morning melatonin level goes down, the body temperature begins to rise, and we feel ready to start the day. Studies show that various forms of insomnia are associated either with an inadequate regulation in body temperature or with an inadequate room temperature. Although we all have an individual thermoregulation system, cool room, around 19-20 Celsius degree may help get a better quality sleep. 2. The light The light in the bedroom also has a big impact on the quality of our sleep. Making the room completely dark before going to bed by using darkening curtains or shades and switching off all electronic devices will make a huge difference. Research shows that any artificial light, whether street lamps, mobile phones, TVs or alarm clocks delay the release of melatonin and keep us awake for a longer period. Most living creatures have an internal clock built up in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus that reflects the natural cycles of day and night. We tend to get sleepy when it gets dark, and we wake up when the sun rises. Sunlight detected by the retina of the eye sends messages to the brain that trigger chemical reactions in the body, causing changes in our physiology and behaviour. The mechanism is explained in detail in Fig 1.

Fig. 1. Summary of pervasive effects of light.. A diffuse network of photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (pRGCs), which also receive input from rods and cones, are maximally sensitive to blue light between 470 and 480 nm (A). These cells have direct connections to the central circadian oscillator in the SCN where depending on the time of day (circadian time, CT) light induces changes in gene expression (B). pRGCs also mediate the synchronisation to LD cycles of locomotor activity, and light-induced phase shifts (C). pRGC connections to the olivary pretectal nucleus mediate light-sensitive pupil constriction (D), and indirect input via the SCN regulates the light-sensitive suppression of melatonin production in the pineal (E). The pRGC network has direct connections to sleep regulatory structures such as the VLPO and thereby modulates sleep and the ECoG during wakefulness (F). Blue light can modify brain responses to an executive task, as measured using fMRI (G) (figure adapted from Light, Sleep, and Circadian Rhythms: Together AgainDerk-Jan Dijk ,Simon N. ArcherPublished: June 23, 2009DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000145).

3. The sound

Noise has a powerful impact on our sleep as our brain continues to process sounds on a basic level even when we are fully asleep. Studies show that when the sound is known, relevant or emotionally triggered, we experience changes in the heart rate and blood pressure and are more likely to wake.

A good way of improving our sleep is to create a constant ambient sound. White noise helps reduce the difference between background sounds and a high volume sound giving us a better chance for a good night sleep.

So, just to summarise, sleep is fundamental to our health and wellbeing. A good night sleep helps us function better, improves our mood and concentration level.

Although there is no single recipe for a quality sleep, we know that staying away from alcohol, tea, coffee and big meals before bedtime, switching off all devices, making sure that our bedroom is not too warm, dark and quiet may help. Start experimenting and see what works best for you.

Ten tips how to relax before bedtime

  1. Don’t eat big meals and don’t drink the stimulants such as caffeinated tea or coffee after 7 pm

  2. Don’t drink alcohol before bedtime to “relax.” It will compromise the quality of your sleep.

  3. Go to bed earlier. Your body, mind and beauty will be grateful to you.

  4. Start preparing yourself at least 30 minutes before you actually go to bed. Get ready, relax, slow down.

  5. Make sure that the temperature in your bedroom is around 20 Celsius degree.

  6. Switch off all your devices or leave them outside your bedroom.

  7. Make sure that your bedroom is dark and the curtains are shut.

  8. Switch the lights off and light candles.

  9. Take a warm shower of a bath to relax and wash the day away.

  10. Write three things you are grateful for in your gratitude journal and three great things that happened to you during the day. These things can be big or very small.​

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