Many diseases including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes have been linked to a lack of sleep.
Research shows that you’re twice as likely to become addicted to something, twice as likely to feel anxious and four times more likely to feel depressed from a lack of proper sleep. Your blood may begin to clot abnormally, putting you at raised risk of heart attack or stroke. A chronic sleep debt also almost doubles your chances of being obese and it’s linked with diabetes too. Besides a link with weight gain, lack of sleep also triggers stress response and increases an inflammatory marker called CRP, which is a strong predictor of heart disease. Your mental health can also suffer. It’s also well established that dreaming sleep (also known as REM sleep) is vital for effective learning; dreaming may also be a way of sorting out emotional problems that you haven’t dealt with during the day. If you ask us, these are more than enough reasons to work on your sleeping patterns.
So how do you ensure you get the sleep you need?
Long-term sleep problems can be the result of an illness like diabetes or a painful condition such as arthritis. Otherwise the most likely root is psychological – stress, anxiety or depression. Therapy is able to help by encouraging patients to acknowledge the stress that is preventing them from sleeping and then helping them develop ways of dealing with it. While therapy is a good way of handling the stress and anxiety that often lead to insomnia, there are other ways.
Essentially common-sense advice, rather quaintly known as ‘sleep hygiene’, forms part of most sleep regimes. The idea is to create regular sleep-promoting habits on the grounds that the less successful you are at getting to sleep, the more you are going to worry about it. So you are advised to keep the bedroom quiet and dark, to have comfortable clothing, not to have a big meal before bed, to avoid coffee and alcohol and to exercise regularly but not within three hours of bedtime.
Using nutrition to handle your hormones
Another way to help is to target the hormones that are involved, which can be done through the way you eat – without drugs. If stress is the biggest problem, you will have raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol which, along with keeping you aroused at night, also has the effect of lowering production of the growth hormone needed for cell repair. To bring cortisol down, you need to keep a stable blood-sugar level, which means avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates, especially at night. Several minerals and vitamins are also involved in good sleep. Calcium and magnesium are calming and aid muscle relaxation. Magnesium is found in seeds, nuts, green vegetables and seafood; calcium in dairy produce, green vegetables and molasses. You could supplement with 600mg of calcium and 400mg of magnesium before bed. B vitamins are also involved in handling stress, but they are best taken earlier in the day as they can be energizing.
What about Alcohol?
Self-medicating with alcohol to help you get to sleep is NOT a good idea. Many people believe that a glass or two of wine at night will relax them and help them to sleep. One study found that men who drank more increased their risk of sleeping problems by 25 per cent, although this effect was not found in women. The less sleep you get the more potent and dangerous are the effects of alcohol; not only does it suppress dreaming REM sleep, but it also decreases deep sleep, which is when the beneficial growth hormone is released.