The science of sleep – and how to get more!

Are YOU getting enough?

Sleep, that is! In a recent poll across our social media platforms, over 80 per cent of you said a resounding NO. But why? And how do we get more?

Sleep. It’s everything. And it affects EVERYTHING. But why do our bodies and minds need it so damn badly? It’s not as simple as just ‘resting’. Nope, there’s a whole host of complex cogs at work behind that shut-eye. And your awake hours are crucial for setting your body clock to SLEEP come night-time.

The science of sleep

The role of sleep in conserving energy and restoring our bodies and minds is of course fundamental. Our metabolic rate is reduced, and we replenish with all that muscle and cell renewal.

But did you know there’s a vital window for the utmost restorative sleep? Ever heard the saying ‘Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight’? Well that’s because this time of night is when your muscles and cells really get to work at renewing themselves. It’s an enriching period of sleep that helps to consolidate new experiences and existing memory.

It’s why parents are often advised to talk to children about what they did during the day just before they go to sleep. And also why we’re told to take time to reflect on the day ourselves.

So, what about these erm, Circadian rhythms?

Circadian rhythms are set by the body’s biological clock, which is also known as our internal 24-hour clock. This body clock is very handy as it tells our bodies when we should go to sleep. It’s very clever! In any 24-hour period, we all experience a cycle of physical, mental and behavioural changes.

These circadian rhythms are largely cued by environmental factors such as light, temperature and noise and some external factors, like meal times. That’s why it’s so good to get outside every day. Not only is it brilliant for our mental health, it also helps our bodies to know what time of the day it is. Having regular meal times does the same job.

Melatonin – what is it and why does it affect sleep?

Melatonin is a natural hormone made by the pineal gland, which is located just above the middle of the brain. There’s a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to a part of the brain that sends signals to the pineal gland to indicate day and night. It slowly switches on as darkness descends and therefore we get a dose of melatonin.

This lovely hormone makes us sleepy and puts us in the mood for slumber. It’s not an instant process, more that it builds up as the sun goes down. We have naturally low levels during ‘normal’ exposure to light. Which makes sense as we don’t generally sleep in the day. We wish!

So, in summary, how can we best use this science to get better sleep?

1. Get outside in the natural daylight every day. This is not only good for your body clock but also for everyone’s mental well-being.

2. Have similar meal times every day. This helps your body know what time of the day it is.

3. Go to bed at roughly the same time every night. This helps to keep your body clock regulated.

4. Have a set bedtime routine. A few things that you do in exactly the same order every single night.  This consistency enables the brain to know that sleep is coming so that we can mentally start to unwind. 

5. Keep the bedroom dark – as in pitch black. Any light that creeps in during the early hours of the morning can start the waking process early. Light coming in to the bedroom tells the body to start preparing for waking up by producing the hormone cortisol. And we don’t want that!

If you’re a sleep-deprived parent, there’s more help and support for you from Infant Sleep Coach, Sarah Patel at @teachtosleep on Instagram and Facebook.


 

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