We often think of sleep as a time when our bodies switch off, but new research reveals a hive of activity starts up as we drift off. These new findings are showing us why shut-eye is so vital.
In our busy modern lives, sleep can seem like lost, empty hours, an inconvenience. We often try and resist it for as long as possible, one more TV show, one more email, one more lot of ironing, until we pass out from exhaustion or we find ourselves lying frustrated in bed with swirling thoughts and worries keeping us awake even longer. Then, by morning, we don’t want to get up because we are too tired. Our bodies want more sleep, but we need to get up to start another to-do list.
Sleep is not, as most of us believe, simply time for us to rest from our daily exertions. On the contrary, scientists are now discovering that it is actually a time of immense activity that is far more essential to all aspects of how we function than anyone ever realised. The Director of the Sleep Foundation at Victoria University, Dorothy Bruck has found after more than three decades of research that “a lot of people think you fall asleep and your brain turns off, but it’s absolutely not the case, in fact, in some areas, it’s more active”.
Once you drift off, the powerful control centre that is your brain moves into personal organiser mode. It can now afford to start processing the huge amount of information that has come in through the course of your day: filing into archives, consolidating and discarding rubbish. However, it’s not just your brain that is busy while you are asleep, your body also switches into caretaker mode, producing growth hormone, repairing muscle, building bone, breaking down sugars and boosting skin elasticity. According to Dr Danny Eckert, a senior researcher at the Neuroscience Research Centre, “poor or insufficient sleep fundamentally impairs these vital processes”. In fact, Dr Eckert believes that if sleep was a pharmaceutical product, we’d call it a “wonder drug” and everyone would be clamoring to buy it.
The consequences of not getting enough sleep are not just feeling sluggish and lethargic. It affects our ability to handle emotions – people often get more explosive and impulsive if they haven’t had enough sleep along with also causing poor concentration and memory, impaired judgement and reaction time, and poor physical coordination. It is thought that fatigue causes about one road accident in six. But it doesn’t end there, according to Dr Eckert “if you take a healthy young person, put them in the lab and sleep-restrict them to five hours a night, they will have pre-diabetic levels within a week, and if they continue to restrict their shut-eye, they’ll be more prone to obesity and heart disease”.
So, how do you get a good night’s sleep?
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, smoking, alcohol, computer games and computer lights in the lead-up to bedtime.
Try to go to bed at the same time each night. The body’s internal clock, which controls hormones that affect sleepiness and wakefulness, works best if there is a regular sleep routine.
Don’t go to bed hungry or too full. The evening meal should be at least two hours before bedtime.
Only use your bed for sleep and intimacy. If you allow the bed to be used for general living, your brain will no longer link it with sleep.
Remove any distractions such as a TV and ensure that you have enough comfortable blankets and bedding. Many people use the TV to fall asleep or relax at the end of the day, and this is a mistake. Not only does the light suppress melatonin production, but also TV can actually stimulate the mind, rather than relaxing it. Try listening to music or audio books instead, or practicing relaxation exercises. If your favourite TV show is on late at night, record it for viewing earlier in the day.
Don’t take your worries to bed with you. Set aside “worry time” during the evening to think over the day, make plans and solutions, and then forget about them until the next day. Try to allow at least an hour before bed to wind down.