The Telegraph printed an article with their newest survey of New Years Resolutions. According to this poll the most common resolutions were:

  1. Exercise more (38%)
  2. Lose weight (33 %)
  3. Eat more healthily (32%)
  4. Take a more active approach to health (15 %)
  5. Learn new skill or hobby (15 %)
  6. Spend more time on personal wellbeing (12 %)
  7. Spend more time with family and friends (12 %)
  8. Drink less alcohol (12 %)
  9. Stop smoking (9 %)
  10. Other (1 %)

Although these all seem like separate resolutions, in reality they go hand in hand and the key to staying committed and succeeding with any NYR starts with good sleep. The old shut eye, 40 winks, slumber, land of nod….yes sleep is integral to optimal health. Studies have shown that when you’re sleep deprived: you’re more likely to eat sugary foods, have a decreased desire to exercise (or if you do, you’re more likely to injure yourself), have a reduced mental capacity to learn a new skill or have enough focus and willpower to stop smoking and you certainly won’t lose weight. I see the latter all the time, and a patient’s sleep quality and quantity is usually one of the first questions I ask. Their food intake and exercise can come after. So in my opinion, go easy on yourself and chose one NYR only and make that all about sleep.

Look, I get it: sleep is a boring subject. It sounds a lot more exotic touting the reason for your weight loss on some fad diet, rather than the simplicity of sleeping more and personally, some of us hate sleep and aren’t very good at it; I’m referring to myself here! But one thing is for sure: it is AS important to focus on sleep, as it is any other health goal.

Sleep isn’t just about relaxing: during sleep your brain is busy processing data, consolidating memories, making links, and clearing out toxins. When you’re asleep, your brain does its housekeeping and when this doesn’t happen, the brain degenerates or shrinks!

There is more and more evidence emerging that sleep deprivation really hurts our health, not just immediately but in the long term: Just one night of poor sleep reaps massive confusion with all your hormones and chemicals leading to: increased appetite, blood pressure and blood sugars. Chemical imbalances result in irritability, anger, weakened concentration and memory, impaired judgment and decision-making, and reduced learning. One week of sleeping fewer than six hours a night can result in changes to more than 700 genes and men seem to have it worse; their brains after not sleeping for just one night show changes indicative of brain shrinkage and damage similar to a brain injury. Long term, chronic sleep deprivation will most definitely contribute to the development of obesity, heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer, early death, depression and Alzheimer’s.

It’s such a big problem that the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the States (CDC) declared it a public health epidemic — similar to the warnings issued about smoking cigarettes decades ago.

I can personally vouch for the positive effects of improved sleep. I used to be your typical Junior Doctor, burning the candles at both ends. I would stay awake till the early hours, making ridiculous comments to myself like “I can sleep when I’m dead” or “sleep is boring”, and then need to fuel the next day with caffeine and sugary foods to keep me awake.

Because I always felt okay, symptomless I guess, I never paid heed to this. Furthermore, it was hardly mentioned in medical school or during my GP training. In reality though, I did have one massive symptom; and that was my expanding midriff. It was paying more attention to my sleep that played a huge part in my eventual successful and permanent weight loss.  To this day, even after just a few night shifts, I can see the effects on my waistline.

And it’s those who say “I’m fine, I function really well on very little sleep”, that this blog piece is truly dedicated to. As I’ve mentioned, feeling fine is really not the equivalent of being healthy. We can cope and adjust to the havoc we play on our bodiesuntil we no longer can and that’s when disease rears its ugly head.

Of course everyone’s sleep needs vary but on the whole we all need 7-9 hours a night (a lot more for children) for the brain and body to perform optimally. And forget about ‘catch up sleep’- there is no such thing I’m afraid. What is equally important, as length of sleep is the quality. Anyone who has ever had 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep, yet wakes up feeling tired and sluggish understands this.

So what can we do to ensure that the quantity and quality of our sleep is better? Outlined below are the best tips coming from someone who’s been there:

YOUR BEDTIME

 Go to bed earlier. It really is that simple and considering I used to be a night owl, this is something that took some getting used to, but helped so much that I am incredibly passionate about it. I understand the pressure of that never ending to do list but the majority of us, function so much better in the morning, which makes sense physiologically. We are designed to get up and go and start our day when the sun rises, as we have a surge of cortisol (the stress hormone- but good stress) in our blood stream a few hours before we wake up; which in turn fuels us to get on with our day. Conversely at night, our cortisol is low (well it is supposed to be), allowing melatonin to take over to lull us into a deep slumber. So even for you supposed night owls, instead of working past midnight with the laptop, turn it off, sleep as early as you can and try waking up early to get the same stuff done.

ROUTINE

Try and optimise your sleep rhythm by working in harmony with your hormones and not against them. This means trying to get at least a little bit of sunshine on your face when you wake up, but ideally for 20-30 minutes and making sure there is no light in your bedroom when you sleep, both from natural sources and blue light emitting devices. For the same reason try and keep to a sleep routine. If you have children, you’ll remember just how important routine was to their restful sleep. This never really changes that much as we grow older. Trying to wake up and go to bed at roughly the same time everyday will help your body adapt to a healthy sleep pattern and will most certainly improve the quality.

OPTIMISE YOUR ENVIRONMENT

Optimise your room for sleep and sleep only. That means blackout blinds, eye masks, the most luxurious bedding you can afford, the perfect mattress and the correct room temperature (ideally between 16-22 degrees). I personally, even in winter, leave the window slightly ajar to help air circulate. Try and avoid having a TV in the bedroom and keep the room for sleep only (and other relevant activities!).

TURN IT OFF

Lights outside our house (street lights, the moon, traffic etc.) are not in our control, but we can avoid excessive artificial blue light stimulation by putting our devices away.  The blue light emitted by screens (TV, phones, tablets), stimulates the sleep centre in our brain to make us think it is time to wake up. So as tempting as it is to check Facebook just before you sleep, try your best to avoid these blue lights for at least a few hours before you go to bed. If you HAVE to keep your phone in your room while you sleep, please put it in airplane mode. Studies have shown that a screen that lights up, even if facing downwards can have damaging effects on the quality of our sleep.

STIMULATION

Avoid excessive stimulation after a set time, for example I don’t recommend anyone do vigorous exercise after 6pm if they can help it, preferring them to do yoga or Pilates. I also suggest caffeine avoidance after midday, but if that seems too scary, then at least not for at least 6-8 hrs. before bed, due the lengthy half-life of caffeine.

TROUBLE GETTING TO SLEEP

If you have trouble getting to sleep, a warm bath before bed preferably with some Epsom (magnesium) salts will definitely help. If this is impossible or you don’t have a bath try placing a warm hot water bottle on your abdomen for 20-30 minutes in bed whilst you read. Studies have shown that heating this solar plexus region aids in falling asleep.

Relaxation exercises, meditation and yoga are all proven effective strategies that can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Avoid medications that interfere with sleep such as sedatives like zopiclone, diazepam but also even things like anti histamines or cough mixtures. Though they may help in the short term they can cause dependence, may stop working and definitely disrupt normal sleep patterns. Use herbal over the counter therapies: such as passionflower, valerian, magnesium citrate or glycinate, melatonin or magnolia*. These are much safer and won’t cause dependence and work with the body and it’s sleep cycles.

TROUBLE STAYING ASLEEP

Make sure your evening meal has good sources of protein and fat. Scientific evidence shows that these foods are more filling and they keep insulin levels stable as we slumber. Avoid refined sugars or carbohydrates in the evening, because they can cause a blood sugar plunge in the middle of the night, which will in turn disturb your sleep.

If getting to sleep is an issue because you lay in bed worrying or thinking of all the things on your to do list, or troubles in your personal life keep a pen and pad next to the bed and write them down. Try not to think about anything too worrying or negative before you sleep. I know this is easier said than done, but it definitely helps, so please try it.

I hope this piece has “awakened you” (pun intended) to the importance of good quality sleep, especially as a tool for disease prevention. As someone who still suffers from insomnia on occasion, I really can empathise but luckily I have a whole bag of tricks and techniques up my sleeve. This is genuinely important so please get in touch to see if I can help.

*check with me or your medical doctor that there is no interference with these herbal remedies with any prescription ones you take.