In a recent interview, Dr. Carmel Harrington shared some key insights on sleep hygiene. In the article below she explains the consequences that poor sleep habits can have on our health and what we can do to have a better sleep.
Sleep - the third pillar of health
Article by Dr. Carmel Harrington
Sleep is our third pillar of health and is just as important as exercise and nutrition. Without good sleep on a regular basis our physical and mental health will suffer.
Not getting the sleep we need has ill-effects both in the short and long term. In the short term it can put us in a bad mood, decrease our energy level and libido and increase our susceptibility to catching a cold or 'flu. We will also find it difficult to think well and to plan and in this state we are much more likely to have a car or occupational accident.
Long-term sleep difficulties mean that we are much more likely to develop a chronic disease such as depression, certain types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart disease; and metabolic diseases, such as Type II diabetes and obesity.
However there is good news. When we do get the sleep we need on a regular basis we are healthier, happier, more motivated and dynamic, better thinkers, and are more likely to eat and exercise well. Just in case we need more convincing, research shows that we even look more attractive.
Unfortunately people frequently sabotage their own sleep without realising it. Probably the most common sleep stealer is technology. Most of us don't realise the fact that our sleep hormone, melatonin, can only be produced by the brain in dim or dark light.
So if we are on the computer/phone or watching a high-definition TV screen right up until the time of sleeping we will have trouble getting to sleep and/or staying asleep.
Many of us also do not get enough exercise in our day and so even though our brain is tired our body isn't. It is always a good practice to have at least 20 minutes exercise every day and we can get this by going for a walk at lunch time. However, make sure not to exercise within 3 hours of bedtime as this only serves to alert the body.
Caffeine is another big sleep stealer and becomes more so as we get older because our metabolic rate decreases, causing the effects of coffee to stay in our body longer. If you have sleeping difficulties it is important not to have caffeine, in any form, after midday. Green tea is also a stimulant so best to limit those cups of tea to the morning hours.
Where we sleep also affects how we sleep. If we sleep on an uncomfortable mattress in a light and noisy room we will often experience difficulties either getting to or staying asleep.
Our bedroom needs to be a safe sanctuary away from the rest of the world where we can rest and restore our body. It is therefore of primary importance to assess your sleeping environment and ensure that your bed and bedding are comfortable and that the room is dark, quiet and cool.
It is a sad fact but true that many people find it difficult to sleep because they do not give themselves enough down-time. It is important to realise that we need our mind to relax in order to get the best sleep possible, so always try to factor in some time to relax in the evening before going to bed.
How To Improve Your Sleep
How we sleep at night is often very dependent upon how we spent our day. To get the best sleep possible we do need to prepare both our mind and body for sleep.
To prepare the body we need to:
- Get up at the same time every day.
- Exercise for at least 20 minutes per day (a walk at lunchtime is good)
- Not have caffeine after midday
- Refrain from alcohol
- Not sleep during the day (a nap of 20 minutes is ok)
- Eat only a small meal at night and especially no big meal within 3 hours of bedtime.
- Not exercise within 3 hours of bedtime (this will alert the body)
To prepare the mind we need to:
- Deal with the issues of the day:
in the early evening spend no more than 20 minutes writing events of the day that are of concern along with potential solutions. Close the book and put it away.
- Set an alarm one hour before bedtime. At that time:
- turn off all technology
- dim the lighting in the room
- warm-hot shower
- relaxation exercise
- Ensure that the bed and bedroom environment is conducive to sleep:
- absolutely no technology in the bedroom
...and now you are ready for a great night of sleep.
Dr. Carmel Harrington at the i4 Live Retreat in 2016
Dr. Carmel Harrington joined us at the in 2016 to share her latest research on sleep and metabolic function. Carmel has been working in the world of sleep for nearly 20 years. A former lawyer and educator she has a PHD in Sleep Medicine from Sydney University and consults with companies and educational institutions both here and overseas on sleep health.