The importance of sleep

Better minds better living with Yansie Rolston Monday, May 22 2017

RESEARCH is showing that we are heading for a sleep crisis as problems such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome and apnea (pauses in breathing or shallow breathing while sleeping) have been increasing in severity.

As a society, we are getting less sleep than we did 50 years ago and The British Sleep Council estimates that over a third of people have insomnia, difficulty going to sleep, disturbed sleep or wake up early. I suspect the true figure may even be higher than that, especially with the prolific use of phones, televisions and laptops in the bedroom.

One of the unfortunate consequences of this sleepless epidemic is the increased dependency on hypnotic/soporific drugs known as sleeping tablets. Which, because of their addictive qualities and the body’s ability to build up tolerance to them, should only be used as short-term measures.

Sleep is important because it allows the body to rest and recuperate from periods of illness.

It helps to repair and regenerate tissues, bones, and muscles, strengthens the immune system and supports healthy brain function.

But what happens when the body is deprived of sleep? immune responses are compromised pain perception is increased memory and thought processes are impaired hormone levels fluctuate for example perceptions of hunger or fullness, and affect blood sugar levels psychiatric disorders and mental health challenges can be exacerbated gut bacteria (which helps with metabolism) is altered Having viewed The Truth About Sleep on BBC it is evident that lack of adequate sleep has a widespread impact on the body, affecting both mental and physical wellness. One of the startling aspects of the programme was the research undertaken by Leeds University making an association between sleeping less/sleeping worse, gut flora, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. It showed how sleep deprivation increases secretions of the “hungry hormones” which sways the need to eat more, and the gut bacteria then increased the calorie uptake of the food ingested.

Internal and external factors such as brain function, diet, stress, medications, the sleep environment, and underlying health conditions shape sleep quality. But our gene markers also play a part in determining whether we are susceptible to sleep disorders, or if we are morning or night people.

Sleep is regulated by two mechanisms: The circadian system (internal body clock) which regulates the timing of sleep, and the homeostatic mechanism affecting the need for sleep.

The body clock in the brain regulates hormone levels, digestion, immune function, body temperature, and paying attention to when the body is saying it’s time to sleep or time to wake can aid in getting restful sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation most people feel the strongest desire to sleep between between 2 am and 4 am and then again between 1 pm and 3 pm but this can vary from person to person.

Sleep needs vary across the ages. The recommended requirements are: for infants it’s 16 to 18 hours, teenagers it’s nine hours, for most adults it’s seven to eight hours, and because ageing affects sleep patterns elderly people have less deep sleep, sleep lighter, and have shorter time spans of sleep.

Practising good sleep hygiene is important for both physical and mental wellness and can affect the overall quality of life.

Some suggestions are: unwind and relax before bedtime – have a tepid shower, read a book, do a puzzle, practise mindfulness.

there are some studies attributing benefits to the sedating effects of soursop (guanabana) tea, camomile tea, St John’s Wort, passion flower and Valerian root supplements.

desist from using phones, tablets, laptops or TVs one hour before bed or alternatively turn down their screen brightness.

consider taking prebiotic supplements to rebalance gut bacteria use sleep-promoting eye wear for example eye shades, blue blocking glasses if possible, take a short power nap (maximum 20-30 mins) between 1 pm – 3 pm reduce alcohol and caffeine intake exercise regularly use fans, humidifiers or air conditions to regulate room temperature and air quality to 15c – 22c (59f – 71f) consult a therapist to address any underlying psychological causes We all need good restful sleep as it is vitally important in maintaining positive mental and physical health.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK-based disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society. Contact her at

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