It’s essential for our physical and psychological wellbeing, yet increasing numbers of us fail to get the rest we need. Tiredness and fatigue is the scourge of an exhausted nation rushed off its feet – so why can’t we sleep? Claire Lavelle investigates
It’s not surprising that in a world where the phrase ‘always on’ is commonplace, we find it hard to switch off. Indeed, recent research from the Sleep Council found that 74% of people get fewer than seven hours’ sleep a night. While this doesn’t sound significantly less than the solid eight hours we’ve come to accept as the ideal amount of slumber, consistently being under-slept soon takes its toll: concentration levels diminish and mood swings are common symptoms after a run of broken nights.
More worryingly, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to serious health issues such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and depression. The days when ‘sleep is for the weak’ are long gone; it’s now common knowledge that the UK’s most famous scant sleeper, Margaret Thatcher (four hours a night, anyone?), topped up with power naps throughout the day. Health experts across the globe are universally agreed that sleep deprivation is bad for us, but what’s worrying is just how bad.
“Almost every ailment … is linked in some way to poor sleep,” says Professor Jason Ellis, director of sleep science, Northumbria Centre of Sleep Research. “Not only does sleep deprivation increase our risk of developing serious health problems, it also reduces the body’s ability to cope with them.”
Psychologist Chireal Shallow, who specializes in sleep issues, agrees: “Soldiering on when we’re really tired can be seen as a badge of honour, but in reality it’s a dangerous lifestyle choice on a par with smoking or drinking to excess.”
What happens when we sleep?
There are two different types of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM; both are important. “Non-REM sleep comes first, and has three distinct phases,” says Ellis. “The first is drowsiness, after which we fall into a light sleep. At this point, the heart rate, breathing and temperature all fall. Next comes deep sleep, which is the restorative stage, during which the body renews tissues and repairs damage. It’s also when our bodies are most active at fighting infection, which is why we should sleep when we don’t feel very well.
“Finally, we slip into REM sleep. Our eyes remain closed but begin to move rapidly, our breathing speeds up and our brain waves become similar to when we are awake. Commonly known as the ‘dream state’, it’s during this stage that the amygdala is most active – this is the part of the brain associated with processing emotions and forming memories.
“It takes around 90 minutes to complete each cycle; on a typical night we experience four or five cycles of sleep. Additionally, during these cycles, the stress hormones that cause inflammation drop and hormones that are associated with repair and restoration, such as the pituitary growth hormone, rise. It’s when this natural rhythm gets disrupted, and the cycle of cell repair and renewal is interrupted, that levels of stress hormones start to increase.”
Despite this very real risk to health, 46% of us (according to research from essential oil brand Puressentiel) feel that lack of sleep is something we ‘just get used to’. Moreover, 28% would never seek their doctor’s advice about sleep problems, indicating that a ‘put up and shut up’ attitude is still in existence. “Lack of awareness doesn’t help: only one in ten people realize insufficient sleep increases the chances of developing diabetes, while four out of five people are unaware that it can contribute to heart problems,” says Dr Gill Jenkins, GP and advisor to Puressentiel.
So what keeps us awake at night? Top of the list comes stress and anxiety, according to the Sleep Council’s Great British Bedtime Report, with over half of us unable to sleep at night because we can’t switch off from daytime worries, with women being slightly more predisposed to this than men. And a quarter can’t sleep because their partner keeps them awake (accordingly, the trend for sleeping apart is growing).
It does appear that we’re heeding the advice around tech in the bedroom, however, and how blue light emissions can interfere with the production of sleep hormone melatonin: fewer of us check emails at bed-time (6% versus 14% in 2013) and even watching TV before going to sleep has fallen in popularity.
“In the people we advise about managing fatigue, stress is definitely the most common reason for feeling chronically tired,” says Melinda Yates of the bodycare team at Infinity Foods, Brighton. “It’s important to try to get to the root of it for every individual so that we can address both the cause of their fatigue and alleviate the symptoms.
Soldiering on when we’re really tired can be seen as a badge of honour, but in reality it’s a dangerous lifestyle choice, on a par with smoking or drinking to excess
“We would always recommend looking at diet first, from simple but effective advice such as making sure you’re properly hydrated, to including more greens such as kale, spinach and sprouted seeds in the diet to oxygenate the blood and transport more oxygen to the cells of the body, helping them to repair and rejuvenate. Green powders, such as wheatgrass, are also useful for this.”
Timing is everything
Where does the maxim ‘one hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two after’ come from? It seems this old adage may have roots in science after all. “What sleep research is showing now is that between 10pm and 2am a system in the brain called the lymphatics comes into play,” says Dr Donn Brennan of Maharishi Ayurveda.
“The lymphatics are made of glial cells, which shrink dramatically during these four hours to less than 60%. That opens up channels throughout the brain through which fluid flushes through at 20 times the natural flow. This acts like a power hose, cleaning up all the debris from around the nerve cells.
“All that is cleaning out the brain for better function the following day. At the same time, the recent memories from the day, which are in a lower part of the brain called the hippocampus, get transmitted up to the cerebral cortex, the top of the brain, for permanent storage. We’re transferring short-term to long-term memories during these four hours.”
“When the body is functioning optimally, there is little sign of fatigue, apart from when appropriate – for example, after physical activity or a long day at work,” says Kinetic nutritionist Thierry Damour.
“And while there are many different causes of long-term fatigue, most commonly it’s because of stress and what we refer to as poor ‘sleep hygiene’. This comprises of nightly habits that regularly stop us getting a proper night’s rest, such as going to bed too late or eating just before bedtime.”
“Supplements and herbs that help to reduce anxiety and induce a better night’s sleep include Nature’s Answer Liquid Vitamin B-complex and its Passion Flower Alcohol-Free 30ml Herbal Extract,” recommends Damour. “The former helps the body deal with the effects of stress while the latter acts as a relaxant to extend sleep duration.”
Eat the right foods
Foods containing the tryptophan amino acid are thought to be most helpful because it converts into the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin. At night, serotonin undergoes metabolic changes to become melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep. Chicken, turkey and milk all contain tryptophan, as do peanuts, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
“Magnesium is a natural relaxant … it has been linked to lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol,’ says Andrew Thomas, founder of BetterYou. ‘It’s also a smooth muscle relaxant, so make sure your diet includes foods that are rich in the nutrient. Spinach, kale, avocados, chickpeas, salmon and figs are great options.”
Try essential oils
“Essential oils are a safe and effective strategy for better sleep because of their effect on the limbic system and the hormonal responses thereof,” says medical herbalist Dr Chris Etheridge. “True lavender, a key ingredient in the Puressentiel Rest & Relax range, has a long and successful history of use as a traditional soporific. Use as a spray in the bedroom or oil in a diffuser to create a calm, relaxed environment for sleep.”
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