Looking after your wellbeing: Sleep


Sleep is easy right? Wrong! There are many different factors that affect our sleep patterns; our ability to go to sleep, stay asleep, or wake up all impact on how we manage our daily lives.

So let’s get to grips with sleep.

Sleep is controlled by two factors; the Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Drive.

The Circadian Rhythm is the natural physical, mental and behavioural changes that our bodies make in response to light and dark. They’re controlled by a biological clock in the brain, e.g. during the night our bodies boost the production of melatonin and then reduce it once it is daylight.

Sleep Drive is a natural instinct; as your body craves food when it is hungry, your body craves sleep when you are tired. The Sleep Drive becomes more insistent throughout the day and we naturally crave sleep more the later it gets.

Sleep is a vital function to maintain the brain’s plasticity or its ability to take in and process information. Too little sleep and we can’t process what we have learned during the day and it will be much harder to remember it in the future.

7 amazing things that happen while you sleep:

1. Sorting and processing

Whilst you are asleep your brain is like a giant post office, sorting and storing what you have learned during the day. This is particularly important for creating long term memories.

2. Maintaining and mending

Whilst you are asleep your body has chance to rest and repair its systems.  To do this your body releases a number of different hormones which do various different jobs.

3. Sympathetic nervous system – chill down time.

Your sympathetic nervous system controls your flight, fight or freeze response and is always on alert for perceived threats or danger. Night time is when it gets chance to stand down and relax.

4.  Don’t stress

Cortisol is the ‘stress hormone’ and this is what keeps us alert at times of extreme stress. It also has a regulatory role; cortisol levels decrease rapidly during the first few hours of sleep, and as we wake our cortisol levels rise to a peak, making you feel perky and hungry.

5.  Temporary paralysis

During sleep everyone cycles through REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and Non-REM sleep. During REM we have the most vivid dreams. At this time your muscles are paralysed, and scientists believe this is to keep us from acting out our dreams physically and thus keeps us safe.



6. To pee or not to pee….

During the day you might go to the loo every 5 minutes, but miraculously you only go once in EIGHT hours of sleep! When you are asleep you are not drinking, therefore reducing fluid intake. In addition, the Circadian Rhythm causes the body to release a hormone called ADH, Anti-diuretic Hormone. This is essentially a pee blocker!

7.  Immune booster

Sleep is a booster for your immune system. Your immune system produces a type of proteins which help your body to fight injury, infection, inflammation and trauma.

So whilst you are asleep your body and brain are working hard to process, sort and store data, repair and maintain the body and boost our immune systems, and whole heap of other good stuff. Hence the importance of sleep!


Understanding sleep & sleep problems

It is estimated almost 30% of the adult population are affected by sleep problems. Some are very common and are often referred to as insomnia.  Sleep problems are particularly common in women, children and older people.

How much do we need and what’s normal?

Well, everyone is different. The popular idea is that we all need our ‘8 hours a night’, but this is not necessarily true.

The amount of sleep we need is influenced by lots of factors:

  • Age
  • Level of activity
  • Health; physical, mental or emotional
  • Environment

So what causes sleep problems? Or what can cause changes to our sleep patterns?

1. Napping

Whilst a quick nap can be tempting and seem quite refreshing, it can also disturb our natural sleep rhythm. Once that is disturbed it can be difficult to break the cycle.

2.  Health

There are a number of medical reasons for disrupted sleep. Physical pain, breathing difficulties, diabetes and high blood pressure can all impact on positive sleep patterns. Emotional pain too, for example bereavement, may impact on positive sleep.

3. Mental health and worrying

Depression, low mood, stress and worry can cause someone to struggle to get to sleep, or they may find they wake frequently and cannot get back to sleep due to racing thought processes.

4. Environment

This includes the temperature of the room, the hardness of your bed, the noise levels and the light levels in the room. All these factors are very individual to you.

5.  Disrupted sleep routines

Eg. someone who works shifts may suffer with ongoing sleep deprivation.

So what can you do?

Knowing the sort of sleep problem you have can help you to manage it better and put some sleep hygiene measures in place.

Think about a typical night’s sleep and consider which of the following statements apply to you:

Getting to sleep: This is probably the most common sleep problem; for some people it can take several hours to drop off to sleep, but once asleep the quality of sleep is good.

Staying asleep: The next most common problem is disturbed sleep patterns, with frequent waking the middle of the night and difficulty getting back to sleep.

Waking too early: Waking earlier than desired is a third problem, again with difficulty getting back to sleep.

Poor quality sleep: In addition to the above some people report sleeping lightly, with restless, disturbed and inconsistent sleep.

In Summary: 

Sleep problems are not uncommon and affect everyone differently. There is no ‘right’ amount of sleep as needs vary from person to person, as well as being affected by both internal and external factors; age, medical reasons, emotional impact, environment.

There are different sorts of sleep problems and these can be addressed with a range of sleep hygiene tools, which you can read more about in our next blog post here.