Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.2

We’re usually very clear about whether we feel we’ve had enough sleep or not. Deprivation can quickly affect our healthy physical and mental functions; we may get ‘out of sync’ with our circadian rhythm – the twenty-four-hour pattern, initiated by exposure to sunlight and darkness, which governs the cycle of wakefulness/sleep to which most human bodily processes are set.

It may help us to understand the link between sleep and health if we examine the interaction between the hormones melatonin – the body’s own natural sleeping pill and ‘timekeeper’ – and serotonin which is involved in pain perception, temperature control, blood-pressure regulation, appetite, memory, and mood. During the day, our exposure to natural sunshine stimulates the production of serotonin. As daylight fades and we prepare for sleep, our bodies start secreting melatonin which is derived from serotonin.

If our lifestyle and sleep pattern upsets this hormonal balance and our circadian rhythm we may notice adverse effects similar to ‘jet lag’ – inability to control speech, access memory, and solve problems. The body may also become more susceptible to disease as the immune system may be compromised.

Good quality sleep is necessary to restore depleted resources, repair damaged cells and chemicals. It may also help to clear away or ‘file’ information and make sense of our experiences and thoughts. “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it”3 ”

Sleep can ‘escape’ us for a variety of reasons, for example, stress, anxiety, alcohol, physical comfort, environmental influences – “People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one”!4

Strategies to improve quality of sleep include

  • stabilising your circadian rhythm by keeping a regular bedtime
  • exercise, but not too near bedtime
  • limiting stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine. Alcohol is a sedative, but when its effect wears off, sleeping patterns become erratic.
  • not lying awake – worrying about falling asleep keeps you awake. Get up and do something else until you feel sleepy. “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow”5.
  • eating and drinking a couple of hours before bedtime to avoid indigestion or the need to urinate during the night
  • ‘winding down’ can help you fall asleep – try meditation, relaxing with music or a warm bath.

(1) Mike Wilson (2) Thomas Dekker 1572 – 1632 (3) John Steinbeck 1902 – 1968 (4) Leo J. Burke -1893 1990 (5) Charlotte Brontë 1816 – 1855

‘Southwell Life’ – April 2007

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