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The secret to a good night’s sleep

How many of us have neglected sleep in favour of spending one more hour out with friends? To cram in an early training session before work? Or maybe to have ‘just one more’ at the pub? The old-age saying, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, couldn’t be further from the truth. Sleep is so important. Infact, it’s probably more important that you sleep eight hours than get up after just six to go to the gym (contrary to popular belief).

Sleep is essential for good health and there are many reasons why. We spoke to Dr Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, to help us understand why sleep is so important, how alcohol can affect it and some top tips to make sure we are making the most of our eight hours in bed each night.

When you sleep your body is very active, cleansing itself, and repairing the cellular damage from the day. Your brain is actively storing memories and promoting brain function. Sleep is the time your immune system gets busy and your hormones whirr into action. Much of your metabolic and physiological activity is linked to your natural body clock – your Circadian rhythms,” said Dr Lee.

If we get our eight hours in each night, we can expect to:

  • Live a long life
  • Switch off chronic inflammation
  • Boost our immune system
  • Lower our risk of many chronic diseases
  • Improve our memory
  • Have more energy and stamina
  • Get better grades in studies at school and college
  • Have better productivity at work
  • Be more creative
  • Be better able to control weight
  • Decrease stress levels 
  • Improve mood 
  • Improve emotional intelligence
Portrait of Dr Deborah Lee

But if we don’t….

“Sleep deprivation has serious consequences. Getting less than five hours of sleep doubles your risk of death from cardiovascular disease and can even lead to obesity. One reason for this is that while you sleep your body makes the hormones, leptin and ghrelin – these help you to feel full and control your appetite,” said Lee.

She also links lack of sleep increasing our risk of dementia, and weakening our immune systems, making us more susceptible to infections like colds and flu.

Then there’s alcohol. Sleep is actually just one of the reasons we decided to make our delicious Caleño non-alcoholic spirits. While many of us in the team still enjoy an alcoholic beverage, too often we were waking up with a fuzzy head.

According to Dr Lee, one of the reasons consuming too much alcohol gives us a bad night’s sleep is because it affects our sleep-wake cycle.

“Although you may fall asleep more quickly after drinking alcohol, you are also more likely to have a disturbed night, and with a reduced quality of sleep. After drinking six or more units in one evening, you are likely to have less of the all-important, restorative, REM sleep. This can make you feel tired and sleepy the next day.

“Binge drinking is particularly bad for sleep. Often, after a disturbed night, you feel groggy and then turn to excess caffeine to keep you awake. Caffeine is a stimulant and stops you from sleeping – leading to a vicious cycle.”

When we take a deep dive into something like sleep, it can often leave us feeling anxious, especially if we realise everything we’ve been doing goes against the ‘sleep-gods’. But actually, working ourselves up is one of the worst things we can do. 

If you’re struggling to sleep, why not try these great tips from Dr Lee.

Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleeping

You should replace your mattress every 7 years. Old lumpy mattresses result in back pain, tossing and turning and broken sleep. We spend a third of our lives in bed, and lack of sleep is so bad for our health. Do yourself a favour and invest in a good quality mattress, along with some new, hypoallergenic bedding.

Create a bedtime routine and stick to it

This should mirror your body’s own Circadian rhythms. Our bodies are programmed on a 24-hour body clock, by a specialised group of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. These tell the body when it’s time for sleep, and when it’s time to wake up. Listen to your body and try to work in synchrony with it. Get into a habit of going to bed at a set time and waking up at the same time every morning. 

Sanctuary bedroom
Dim light lamp

Darken your bedroom 

As daylight falls, the pineal gland in the brain produces the sleep hormone melatonin. In the evenings, prepare for sleep with dim lighting. Keep your curtains or blinds drawn, preferably using the blackout variety. Also, try to avoid blue light 1-2 hours before bedtime. This is the type of light emitted from mobile phones, computer screens and TVs. This is important because blue light prevents the release of melatonin. 

Try pink noise

Some people find pink noise, such as a gentle background hum, or sounds of nature can help them sleep. Perhaps try having the radio on very softly. Why not try one of the free NHS sleep apps.

Your bed is only for sleep

Don’t work in bed, or lounge about on it in the daytime. Your body needs to know that when you get into bed it’s time for sleep.

Don’t nap in the daytime

 Keep busy and distract yourself, so you are properly tired at bedtime.

Wind down for sleep 

Don’t exercise too close to bedtime as exercise releases endorphins and makes you feel high and excitable. Try playing soft music or listening to the radio as you get ready for bed. Avoid watching TV late at night in your bedroom. Perhaps have a hot bath or shower before bed. 

Exercise during the day

Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day – this is any exercise that is robust enough to make you feel slightly out of breath and sweaty. Brisk walking, jogging or cycling are good options. You can also do this in 3 x 10-minute bursts. 

If you can’t sleep, after 20 minutes…

Get up and do something tedious. For example, do the ironing for half an hour, then try again. Gradually your sleep will improve.

Don’t drink caffeine after 6 pm

Also avoid alcohol as both can keep you awake.

Couple cycling by the sea

On a practical note, why not keep a sleep diary – you should record all the details relating to your day and your bedtime routine and how you slept in the morning. This is a good way of focusing on what went well, and what might have made a difference if you had a bad night.

And if you still can’t sleep, Dr Lee recommends going to see your GP. You may have a medical problem such as sleep apnoea, or perhaps be suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. Your doctor can help sort these problems out for you.

Dr Fox Pharmacy is a fully regulated UK online doctor and pharmacy service managed by NHS GPs.