Sleep for Health

By Julian Mokhtar

Sleep is one of life’s great pleasures, which is ironic considering we’re unconscious while doing it. We’re not aware that we’re asleep. In fact, we don’t even remember falling asleep. We remember lying down, or sitting down, or putting our head down on a table, closing our eyes, but we don’t remember the exact moment of falling asleep. Most of us take it for granted but sleep is actually very important in maintaining our physical and mental well-being. As Shakespeare aptly described it in Macbeth, “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, the death of each day's life, sore labor's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast.” An excellent summary of the benefits of sleep. If we’re worried about something, a good restful sleep can calm our thoughts and we may wake up with a different perspective on how to address whatever is worrying us. We awake to a new day refreshed and invigorated. When we’re asleep we’re unaware that our minds are still working. While our conscious mind is shut down, our brains are busy processing the day’s experiences and information and resolving problems. You know the saying, “Let me sleep on it”? It means to put aside an idea, a problem, a question, until the next day. Quite often the solution or answer presents itself upon waking up, the result of the brain working while we slept. Sleep is also the time when the body heals and regenerates. That is, of course, provided that we get that restful sleep. If we don’t, we awake feeling tired, lethargic, irritable or depressed. A continued lack of sufficient and quality sleep has been linked to long term adverse effects on physical and mental health. Physically these include weight gain, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, high blood pressure, poor balance and coordination and a weakened immune system. The mental effects include erratic mood changes, irritability, anxiety, depression, impaired concentration, thinking and memory which can result in being more accident-prone. Not surprising, sleep deprivation is a common method of torture because of its effect on a person’s mental state. Some people are blessed with the ability to fall asleep easily and sleep soundly the whole night, or they can take short naps several times throughout the day. That second one is said to be something commonly learned during military service. For those who find it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep, there are several ways to mitigate the problem. Keep a regular schedule. Most people need seven or eight hours of sleep so set your bedtime according to what time you have to wake up. Allow half an hour before bedtime to wind down and get ready to sleep. When your mind and body are relaxed, it’s easier to fall asleep. Get away from devices and screens. Having a routine is helpful such as brushing your teeth, reading for a while, anything that puts you in a relaxed state. Avoid having bright lights and loud sounds around you when nearing bedtime. Invest in a mattress and pillow that are comfortable for you. If you don’t fall asleep in 20 minutes, get out of bed. There’s no point lying there “trying” to get to sleep, that will make you even more wakeful and upset. Get up, go and sit down, read, do some light tasks. When you feel like sleeping, go and sleep. Some people avoid day naps, but naps can actually be beneficial. The afternoon siesta is a tradition all over the world for good reason. The refreshment of a short 20 to 30 minute nap can help people be more productive in the later part of the day rather than being tired out and wanting to go home. Going to bed overtired can ironically make it harder to sleep. By all means go to bed earlier than your usual time if you feel tired. Of course coffee, tea, or cigarettes can interfere with getting to sleep so try and avoid them for a few hours before bedtime. Physical activity during the day helps promote sleep too. If sleep problems are persistent you might consider supplements. Seeing a doctor about it would help find the cause and how to resolve it. So, hopefully there’s something there that will help you get the best sleep possible. Good night!