Sleep is important, we all know that, usually from personal experience. There’s nothing worse than being grumpy from lack of sleep, it will probably ruin your day. Trust me. Especially when returning to work after a holiday and having to be up at a time your body just doesn’t like. Your whole body benefits from sleep but especially your brain, it’ll be far more active when you’re asleep, finally getting to do what it needs to do after coping with all your nonsense during the day! Consolidating, deleting, restoring and refreshing – sounds like how to get your computer working again, but it’s pretty much what your brain needs to do every night to get you functioning for another day.
Of course, there’s a huge market for sleeping aids and big changes over the relatively short time since the Victorian era can account for a lot of people’s lack of sleep. Firstly would be the light bulb. Don’t get me wrong it’s great to see indoors but artificially bright light at odd times of day has unsurprisingly skewed our natural pattern of sleep. The natural pattern, the circadian rhythm, means we have a cycle of approximately 24 hours where we’re asleep at night and alert during the day. Everyone’s different of course, and the rhythm is a bit longer than 24 hours usually, so we’re always going to be a bit off. It’s transcribed in our genes and the genes of all mammals and even in insects like the humble fruit fly. Most of the research into how different factors affect our body clocks has been done with these amazing little insects, I’ll be mentioning them a lot in blogs I imagine. Light is the most important trigger of the body clock, so more recent inventions such as the computer and phone screens have also been messing us up. In particular, it’s the blue wavelength that causes the most alertness – I assume because of sunlight in the morning being a lot of higher frequency light like UV meant to wake us up. That sort of fact has influenced things like car dashboards that are usually lit either red or blue, to either match the low level of light or contrast it and stand out, respectively. In conclusion, then, it needs to be dark for you to sleep properly… who knew? (Yes, sarcasm will be a regular feature of my writings). There’s software you can get, F.lux that changes the light from your phone into the right kind of light for the time of day, so if you have to work, it should decrease the disruption. Things like that Night Shift feature on your iPhone do something similar – reducing the blue light at night time. Similarly, watching TV in bed is a bad habit to get into and even the last thing you should be doing before going to bed – brushing your teeth – probably involves turning the bright bathroom lights on!
The best way to know how much sleep you need it to avoid all those bright lights, turn off your alarm clock for a week and just get up when you need to. Easier said than done – work usually demands our attention during the day. Work also is a major contributor to stress which will prevent us getting good sleep when we get home. Work is basically bad for our mental health then? Not that I want to cause civil unrest, but actually I think it’s true.
Getting the conditions just right for sleep are difficult but it’s worth some trial and error to know what suits you. The body clock I’ve mentioned is largely influenced by a hormone called melatonin made by a gland in the brain; it’s made from an amino acid called tryptophan.
It stands that if you have more tryptophan you’ll produce more melatonin and you’ll sleep better… well, it’s worth a go, I’m not certain that enough of it will get into your bloodstream to make a huge difference, but placebos work psychologically if nothing else. Things like warm milk and turkey (and other dairy and poultry) are notably high in tryptophan and there are other foods that can help your brain switch off. There’s not much replicated and reliable research into essential oils and herbal medicine, but some studies do support the use of lavender oil, for example, do promote sleep. The idea that things like cheese cause nightmares are also not well founded, funnily enough, there’s not a lot of research into it. There are some hints and tips in the infographic below.
I should probably try these things, but I’ve never had a problem sleeping and if I have, I know it’s because my mind’s been too active – thinking about exams was always the main cause.
Getting a comfy mattress and pillow is always a good idea. I always seem to fall asleep quicker when the bedroom’s nice and tidy, with the fresh smell of the sheets. Bliss. Well, now I’m tired, so I’m off to bed. Sweet dreams.