In our 24/7 society, far too many of us see sleep as a luxury rather than a necessity. Recent research has revealed 50% of us fail to get enough shut eye and a vast number are turning to powerful prescribed drugs to help them wind down and head off to the land of nod. Today Nikki looks at how much sleep the body needs and how you can combat insomnia with simple changes to your lifestyle and diet.
Snoozing commuters on the train into the city, yawning children struggling to concentrate in lessons, teenagers staring bug-eyed at the screens of their mobile devices, tired mothers with patience wearing thin, a workforce lacking motivation and drive.
We are a sleep-starved nation. But why? And what can we do to get a good night’s sleep without resorting to drugs?
The truth about our tiredness
Vast numbers of people in Britain struggle to get quality sleep.
The most recent figures suggest more than half of us get less than we need and a quarter of those have struggled with insomnia for 11 years or more.
Of course, many of us can function reasonably well even when tired, but long-lasting sleep deprivation can have serious consequences.
Short term it can affect a person’s ability to concentrate and function properly, can cause memory loss, relationship problems, reduced productivity and mood swings.
But persistent poor sleep elevates the risk of developing new illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression.
As a result, the toll of our country’s tiredness is having an impact on our National Health Service.
The NHS is spending £50 million a year on drugs to help people battle insomnia – a rise of one sixth in four years.
And last year 15.3 million prescriptions were handed out for sleeping pills, compared with 14.5 million in 2008.
Time to take action
Many people reach for the sleeping pills when they feel nothing else is helping, but not only can they be addictive, both physically and psychologically, they can leave you feeling drowsy or ‘hungover’ the next day.
This then creates a vicious cycle it is hard to break free from.
So before you hop down to your GP and ask for medicines to help you sleep you should consider taking action of your own.
There are some simple ways for you to conquer exhaustion by making small adjustments to your lifestyle.
And it needn’t be too taxing.
When did you last go for a walk or cook a healthy meal from scratch? Chances are that simple, important things like this rarely feature in your busy life.
Equally, I bet you’re continually switched on and accessible 24 hours a day via your mobile and the internet. The result? Consistently high stress levels and the inability to relax – and sleep – properly.
Why we need sleep
Our bodies need rest in order to repair, rest and process each day. Most of us need at least eight hours sleep a night but others need more and some can cope perfectly well on less.
The key to working out how much sleep you need is to listen to your body.
Do you rely on caffeine and sugar to keep going all day?
Do you suffer from frequent colds or infections? Are you hungry all the time? Do you nod off during the day? Do you get tearful for no reason? Is your sex drive suffering?
It may sound obvious, but along with eating well, sleep is so important to feeling rested and energised.
The benefits of a good night’s rest include weight loss, immunity to infections, improved memory and increased ability to learn new things.
Top tips to sleep tight
- Eat the right foods.
Protein is vital in keeping your body in balance. The best sources of protein to eat to get a good night’s sleep include nuts such as Brazil nuts and walnuts. Incredibly these induce sleep due to being packed with protein, potassium and selenium and can help the body make melatonin, the natural sleep hormone. Kale and spinach are also good choices. These are rich in calcium and can help the body to produce melatonin. And chickpeas (the main ingredient of hummus), shrimp and lobster are good sources of tryptophan, which can be converted into serotonin by the body to help you feel sleepy. Bananas are also an excellent aid to sleep as they release natural chemicals to relax the body.
- Quit caffeine.
If you need a cuppa in the morning, go ahead, but avoid all caffeine after lunch. If you want a hot drink in the evening choose chamomile tea which contains glycine, which relaxes nerves and muscles and can act as a mild sedative, reducing any anxiety.
- Say no to alcohol.
Some people believe alcohol helps them sleep, but it actually leads to a less regenerative slumber, so the body doesn’t rest well and you feel tired the next day.
- Switch off.
Turn off your TV and computer and smartphone an hour before you go to bed – light from electrical appliances stimulates the brain. Take at least 30 minutes to wind down before bed – listen to relaxing music and use the time to take stock of your day.
- Keep to a routine.
Try to sleep the same number of hours every night and go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time, even at weekends, if possible. This allows your body to know when to secrete your hormones and make repairs, and doesn’t confuse it with too many late nights.
- Take a hot bath.
Sleep is normally preceded by a drop in body temperature. If you have a comfortably hot bath, artificially raising your temperature, when you go back into your cooler bedroom it helps the body be more receptive to adjusting its temperature.
- Use natural remedies.
Lavender oil is calming and can help encourage sleep in some people with insomnia, research shows. Valerian root is also good. This medicinal herb has been used to treat sleep problems since ancient times.
- Don’t toss and turn.
If you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, sleep specialists recommend you get up and leave your bedroom or read. Then return to your bed to sleep when you feel tired again.
- Exercise early.
It’s no secret that exercise improves sleep and overall health. But a study published in the journal Sleep shows that the amount of exercise and time of day it is done makes a difference. Researchers found that women who exercised at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes each morning, seven days a week, had less trouble sleeping than women who exercised less or later in the day. Morning exercise seems to affect body rhythms that affect sleep quality.
- Keep your slumber surroundings tranquil.
Your bedroom should feel like a sanctuary. Piles of clothes thrown on your bed, stacks of bills staring at you, or other random clutter will hamper you emotionally and may lead to sleep problems. A tranquil and organized space will help you feel more relaxed.