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The Importance of Sleep, How Most of us are Ruining it and What to do About it

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The more and more I look into how the body works and how to be healthy, the more I realise that there are certain things that are master regulators. In other words, you might have the best orchestra in the world, all the best violinists and all the best trumpet players. However, your orchestra has a poor conductor, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Guess what happens ? The orchestra plays off tempo and out of synch despite the fact that they are all individually brilliant musicians. This exact analogy can be used to describe the affect of sleep on your health. It is the conductor. It needs to work right in order for all the other health parameters (like nutrition and exercise) to function properly. Sadly, modern times has placed a major obstacle on our path to deep sleep. Its called blue light and it is emitted from the flat screen tv you watch every night, the laptop you surf on before you go to bed and the iPhone you text or tweet from when you are in bed. This is possibly (there never is one thing) one of the most damaging things you are doing to your health. The good news is that it can be fixed, but like everything, its up to you.

Stephen Barret BSc, MSc, Sports Physiologist and all round clever guy, lays it all out here …

Sleep is one of the forgotten cornerstones of our health. Too often night time is used as a ‘spill-over’ period for work we didn’t complete during the day. Deadlines, replying to emails and social networking keep us up later than we had planned. Some of us might deliberately stay up to enjoy what seems like the only time we have to ourselves. Watch a movie on TV or on your laptop or just sit and read a book in the peace and quiet with the lights on. These all sound like pretty normal and harmless things but what affect is being awake when we should really be asleep having on our health?

Everything in nature has a rhythm, and that includes our bodies. Our lives are orchestrated by the rising and setting of the sun and the moon, the changes in temperature from day to night and from season to season, the tidal ebb and flow, and by our own internal rhythm. These rhythms guide our daily activity. Although we may feel that we march to the beat of our own drum, we are in fact really marching to the beat of mother nature.


Circadian Rhythm is our own internal body clock. It is approximately a 24hr cycle of physical, mental and behavioural processes in our bodies. Much like nature our bodies strive to keep its 24hr cycle, or circadian rhythm, steady and even. This is why most of us naturally feel like waking when it begins to get bright, and sleeping when it’s dark. An important fact to remember is our bodies physiology is not intelligent it is purely reactive. This means it can be altered by external cues known as ‘zeitgebers’. These zeitgebers include temperature, social interactions, drug use, exercise, meal timing and the strongest of all, daylight.  Researchers have also shown how your circadian rhythm is involved in everything from sleep, to weight gain, weight loss, mood disorders, and a variety of diseases including breast cancer, skin cancer and metabolic syndrome.

Modern living has made it extremely difficult for us to keep to an optimal circadian rhythm mainly due to artificial lights from computer screens and light bulbs which trick the body into thinking it is still daytime. The advent of smartphones, laptops, tablets and LCD HD TVs has further compounded this problem. The trouble with many of these electronic gadgets today is they emit a blue light with is particularly sensitive to the human eye because this is the same kind of light our bodies are exposed to during the day. Because our physiology is reactive blue light from the daytime sky at 11am or from our laptop at 11pm at night is all the same to our bodies. When light triggers the receptors in your eyes, they signal your brain to ‘stay awake.’ As a result melatonin production, which is the primary sleep hormone produced in the brain and potent antioxidant against cancer, is disrupted and shut down. Normally, your brain starts secreting melatonin around 9 or 10 pm, which makes you sleepy. It continues to be secreted throughout the night until sunrise thus helping regulate your sleep cycle. However, if you regularly trick your brain into altering this cycle, sleep disturbances such as insomnia can occur.


 

Circadian rhythm is essential to optimal health. Light or the lack thereof is one of the major players in the regulation of our circadian rhythm and in particular our sleep cycle. If we are exposed to artificial light at the wrong times (after sunset) coupled with not getting enough natural light during the day this causes major disruption to our natural hormone production and secretion which can lead to a multitude of health disorders.  Here’s how to control and manage your body clock to optimise your sleep cycle and melatonin production;

  • Aim to get to bed at least an hour before midnight.
  • Sleep in complete darkness and don’t use an alarm.
  • Remove or cover all lights in the bedroom including that little red standby light!
  • Consider wearing an eye mask if you can’t achieve complete darkness.
  • Keep bedroom temperature optimally between 15-20°C
  • Eat in daylight hours. This helps insure insulin levels are low before bed.
  • Reserve your bed for sleeping not working or watching TV.
  • Expose your eyes to sunlight in the morning and at midday.
  • Avoid blue light at night; install f.lux on your laptop (google and download for free).
  • Wear orange tinted safety glasses after sunset which helps block blue light.
  • Use candlelight after sunset which has no adverse effect on melatonin secretion.
  • Have a sleep routine and stick to it as best you can.
  • 7.5-9hrs of sleep is optimal with the 12-3am sleep window the most important.

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