Sleep Awareness Week
This week is Sleep Awareness Week and, as someone who has at times suffered with insomnia, it’s an awareness week I feel I can really identify with.
Sleep is something we all need to do if we are to function well the following day, but there are some specific benefits that tie in with nutritional aspects of health too.
Sleep has been shown to have a direct effect on our gut microbiota. We have a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria that live in our gut. We feed them and in return they perform some essential services for us. Things including producing neurotransmitters; digesting food and extracting nutrients, and training our immune systems. The most beneficial bacteria for us tend to thrive in a body that is fed with plenty of fruits and vegetables and is well rested. In fact, even two nights of disrupted sleep has been shown to disrupt the ratio of two strains of bacteria thought to be involved in obesity[i].
Sleep is important for bone health too. Numerous studies have shown that something called “clock genes” are present in bone cells. These genes work on a 24hr cycle, part of which happens when we are asleep. This is important as not getting enough sleep is associated with a reduction in bone thickness. Several hormones are involved with bone turnover during sleep including melatonin and leptin. Research has also shown that sleep apnoea, a condition that disrupts sleep because breathing stops, is a risk factor for osteoporosis, possibly because breathing is necessary (among other things!) for the endocrine or hormonal system to function properly. Shift workers who often have irregular sleep schedules have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis and sustaining fractures. Chronic sleep deprivation (for longer than a month) may also affect vitamin D levels, and shift workers may also get less sunlight if they work nights and sleep during the day, which will compound the vitamin D problem.
Food & Drink
There are some foods and drinks that can interrupt the restorative process of sleep
Arguably the most notable is caffeine. The use of caffeine is very common. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, soft drinks like Coke, and energy drinks like Red Bull. You can also consume it in products made from cocoa such as chocolate.
All over the world people wake up and start the day with a cup of tea or coffee to help them with a little get-up-and-go. How does caffeine do this? For people who respond to caffeine (and not everyone does) it can reduce the perception of pain (useful if you find getting out of bed hard), increase alertness, improve memory and cognition and reduce feelings of boredom and fatigue. Pretty positive so far! However, if consumed in quantities that are too high it can increase feelings of anxiety and nervousness, and can cause shaking and insomnia. Not so positive. Just the insomnia alone will be likely to have a negative impact on mood. This will also of course leave you feeling fatigued which can in turn leave you reaching for a cup of coffee to reverse this feeling and the whole cycle begins again. Caffeine has a long half-life, which means that it can take up to a couple of weeks to break down completely and leave your system. So if you are having 2-3 cups a day, plus the odd bit of chocolate, can of Coke, cup of tea etc then it’s easy to see how caffeine levels can build up in your system.
Caffeine withdrawal can also have a horrible effect on mood even without the poor of sleep. Irritability, difficulty concentrating and headaches are all common when people don’t get the caffeine that they are used to. If any of this sounds familiar to you then having a couple of weeks’ break from caffeine might be a good idea.
Alcohol can often give the illusion that it is helping you sleep because it may be easier to fall asleep after a few drinks. However the quality of sleep is impaired after alcohol and is one of the things that contributes to feeling less than perky the morning after. It interferes with the brain’s sleep stages and means it’s much more difficult to get quality REM sleep which is important for memory, learning and organising thoughts. If you don’t get enough REM sleep it can be difficult to focus and leave you feeling bleary.
Professor Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep recommends giving yourself a “sleep opportunity” of eight hours every night and avoiding caffeine in the afternoons and alcohol in the evenings. For people who generally sleep well, it may just mean going to bed a bit earlier, but for a lot of us, spending longer in bed doesn’t necessarily mean more sleep. If you find it difficult to fall asleep then extra time staring at the ceiling isn’t necessarily a good idea.
If you feel like you need better sleep, then there’s no better time than Sleep Awareness Week to start! Begin with getting your sleep hygiene in order. This means regular bedtime and wake-up times, no screens in the bed room and a nice wind down routine. Having the room dark and quiet is important too so if you need to, invest in a sleep mask and some ear plugs. For more information about sleep hygiene there is a guide here.
If you have tried sleep hygiene and you are still having trouble with your sleep, cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is very effective. The NHS in the UK have a free online/app CBT-I course called Sleepio here:https://www.sleepio.com/work/nhs/.
[i] Gut Microbiota and Glucometabolic Alterations in Response to Recurrent Partial Sleep Deprivation in Normal-weight Young Individuals.
Christian Benedicta, Heike Vogelb, Wenke Jonasb, Anni Wotingd, Michael Blautd, Annette Schürmannb, Jonathan Cedernaesa,