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Sleep… or Counting Sheep?

Why do we sleep? How much do we need? Why do our sleep requirements change from birth to old age? What should we do if we can't sleep? Can I improve my sleep?

If you don't get enough sleep, you might experience side effects such as poor memory and focus, weakened immunity, mood changes, and decreases in cognitive and physical function.

The irony is not lost on me as I sit here finishing this blog post after some later nights due to social commitments. I’ve been feeling slightly fuzzy-headed and know I haven’t made the best food choices as a result. We make poorer choices when we are tired—I know my resistance to chocolate is lower when I’m tired, both for the comfort of something nice and for the energy hit. Consequently, a few late nights can lead to poorer food choices, which then impacts the quality of our sleep, starting a negative cycle of poor sleep leading to poor food choices, leading to even poorer sleep.

Why Do We Sleep?

Recent research shows that sleep is when our bodies take an active role in removing toxins from the brain. Chronic lack of sleep can increase our risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, hypertension, and obesity. Sleep makes us healthier, safer, smarter, and more productive.

“The first few hours of sleep are the deepest; it's during this time that the body performs tissue growth and repair, allowing healing and restoration to occur. It's also the time when the brain clears away unnecessary stuff (toxins), making room for the necessary—essentially tidying up from the day’s work.”

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

We all need different amounts of sleep, but generally, adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. This changes throughout our lives, decreasing from the 16-18 hours a day we need as babies, reducing gradually through childhood, teenage years, and into adulthood. As we age, we may not get all our sleep at night but might take naps during the day.

There are subtle differences between how science and psychology refer to the act of sleeping. Generally, science states, “Sleep is a period of reduced activity. Sleep is associated with a typical posture, such as lying down with eyes closed in humans.” In contrast, psychologists define sleep as “an active state of unconsciousness produced by the body where the brain is in a relative state of rest and is reactive primarily to internal stimuli.” The exact purpose of sleep has not been fully elucidated.

Causes of Poor Sleep

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Circadian rhythm disorders

  • Hormonal imbalances

  • Caffeine

  • Electronic devices / blue light

  • Insomnia

What to Do If You Can’t Sleep

  • Don’t just lie there — Do get up after 20 minutes

  • Don’t go on your phone — Do something mindful

  • Don’t turn on the lights — Do sit in a darkened room and read 

  • Don’t eat — Do gentle yoga or stretches

  • Don’t talk negatively to yourself — Do fold laundry

How Can I Improve My Sleep?

  • Sleep Routine: Try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Having spent years as a shift worker, this never came easily to me, but after several years of a ‘normal’ working pattern, I now wake before my alarm most days. By having a routine, you promote your body's natural 24-hour circadian rhythm.

  • Melatonin Exposure: Get daylight in the morning. Try opening your curtains as soon as you wake and getting outside as early as possible, especially in winter. During darker months, I leave a blind open so that we wake with the natural change in light rather than the rude awakening of an alarm clock.

  • Mealtimes: Keep them regular and try not to eat too close to bedtime. Shift workers might benefit from ignoring their shift's schedule and maintaining regular meal times, reducing or eliminating eating during night shifts. This helps keep our digestive system quiet during night hours, supporting better sleep.

  • Phones and Tech: Shut off blue light an hour before bed. Historically, most of our blue light came from the sun, which makes us feel alert. Now, we receive blue light from screens and artificial lighting. This is easier said than done, but I’m trying to leave my phone at arm's length so I can respond to messages without mindlessly scrolling. Get an alarm clock so you’re not tempted to look at your phone during the night.

  • Keeping Cool: Have a cold or tepid shower before bed. A colder environment promotes the release of melatonin, our sleep hormone.

  • Exercise: Aim for 20 minutes of exercise or movement a day. Physical activity helps tire the body, encouraging better sleep.

  • Caffeine: Limit after 2 pm. The half-life of caffeine is 4-6 hours, meaning you could still feel its effects up to 6 hours after drinking it. Multiple cups compound this effect.

  • Alcohol: Research advises stopping alcohol 3 hours before bedtime. Alcohol reduces both the time and quality of sleep across all stages of the sleep cycle. Low amounts (less than 2 drinks for men, 1 for women) reduce sleep quality by 9%, while higher amounts can reduce sleep quality by nearly 40%.

How Will Reflexology Help With My Sleep?

Reflexology provides time for the mind and body to relax, promoting well-being and self-healing. During this time of stillness and calm, our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate reduce, while our oxygenation levels increase. With these improvements, our cortisol levels can decrease, enabling us to switch off and relax into our sleep routine.

Research has shown that “foot reflexology produces significant improvements in sleep disturbances. It is a non-invasive and convenient intervention, and regularly receiving foot reflexology can be considered a complementary therapy to improve sleep quality in adults with sleep disturbances..”

Hui-Chuan Huang, Kee-Hsin Chen, Shu-Fen Kuo, I-Hui Chen (2020). Can foot reflexology be a complementary therapy for sleep disturbances? Evidence appraisal through a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. [Online] Available from Wiley Online Library.

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