A good night’s sleep explained
For the third in our series of #GraceTalks, we addressed sleep, and more specifically the science and psychology behind a restful night. Health and wellbeing journalist Suzanne Duckett was joined by an expert panel comprising Grace Practitioner and consultant neuropsychiatrist, Dr Ivana Rosenzweig, President of the British Sleep Society, Professor Mary Morrell, and Professor Jason Ellis, author of The One-Week Insomnia Cure. Together they shared a wealth of knowledge and ideas – usually in agreement and occasionally offering differing opinions, confirming that, when it comes to sleep, extensive research and scientific exploration has provided us with a myriad of ideas and approaches to perfecting our own patterns, and ensuring maximum health benefits.
For those that couldn’t join us for the panel discussion, we are sharing highlights from the evening, including the health and weight implications of poor sleep and advice for improving your own habits.
A peaceful night
Many of us suffer from snoring (be it our own, or enduring someone else’s) and while it is often considered a predominantly male issue, women are affected, too. Many people do not recognise this as a symptom of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea – a condition that arises from the inability of air to pass to our lungs, due to the narrowing and collapsing of the floppy tube at the back of our neck, interrupting regular breathing while we sleep. The resulting lack of oxygen in our blood and body alerts our brain to wake up, leading to restless nights. Dr Rosenzweig suggests that, in some vulnerable groups, as many as 30% of women might be suffering from Sleep Apnoea, which becomes a particular problem post-menopause, when regular hormone balance (which protects against this) is thrown out of sync. Getting older and putting on weight are highest risks for this sleep disorder. At best, this can leave us lacking in energy, forgettable, moody and irritable; at worst, it may lead to fulminant depression, anxiety disorders, and severe health problems such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease, and even start of dementia. Dr Rosenzweig recommends seeking expert advice early on to put preventative lifestyle measures in place, as Sleep Apnoea could be avoidable, and is treatable with most damage to our body reversible if caught early.
Struggling with insomnia
‘Insomnia is a problem getting to sleep and waking frequently and early on a regular basis (at least three times a week) for a period of three months or more, causing day to day distress,’ Jason explained. It is not something to be taken lightly. Lack of sleep can lead to a number of serious health problems, from cardio vascular disease to dementia. ‘This is the time your body regenerates,’ Dr Rosenzweig added. ‘Activity from the day is cleared and memories and emotions processed. Even our heart rate, hormone release and metabolism are being regulated.’
The panel recommend taking early action. ‘We should all be recording our sleep,’ Mary said. ‘How else will we recognise changes and irregularities?’ Jason in particular suggested keeping a journal over using an app; pointing out that our perception of our sleep is almost as important as what we have actually experienced. Introducing good bedtime hygiene can have a positive effect too. Ensuring we get to bed before midnight to allow time to pass through deep sleep cycles, reducing blue light exposure for several hours beforehand and clearing bedrooms of unnecessary stimulants is recommended. ‘Hot baths effectively relax tight muscles and ease tension’ Dr Rosenzweig suggested. While the jury is still out, some believe that classical music might be beneficial; ‘the part of the brain that interprets music is anatomically linked to the part that creates new brain cells even in the adult brains. Some scientists and clinicians believe that by listening to the right type of music we might actually aid the regeneration process,’ Dr Rosenzweig explained.
According to Mary, routine is vital; by regulating sleeping time, our hormones can begin to learn when they should be released. ‘I’m the first to admit my brain might not be ready to switch off, but the body loves routine she said. Jason agreed, going as far as to warn us away from lengthy Sunday lie-ins. ‘If you don’t experience sleeping difficulties a leisurely morning won’t cause any serious harm, but for those that do suffer, endeavour to maintain routine.’
It’s important to let the mind rest, and Mary recommended making a list before bed to give a sense of closure and control. ‘Often when we can’t sleep our thinking runs away with us – and it’s not the logical thinking that we usually practice; everything becomes catastrophically blown out of proportion.’ We need to avoid thoughts that will stimulate the brain – hence the counting sheep adage. ‘This is too simple,’ Jason explained; ‘the brain needs to be completely occupied and with sheep, it can still wander. Choose thoughts that are void of emotional attachment and will quickly bore the brain into switching off again,’ he said. A personal favourite? ‘Counting down from 10,000 – in sevens!’
Many seek medication to aid sleep and none of our panel were wholly against this, though they recommended exercising caution. ‘Sleeping pills can be useful for alleviating a short term problem but not insomnia’ Jason said. Often we find that our sleep suffers as a result of life situations, from work stress to moving house or relationship issues. When our problems are temporary the resulting lack of sleep tends to be too, and in these instances, short term medication is acceptable. ‘It shouldn’t be considered a cure,’ Dr Rosenzweig added, ‘for ongoing issues it’s important to identify underlying problems and effectively treat them, rather than disguising the symptoms.’ The panel unanimously agreed that while medication can offer some respite it cannot compete with the quality and depth of natural sleep.
Melatonin is currently not prescribed in the UK for sleep problems, though again, our panel didn’t consider it a huge risk when administered responsibly. Dr Rosenzweig suggested it can be particularly useful for young people; ‘throughout our teenage and adolescent years our biological levels alter and can fall out of harmony, leading to young people’s need to go to bed later and wake up later . If there schooling suffers, they should seek help and melatonin can be useful here.’
Many of us see an increase in weight alongside sleep struggles, which is unsurprising for a number of reasons – not least that our lack of energy can lead us to neglect exercise. ‘Studies in Chicago have shown our cravings for sugar and salt increase,’ Jason said ‘and we’re also more likely to lose muscle mass than fat when we’re sleep deprived’. Mary agreed, citing adequate rest as the third key component of weight management, alongside diet and exercise. With so many aspects of our wellbeing deeply affected by our relationship with sleep, it was hard to draw our discussion to a close. Suzanne finished the evening with myth busting (our concerns about restless leg syndrome and the hypnic jerk have – quite literally – been put to bed) and a Q&A, before inviting guests to continue the conversation in the Grace Restaurant over dinner. If you would like to learn more about Dr Rosenzweig and sleep therapy at Grace, please click here.
For the next in the series of #GraceTalks our panel will be discussing Anxiety and Depression in Young People, Wednesday 7th June. More information to follow shortly. To register your interest please click here.