Sleep is fundamental to life. All animals have some sort of pattern of rest that is like sleep, even some plants. Evolution has built sleep into all of us – it is THAT important!
But why? What is sleep for?
Why on earth would it be sensible to be unconscious and vulnerable for part of every day? Surely that would be dangerous and stop us from doing lots of other useful things with our time.
Even bacteria have active and passive periods. So, it must be really very important.
Not all animals need the same amount of sleep, varying between 2 hours (for horses) and 19 hours (for some bats).
For humans, although it can depend on your genes, we usually need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.
Sleep is also not necessarily done all in one shift. In fact, human body clocks still operate on the basis of sleeping mostly during the hours of darkness with a nap several hours into the afternoon. Some cultures have maintained that practice, although most of us now push through, kept artificially awake by work and fake sunlight.
Since the industrial revolution we’ve been denying our body clocks the right to take control and forced ourselves to push through on less and less sleep. This has had a significant impact on our health and wellbeing.
A bunch of really complicated things happen in your brain and body when you sleep:
Firstly, it’s really important for your brain that it has down time to process all the input it has received during the day. The different stages of sleep – which cycle throughout the night, and include REM (rapid eye movement) and nREM (non-rapid eye movement), complete muscular paralysis and changes in body temperature, all perform different functions for the brain. When in REM sleep if we were to scan your brain, then it would look like it was awake! REM and nREM sleep work to process your thoughts and sort out long and short term memory. Have you noticed that if you go without sleep your short term memory is really bad?
Secondly, by getting complete rest your body repairs itself, your muscles can rejuvenate, your heart muscle relaxes and slows, your blood pressure falls.
If you don’t get enough sleep you will experience muscle fatigue, inability to concentrate, increased hunger, headaches and longer term are more likely to experience depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, more and worse infections.
Why is sleep important?
For people with Gilbert’s Syndrome, if you don’t get enough sleep, you are more likely to see an increase in your symptoms – jaundice, nausea, fatigue, foggy brain etc. Other medical conditions which include pain also worsen. IBS can be triggered etc
A good night’s rest can make all the difference. Without it we can be forgetful, distracted, unmotivated in the short term and suffer chronic disease in the long term.
How can I get better sleep?
Here are nine tips to help you sleep better
1.Your body clock is run by hormones in your body which ebb and flow based on daylight and darkness times. These hormones can be disrupted by artificial light, such as from digital devices. Keep clear of digital devices or switch to a night mode in the hours before sleep.
2. Your body will also heat and cool at different times of day and night to prepare for sleep so temperature is important. Make sure your sleep space is a comfortable temperature for you.
3. Regular interruptions will disrupt your sleep pattern, including shift patterns or changes to your sleep and wake times. Keep a regular sleep time and try to reduce interruptions.
4. Stimulants such as Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine can all interrupt sleep as they disrupt the chemicals in your body that help you sleep. Do avoid them near bed time. For caffeine you may need to avoid it completely or up to 8 hours before bedtime, unless you are genetically predisposed to get rid of it from your body at great speed.
5. Eating late at night can mean your body is busy trying to digest, which can increase your body temperature, can give you stomach ache and boost your blood sugar just when you don’t need the energy. A small snack is a better option if it’s close to bed time.
6. Exercising during the day and relaxing in the evening mean you are using up your energy at the right time and giving your system time to wind down.
7. Don’t drink a vast amount before going to bed or you will be waking up multiple times. If you are having bladder issues then get those treated to prevent being repeatedly woken (for example if you are menopausal).
8. Do you wake up worrying? Brain spinning and chewing over things? Anxiety is a widely reported symptom of Gilbert’s Syndrome. Keep a pen and paper by your bed and write down things that are bothering you before you go to sleep, or if you wake up. Then put them to one side. Don’t lie awake for more than half an hour worrying, get up and go and do something distracting. Read a book in a dimly lit room, or listen to calming music.
9. If you are struggling to get enough sleep and can’t pin down why, then keep a sleep journal. Don’t just monitor what sleep you are getting, but what you are doing during the day – eating, exercise, work, play etc. You may find a pattern that you can adapt to promote your sleep.
You can use this symptom tracker to track your sleep and other activities that may impact your Gilbert’s Syndrome symptoms.
How much sleep do I need?
Guidelines for an adult have been around 7 to 9 hours per night. Younger people need much more sleep and older people may need less.
However, if your sleep quality is poor, you wake a number of times in the night, have a lot of pain or chronic illness, have a physically demanding or stressful job, you may need to be in bed for longer. You may also benefit from an afternoon nap.
Some people can function well on less sleep, but on the whole, if you have good sleep quality, then 7 hours is a great start. That is the time of being actually asleep, and it doesn’t count tossing and turning for half an hour or dozing for half an hour before you get out of bed.
If you don’t get the sleep you need you could put on weight, are more at risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression and are less likely to conceive.
How can I tell if I’m getting enough sleep?
- Would you be able to fall asleep 3 hours after waking?
- Do you need caffeine to function for those first three hours?
- Is your focus difficult to maintain?
If you answer yes to these, then you may need more sleep and be using caffeine to prop yourself awake.
If you are feeling regularly headachy, crave sugary or starchy food, and are struggling to face 30 mins of exercise such as a brisk walk, then you definitely need more sleep.
To get all the intelligence on sleep that you could need, then I recommend Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep: the New Science of Sleep and Dreams