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‘O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse’

  • March 15, 2024
  • 6 min read
‘O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse’

Have you ever considered what happens if you can’t get a good night’s sleep? All life on this planet has evolved with the light and dark cycle of Earth’s movement around the sun. From tiny, single-celled microbes to complex animals, there is a function resembling sleep. In every human cell, there is an internal cycle that governs a whole range of biological functions, from when the cells are most metabolically active to hormone production and cellular repair. This in-built schedule for various functions to do different things at the optimal time is known as the Circadian Rhythm.

The genes responsible, known as Clock genes, are regulated by light, temperature, food, and movement. So when the body experiences these at the wrong times, these genes get interrupted, leading to incomplete repair. Long-term effects include a wide range of chronic illnesses including cancers, metabolic and cardiovascular conditions, mental health issues, digestive dysfunction, and infertility.

Sleep itself is also a cycle, divided into 5 stages: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and Non-REM stages 1-4. In each phase, different critical processes occur. In REM, we have our most vivid dreams, boost of creativity, and emotional healing. Information is stitched together so that we can wake up with solutions to problems. Non-REM stages 1 and 2 are known as light sleep. This is where the brain produces short bursts of electrical waves known as sleep spindles. These transfer newly learned motor-memories to brain circuits that operate below the level of consciousness. Essential for athletes and musicians perfecting their skill, but also for the average person who might be learning to type on a new laptop, etc. Non-REM stages 3 and 4, deep sleep, are when immune and cardiovascular systems are recharged, glucose metabolism is regulated, hormones are produced, and memories are consolidated.

The body releases growth hormone, repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle. This is particularly important if you are training. During exercise, you create microtears in the muscle that will heal during this stage of sleep. Depending on the type of training, these tears will stimulate the muscle to develop strength, stamina, or size. So whatever your training goal, getting a good night’s sleep is vital.

Athletes have long known the importance of sleep for recovery and muscle development. From the Olympic cycling team to the Premier League, professional sports teams maintain strict sleep hygiene routines along with special sleep kits to take on tour. Bed setup, clean bedding, mattress choice, mattress toppers, pillows, and anything else that can increase comfort levels will help. The room must be very dark, cool, and calming. 18 degrees Celsius has been found to be the optimal temperature for sleep. The use of blackout blinds, eye masks, and earplugs are great tools. Blue light-emitting devices, such as screens and LED lights, mimic sunlight, signaling the brain to stay awake. Avoid these before bed. In fact, if you can be outside during sunrise and sunset, you can reinforce your circadian rhythm even if you can’t avoid some blue light before bed.

As well as practicing good sleep hygiene, avoiding sleep-disrupting substances will significantly help you reach those training goals. Alcohol is probably the most commonly used sleep aid. However, this is the opposite of what it does. It is actually a sedative, which means it prevents the brain from creating the electrical waves of activity responsible for all the restorative effects. We are unconscious and not asleep. Alcohol can fragment sleep by activating the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system. These micro awakenings go unnoticed but mean we have broken the sleep cycle, missing out on crucial stages. Alcohol also blocks REM sleep and therefore dampens your emotional and mental health and creativity. As the alcohol leaves your system, the brain goes into overdrive trying to make up for lost REM sleep.

This results in vivid and stressful dreams. In combination with this, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning you will wake to go to the toilet. It is quite a common phenomenon for people to wake around 3 am after a night of drinking. Athletes, coaches, and sports scientists have agreed for years that abstinence is the best solution. However, if you are going to have a drink, then earlier in the day is better. That way your body has time to metabolize it out of your system. Better still, combine this with lots of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, sprouts, and cabbage. These contain a compound called sulforaphane, which helps speed up the metabolism of alcohol. Remember to always alternate an alcoholic drink with a glass of water.

Another sleep-disrupting substance is caffeine, which has a quarter-life of 12 hours. So if you have a coffee at noon, a quarter of that caffeine is still in your bloodstream at midnight. One cup of coffee after dinner might not prevent you from falling asleep but can be enough to reduce the amount of deep sleep by 20%. This is similar to the lower sleep quality of someone 15 years older! Caffeine can also be found in tea, chocolate, coke, energy drinks, and even ice cream flavored with coffee and chocolate. Decaf coffee still contains a little bit of caffeine. Unlike alcohol, caffeine isn’t all bad. In fact, “Caffeine modulates a higher brain function through its effects on distinct areas of the brain,” explains Florian Koppelstätter, who carried out research at the Medical University at Innsbruck, Austria. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20182040/

Caffeine causes changes in several neurotransmitters that may improve mood, learning, and vigilance. This study also found that coffee improves short-term memory and speeds up reaction times by acting on the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Timing and moderation are key. Coffee actually has a whole range of health benefits, including around 3g of fiber per cup, antioxidants, and Trigoneline (B3) that can help protect against dental cavities by inhibiting bacterial growth. Cafesol and kaheol are natural oils in coffee that may be good for the liver and protect against cancer. So if you do enjoy a morning brew, then there’s no need to give up completely.

About Author

Natalie Shanahan

Natalie Shanahan has a BSc in Genetics and a MSc in Bioinformatics. She worked as a lecturer, teaching genetics and biochemistry, before moving to Australia to work for their first Bioinformatics company. Here she managed their marketing as well as working on their numerous educational resources. Natalie left her career in science to follow her passion and now works as a personal trainer and nutrition consultant, helping individuals and employees of large organisations, better understand their health and wellbeing.

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