What is Sleep?
Sleep is a state of reduced awareness during which our body carries out a number of routine tasks it needs to complete to keep us healthy, such as releasing hormones, repairing or renewing tissue and consolidating memories (moving our memories from short-term to long-term). We don’t switch off completely during sleep, and our brains are still very active. This often results in dreams.
We all need to sleep. If we don’t get enough sleep, we become tired and less alert. Sleeping is essential to our well-being; it increases our immunity to viruses and infections, improves our physical and mental health and promotes growth and healing. It even helps us to keep a healthy weight!
Types of Sleep
There are two main phases when we sleep. These are REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep. Most of our time asleep is spent in non-REM, when our body carries out maintenance such as tissue repair and growth, with periods of REM sleep increasing in length and frequency through the night.
REM sleep is a less deep phase of sleep when our minds are most active, so this is when most dreams occur. This is also when memory consolidation happens.
How Much Sleep Do I Need?
Everyone is different. Some people may require much less sleep than others, and this will likely change as you get older. The important thing is to avoid forcing it. Humans are the only animals which deliberately manage the amount they sleep, and our sleep habits are getting worse because of our ‘always on’ culture.
As a guide:
- Those aged 11-13 typically need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep.
- Those aged 14-17 typically need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep.
- Those aged 18-25 typically need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep.
You’ll know yourself how much sleep you need, and the most important thing is that you have a regular and healthy sleeping habit. This means you’re going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day (including weekends!), as well as promoting a good night’s sleep through your evening routine.
Improving Your Sleep
To improve how well you sleep, it’s important to understand the factors which play a part. How well you sleep is largely controlled by two hormones: melatonin and cortisol. Melatonin promotes sleep, whereas cortisol is a stress hormone, which wakes us up in the morning and makes us more alert. Basically, you want to increase your levels of melatonin before you go to sleep.
Here are some top tips for a good night’s sleep:
Calculate how much sleep you need. For example, if you think you need 9 hours sleep a night, work out what time you need to get up in the morning and work backwards. So if you need to get up at 7am, make sure you go the bed at 10pm to get enough sleep.
Pay attention to what you do during the day. Try to get outside for at least 30 minutes during the day so you access some natural light, you should also try to have your meals around a similar time each day and do some exercise. Having a routine and doing these things can help improve your sleep and keep your body clock in rhythm.
Keep on eye on your food and drink too. Avoid caffeine and sugary snacks late in the day – did you know that caffeine can stay in your body for up to 10 hours? Caffeine and sugar are stimulants which will keep you up if you consume them too late in the day. Avoid coffee after around 2 pm (or drink decaf) and, if you want a snack in the evening, toast or a banana and a glass of milk is a great alternative. Try and have this at least an hour before bed, though.
Avoid screens before you go to bed. It can be tempting to relax by browsing social media and other apps before bed, but the blue light from screens can stop your body from producing melatonin. Tools like Night Shift, f.lux and other apps can be helpful (not just at night, but in general) because they take away some of the blue light and reduce eye strain, but it’s better to avoid your devices altogether. Create a wind down hour before you’re planning on going to sleep – for example, read a physical book, draw or listen to music. You might also want to try relaxation techniques or mindfulness.
Manage anxiety. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, this can increase the amount of cortisol in your body, this is the hormone that keeps us awake throughout the day. Unfortunately, sometimes this can create a cycle as we get more stressed if we can’t sleep which produces more cortisol. To try and help keep cortisol levels down when you’re trying to sleep, build in your wind down hour, try some yoga, relaxation exercises or meditation and consider apps that might help, for example Smiling Mind.
Avoid napping after 2 pm. Try not to sleep after 2pm until you’re ready to go to bed. While it might make you feel better in the short-term, it can make it harder to sleep well at night and may have a knock-on effect the next day.
Make sure you have a healthy sleep environment. To get a good night’s rest, it helps to have an environment that’s dark and relaxing. Darkness helps your body produce melatonin and avoiding noise and stress can reduce cortisol levels, which can keep you awake.
Let some light in during the day. Similarly, you want to try and get some sunlight into your room in the morning and during the day. This will help you wake up and be active during the day, which will help you sleep better at night.
Create a sleep diary. This is a great way to work out what might be helping you or causing you trouble getting to sleep. It could be the way you’re feeling, parts of your diet or the activities you’re doing that impact your sleep.
Find out more
Sleep Scotland have a Sleep Support Line that you can contact if you want information or advice about sleeping. Or you can email your enquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org. They will then get back to you to arrange a time to call or to continue the discussion over email. Currently the Sleep Support Line is available from Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm.
Find out more at Sleep Scotland.