Monday, 2 April 2012


Sleep... that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, the death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast.

So said Shakespeare and a new study just published by Vielife, the health and productivity company that carried it out, suggests that a third of UK workers suffer from poor sleep and are putting their jobs before their health, counter-productive though this might be.

This is echoed by the US's National Sleep Foundation's 2012 American poll, cited recently on the Huffington Post, and as long ago as 2008 the online health site NetDoctor identified lack of sleep, and its causes, as a perennial problem.

Sleep is essential to restore the body and mind. Deep slow-wave sleep, when our brain moves into delta waves, is imperative: this is the restorative sleep that we all need and without it, we suffer both physically and mentally. In order to compensate for chronic lack of sleep, we produce more stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) which revs us up and consequently makes it more difficult to sleep. Stress hormones are designed for short, sharp (fight or flight) responses, not for sustaining you against chronic levels of sleep deprivation caused by your lifestyle.

Stress caused by chronic sleep deprivation is also inflammatory (hence the secretion of anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol) - which causes damage to the cells of the body, and permanent long term damage over time. Consistently high levels of circulating cortisol are also a neurotoxin, which may go some way to explain the increase in degenerative brain damage that results in diseases like Alzheimer's. There's also a correlation between chronic sleep deprivation and heart attacks and strokes, not to mention weight gain and diabetes.

It's not easy, though, to reverse those habits that cause chronic sleep problems. Once your stress thermostat is set at high, and you have adjusted to it, it takes time to turn it down to the point where your adrenalin-fueled, pounding heart rate no longer keeps you awake at night. So used are we to the anxious, 3 am thoughts that keep us awake, we are somehow loathe to let them go and our incredible ability to adapt can even make bad habits possible. It's insidious, this slow glide towards a chronic sleep problem and, at first, the lifestyle changes you make may not immediately yield the results you seek. Give yourself time - but persevere, you will benefit greatly from better sleep, both in the short and long term.

To improve your sleep, and consequently your health and productivity, check out the following top tips:
  • physical exercise - factor in a daily dose, even if it's only a 20 minute walk - but avoid excessive exercise late in the day
  • reduce your daily intake of caffeinated drinks - coffee, colas and ban Red Bull - it takes time for an exhausted liver to rid your circulation of caffeine, so cut down gradually but get to a point where you have seriously reduced your intake and nothing caffeinated after 3pm
  • eat regularly and eat slow-release carbs - hungry bodies go into stress mode more easily which equals more stress hormones, which will aggravate sleep problems
  • take time off from work before you go to bed and keep your bedroom work, TV and mobile phone (turn if off, so that 3 am text from a well-meaning 'friend' doesn't wake you!) free
  • keep regular hours - going to bed and getting up the same time every day helps set your internal clock - at least 5 nights out of 7 - you may have to adjust this over time to adapt, but it's worth it - and so are you
  • aim for 7-8 hours which, for most of us, will mean we need to go to bed earlier...

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