off season series: No. 3
waking up to the importance of sleep
In this, our third blog in our off season series, we explore the importance of sleep and how to improve the quality of sleep we each get.
As the nights draw in and the days turn colder my thoughts turn to hibernation and I struggle to get out of bed in the morning. What better time of year to try and establish better sleeping habits and routines for ourselves?
It is commonly acknowledged that growing children need at least 10 hours sleep per night. Similarly, those who put their bodies through regular workouts need to give their muscles adequate time to recover. Numerous studies on professional athletes have been unanimous: longer sleep significantly improves speed, accuracy, reaction times, and mental well-being. Equally one night of sleep deprivation has been shown significantly to decrease endurance performance.
Several factors can adversely affect your ability to fall asleep and to maintain good quality throughout the night. Whilst some of these are difficult to manage, others are within our control. Providing yourself with the right nutrition, sleeping environment and a sensible bedtime routine will all help to achieve your sleep target.
Of course, when it comes to sleep, as with many things, it is quality, as well as quantity, that is important. A small amount of commitment to the task can reap rewards in accelerated recovery and improved performance.
Eating for sleep has two objectives. The first is to assist your body in the production of melatonin (the drowsy hormone) and the second is to reduce the stress hormones, such as cortisol, which may keep you from falling asleep in the first place.
Whilst it is tempting to have a glass of wine or two in the evening to take the edge off a long day, or to drink coffee throughout the day to keep you awake, stimulants in the form of alcohol, caffeine and sugary foods will prevent you obtaining optimal amounts of sleep at night. The rollercoaster highs and lows caused by the sugar intake and your body’s insulin response to it, along with the fact that, even with good liver function, caffeine can remain in your body for at least 5 hours, mean that you should try to cut out these stimulants completely. Of course, this may not be desired (or possible) but limiting caffeine intake to the morning and aiming to reduce sugary foods and eliminate alcohol will all improve your sleep.
Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day to ensure you are not dehydrated. Green teas are soothing and help to deal with stress and drinking plenty of water throughout the day will help with digestion.
eat protein rich foods
Lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seed and pulses contain tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods. Tryptophan is the building block your body requires to produce serotonin. In turn, seratonin is used to produce melatonin, a hormone which controls sleepiness. The pineal gland releases melatonin overnight to induce and maintain sleep.
Eat oily fish
Oily fish, containing Omega -3 fatty acids can help reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, thus aiding a good nights sleep.
Eat slow release carbohydrates
Carbohydrate rich foods make tryptophan more available to your body, which is why carbohydrate rich meals can make you feel drowsy. For a similar reason, carbohydrate rich meals should be avoided at lunchtime to avoid the post-lunch dip!
Increase your mineral intake
Magnesium and potassium are two of the most common minerals on the planet and are essential for many cellular reactions within the body. They contribute to your general well-being (bones, heart, brain and muscle function). Magnesium is also linked to other beneficial side effects, such as lowering blood pressure. As it may help to decrease the “stress hormone”, cortisol, that can keep you up at night, magnesium is often touted as a cure for insomnia. Whilst this may not be entirely true, it certainly helps muscles relax, to give you that calm “sleepy” feeling and help you unwind after a long day. Another advantage of magnesium is that it aids recovery by helping the muscle cramps and spasms common the day after you have pushed it a little too hard in the gym.
Avoid milky drinks
The jury is out on the ability of a warm milky drink to send you off to the land of nod. Dairy food does contain tryptophan, but it is in quite small doses. However, milk is a complete meal in itself, packing almost all the essential nutrients. It is a combination of lactose and proteins and it is the intake of the lactose which is not recommended before you go to sleep, as it prevents your body from powering down. Liver functioning is highly active during the night hours, when it performs the function of detoxification and having milk interferes with this detoxification process. It is likely that the main benefit of a warm glass of milk is psychological.
Stimulant free bedroom
Try to ensure that your bedroom is free of stimulants (no televisions, computers, phones or other electronics). This will not only help to create the right, calming environment, to enable you to get to sleep. It also removes the temptation to “check” for communications.
Your body temperature varies throughout your sleep cycle overnight, lowering in the night and raising again towards morning. If you room is too warm this can affect your natural dip and make you more restless throughout the night. In the summer, this may mean that you should keep your curtains drawn to prevent the sunlight raising the room temperature during the day.
Keep the lights down low
Light is a powerful tool that will tell our bodies when to wake up (by suppressing sleep inducing melatonin production). Low level lighting will put you in the right frame of mind to fall asleep, if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night then a nightlight is preferable to turning on the lights. During the summer months and for those of us who live in cities, when it is never truly dark, black out blinds or thick curtains can be used to keep the room dark until your wake-up time. A timed side lamp can assist in your body waking slowly by response to the increased light in the room.
Silence is golden
Try to ensure that the room is quiet. Whilst you are asleep you brain continues to register sounds and therefore this can cause you to wake, particularly if the sound is sudden. If you find that you are being woken by noise when asleep and reducing the sound level further is beyond your control, then white noise may help. This reduces the difference between background noises and loud noises which may wake you.
Even adults should have a bedtime routine, as it marks the end of the day and the time during which you prepare your body for sleep. Routines are individual, and will very much depend on how much time you have, but should generally include:
• Turning off electronics and TV screens ;
• Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques;
• Stress-management techniques (for example writing down worries or jobs for the next day)
• Bringing your temperature down.
They may also include reading or listening to music, or having a warm (non-alcoholic) drink.
All of the above sets out what most of us know deep down: in the absence of an underlying medical reason, a healthy diet and sensible approach to bedtime should give us every opportunity for a good night’s sleep. However, if all else fails and you simply cannot get your full sleep quota for the night, there is hope. Research has shown that a well-timed nap of no longer than 30 minutes can be very refreshing. For those of us who sleep between 10 pm and 7 am, the ideal nap time would be 3 pm. As I said- some things may be beyond our control…
A small amount of commitment to the task can reap rewards in accelerated recovery and improved performance.