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Getting a good night's sleep

Why sleep matters, and how to get enough of it

Author: Doreen Corbey February 9 2011

sleeping woman

Difficulty in falling asleep, sleeping fitfully, wakefulness during the night; these are only a few of the more than 80 documented sleep problems that exist. What is worrying is that almost 30% of the population cannot get to sleep, or have too little sleep so often that it becomes 'normal' for them. Of course there are physical discomforts that can become obstacles to good sleep such as the temperature of the room, feeling sick, pain, noise. There are others such as changing of the clock like with jet lag.

Our bodies follow a "circadian rhythm", which is an approximate 24-hour period in our internal biological clock and is important in controlling sleep patterns, body temperature, hormone activity, cell regeneration and brain wave activity. We know the common symptoms of lack of sleep, which are tiredness and lack of concentration during the day, but there are others that are less well known. Too little sleep can increase weight gain and lead to high blood pressure.

When you regularly go with insufficient sleep, your immune system is suppressed so you can become more vulnerable to illnesses and take longer to fight them off. In addition your body produces less growth hormone, which fights ageing. A stress response is triggered which affects blood vessels in the skin which again contributes to ageing. So having too little sleep can affect how long you live.

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People who work night shifts also fall under the effects of too little sleep. Being awake during the night alters your body's circadian rhythm and slows down the rate at which energy is burned off. Your cell regeneration process is also disrupted so repair and regrowth of cells is not as efficient. So doing regular night shifts can be a causative factor in obesity and tired-looking skin.

How much sleep is enough? Although this varies with each person, most adults need 7-8 hours, while babies and young children who are growing need much more and older people less, maybe even down to 6 hours a night. Surprisingly, you can also suffer consequences from too much sleep. Sleeping too long can lead to a vicious circle of low energy, feeling tired and needing more sleep, and can eventually lead to depression. Researchers at Warwick University found that sleeping over 8 hours a night or less than 5 hours a night could double your risk of heart disease.

Just as vital is how well you sleep. Some believe that how long you sleep is not as important as long as you get into deep sleep. So when do we reach that? There are 4 stages to sleep. The first is just after you've fallen asleep and is light. Muscles relax and the heart slows down.

At stage 2, we have REM or rapid eye movement. This is when we dream. Stages 3 and 4 are deep sleep, also called slow wave sleep or non-REM. You usually get to the deep sleep stage an hour after first falling asleep and it is normal to complete the whole cycle from stage 1 through to stage 4 in 90 minutes. You then continue to go through this cycle of REM followed by non-REM sleep during the night. During these stages your body goes through all sorts of processes to build proteins, regenerate cells and repair damage. It is also believed that during REM sleep we process the information of that day. It is understandable then that sleep problems can cause physical and mental issues.

Aids to sleep

It is often said that routine helps in getting a good night's sleep. The parenting books recommend this for babies, and adults should adopt the same prescription for themselves. If you go to bed drunk or take sleeping tablets, although you may fall asleep easily, your non-REM or slow wave sleep is disrupted. Avoid caffeine and fizzy drinks in the run-up before bedtime. It is advisable to use the bedroom for sleeping and not watching TV or working on the computer.

Many people find that herbal remedies help . For children Californian Poppy tincture has mild sedative properties. A traditional American Indian recipe, it can help with difficulty in falling asleep and waking during the night. Herbal remedies for adults include:

  • Rhodiola Rosea to promote serotonin levels and uplift depressed states;
  • B-complex particularly B6 with folic acid to promote serotonin levels, help with leg cramps and restless leg syndrome;
  • Valerian helps in getting to sleep and increases deep sleep or slow wave sleep;
  • Magnesium reduces muscular tension;
  • L-Tryptophan is particularly helpful with insomniacs as it reduces the time in getting to sleep;
  • Vervain calms and restores the nervous system, a relaxing herb.

Being an aromatherapy enthusiast I always have an oil on hand to help with most ailments. There are several ways to apply an oil. The beauty editors' favourite recommendation is to take a bath but make sure you don't have much else to do after this. Never drop your essential oil neat into the bath water. An essential oil neat in water can burn you, and also the oil needs a fatty substance to help spread it, so dilute it into a carrier oil (such as almond, sunflower, olive oil) or milk before dispersing this into the bath water.

Another way to use an oil is in a burner where hot or cold air disperses the aroma through the room. You can massage oils into your skin, again diluting first in a carrier oil. The last way is to drop the oil directly onto the bedding so that you breathe it in. I prefer to use a cloth or handkerchief just in case the smell becomes over-powering. Be aware also that the smells will linger on past the night, so with a cloth, you can remove it in the morning. Oils to use are: bergamot, chamomile, lavender, marjoram, Melissa, neroli, rose absolute, rosewood, vetiver.

A final recommendation that you might have tried when you were revising for exams is to read a book in bed. No, not a thrilling, can't-put-down book, I mean a textbook. I guarantee, within 5 minutes, you'll be snoring.

About the Author

Doreen has had a passion for massage since she was 15 years old. She still has that passion, and offers massage, specialist facials and other beauty treatments in her home-based salon in Surrey. With any energy left over she will devour all the beauty pages of all the magazines she can lay her hands on!

Doreen's homepage: Bellessence

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