The health secrets of sleep and how to get a good night’s rest

An image showing a person and a dog asleep

When it comes to good health, sleep is probably one of the most underrated and under-valued things that we do as human beings. Busy lives, jobs and social circles means sleep often gets bumped down the list when it comes to priorities. If you’d like to make sleep more of a priority – this post can help. I'm talking all about the restorative power of sleep and how to make sure you get a good night’s rest...

Sleep is absolutely essential for good health. Every animal species on Earth sleeps and we spend a third of our life asleep. Sleep has stuck with us for our entire evolutionary existence because it’s so fundamental to how we live, thrive and function. There is not one single cell, tissue or organ in your body that doesn’t benefit from a good night’s rest.

Five reasons why you should work on getting a good night’s sleep

1. Sleep strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for strategic thought) and the emotional centres of your brain, such as the striatum and the amygdala. If you’re not sleeping enough, these connections become weakened. As a result, the strategic prefrontal cortex can’t regulate our emotions and impulses so well, which can cause us to act in volatile ways and also give into our cravings.

2. Sleep is the only time when your brain and body are in a ‘neuro-chemically safe’ environment. This means that we can deal with the stressors of the day. We’re safe from the stress chemistry that bubbles up in our body when we think about them during waking hours.

3. Sleep helps us learn. When you’re asleep, new information is moved from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. When you wake up, the information is safely stored away and you’re ready and refreshed to learn more new things the next day. It’s just like hitting the ‘save’ button on a document you’ve been working on.

4. Sleeping helps your brain make connections between different pieces of information, which leads us to think more creatively and innovatively. As a result, you’ll be able to find more approaches to solving problems and confront challenges that come up in your daily life.

5. And finally – it’s short but very sweet – sleep slows down the ageing process.

How to get enough rest and sleep

Build short periods of rest into your day. Your body naturally wants to rest every 90 to 120 minutes. After that it needs to draw on other sources of fuel to keep going, such as sugar, or internal ‘fight or flight’ hormones, both of which are very damaging for our bodies. To stop this from happening, take regular breaks throughout the day: work on what you’re doing for 60 minutes and then have a rest.

Don’t exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise is great because it exhausts your body and mind in a very positive way. Just don’t do any vigorous exercise three to four hours before bed, as your adrenaline and heart rate will be heightened and you won’t be able to get to sleep.

Turn off digital devices. The blue light in phones, tablets and TVs stops you from producing a hormone called melatonin, which is vital in helping you sleep and sleep well. Turn off your technology three hours before you go to bed.

Adopt a gentle bedtime routine. Think about some of the things you do before going to bed – brushing your teeth or getting changed for example. Do them mindfully, gently and calmly. This will help your body and mind start to wind down and get ready for sleep.

Create the right environment. You bedroom should be cool and dark, as brightness and warmth slows the production of melatonin, our ‘sleep hormone’. The bedroom should also be quiet, so get some earplugs if any noises bother you. Think cool, quiet and dark; your bedroom is your place of relaxation and rest.

Follow the 20 minute rule. If you’re struggling to get to sleep, don’t lie there tossing and turning. If you do this you’ll feel frustrated and anxious and find it harder to relax, unwind and get to sleep. If after 20 minutes you’re still awake, get up and do something relaxing, such as reading, or something really boring, such as ironing, for 20 minutes and then head back to bed.

Watch my behaviour change webinar for more tips and insights on how to reach your health goals.

Even healthy people become unwell sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK

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