Dr. Shona Halson Explains The Importance of Sleep
Many people are waking up to the importance of sleep. But what is sleep? Sleep occurs in all animal species, yet the exact function is not exactly clear. But we do know that sleep has a vital impact on our health and well-being. One of the most famous sleep scientists, Allan Rechtschaffen, once said “If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.” So, while we still debate the exact reasons we sleep, studies of sleep and sleep deprivation have shown that as a universal behavior sleep serves a lot of brain and body functions.
Sleep is essential for survival, and science says that sleep is as necessary as food and water for survival. Although the reasons why we sleep are still debated, it is generally accepted that sleep provides recovery from the previous day and prepares us for the following day. So, tonight’s sleep has an impact on how we function tomorrow. Sleeping less than six hours per night for four or more nights in a row has been shown to impair brain performance and mood, metabolism, appetite and immune function. This has led to the recommendation that adults should obtain eight hours of sleep per night to prevent these negative outcomes.
One of the major theories for why we sleep is that it allows the brain to be rested and energy stores to rebuild. Waste products in the brain are cleared and this is needed for memory and learning and essentially brain recovery. This is why we often feel like we have brain fog when we are sleep deprived. In addition to brain health, there is growing interest in the role sleep may play in physical health. Hormone release during sleep may help retore physical function and help protect our immune system.
There are lots of reasons why sleep is important and is something we should pay attention to. But what are the best ways to do this? Here are some tips that I have found useful:
Tip 1: Have a consistent bed and wake time as often as possible.
Consistency in bed and wake times obviously leads to consistent sleep durations but can also improve how well we sleep or the quality of sleep. Research also shows that not only do we sleep better but that this leads to improved overall health. So try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same (within about an hour) as often as possible. There are always things that get in the way, and we are not robots and need to enjoy life, but keeping bed and wake times consistent when we can is a really great way to get good sleep.
Tip 2: Try not to stay up late for something you would not get up early for.
We all have things that we need to do that can get in the way of sleep. Take a work deadline for example that you are late on and you either have to stay up late to finish it, or wake up early. But sometimes we stay up late for things that aren’t really important, like watching something on TV. So I often ask if you wouldn’t set your alarm and get up early to watch that show on TV, why would you stay up later than your normal bedtime to do the same thing? It creeps into sleep times and makes our sleep shorter as we often don’t or can’t sleep in that extra time in the morning.
Tip 3: You can’t always get what you want.
This means that sometimes we have to travel or have jetlag or have to wake early for something important that is outside of our control. That is OK and it’s important not to stress too much about it. If we can’t change it, there is no reason to get too worried and stressed which will likely make our sleep worse anyway.
Tip 4: You shouldn’t always get what you want.
This means that things like alcohol, caffeine and screentime are things we do by choice that can reduce sleep. Identifying these behaviors and avoiding them close to bedtime is a good idea. No caffine in the afternoon, no alcohol four hours before bed and no screens in the hour before bed are good general guidelines.
Tip 5: If monitoring sleep, don’t get too caught up in the numbers.
Sleep monitoring can be great. If you do monitor sleep, try not to get too obsessed about the numbers and look for big changes over time. Once you start tracking your sleep, you’ll be able to find patterns in your behaviors that may be affecting your sleep. This information can point to lifestyle changes needed to improve your sleep quality. When monitoring, do what works best for you. If you have sleep concerns, make sure you see a professional.
About the Author:
Professor Shona Halson is one of SleepScore Labs’ Scientific Advisors, from ACU’s School of Behavioural and Health Sciences and prior to this was the Head Recovery Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport for over 15 years and has been a part of three Olympic campaigns with the Australian Olympic Committee. Her research focuses on sleep, recovery and fatigue and she has published over 140 peer-reviewed articles and multiple book chapters. Shona is an Associate Editor for the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance and also provides consultancy services to the Australian Open Tennis Tournament and Nike as part of both the Nike Performance Council and Nike Sports Research Advisory Group. Shona also consults to a number of national and international professional sporting teams.
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