Sleep: The pillar of good health

By Rachel Rowney on 4th Mar 2019

Sleep is often an overlooked area of health. Editor Rachel Rowney looks at why it’s a vital part of your daily wellness routine…

The power of a good night’s rest is undeniable, and anecdotally, sleep has always had a reputation as a cure for most ills. In recent years, however, there has been much scientific research into the power of sleep. It was estimated in a recent study that almost two-thirds of adults in developed nations do not achieve the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. In addition to the obvious side effects of feeling groggy or tired throughout the following day, what are the long-term issues if we don’t have enough rest?

Matthew Walker, author of ‘Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams’ believes that lack of sleep is one of the pre-determining factors of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as influencing a significant range of psychiatric, mental disorders and even cancer. In fact, as a result of comprehensive research in 2007, the World Health Organization remarked that night shift as a ‘probable carcinogen’ (causing cancer) due to ‘circadian disruption’ or sleep/wake cycle.

In addition to being a preventative for diseases in later life, sleep is also essential for your body to heal itself on a daily basis. Research suggests that achieving eight hours of sleep each night can help with common colds and is a daily boost for your immune system. The power of sleep has also been considered in studies for lower cholesterol, as a means of aiding weight-loss, and regulating blood sugar levels.

The National Sleep Foundation also explains that sleep is vital for your body to produce cytokines, which are a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation. As these cytokines are both produced and released while you are sleeping, missing out on rest can be twice as bad for your health.

The number of hours we need to sleep differs by age-range, The National Sleep Foundation outlines this in the below infographic. As this illustrates, the optimum amount of sleep for a newborn baby is between 14 and 17 hours a day, a teenager’s recommend amount is eight to 10, whereas adults (18+) need only seven to nine hours. The ages where the body is experiencing the most change or growth is reflected in the number of hours humans need in order to fully rest and recover.

Experts agree on a number of simple ways to have a good night’s sleep. Firstly, try and sleep to a schedule, if you are waking up at 6 am Monday-Friday, but sleep in until 11 am on Saturdays, your body will not find a regular pattern of sleep. Exercising during the day is hugely important for a deep sleep as is a limited caffeine intake past 12 pm. Finally, although it may seem obvious, in order for your body to fully shut down and achieve a full night’s rest, you must make sure that your surroundings are sufficiently dark enough.

Sleep should be considered as vital to human health as consuming the right amount of vegetables and drinking enough water. Often taken for granted, in order to prevent diseases and fight off illness, we must see sleep as one of the main pillars of our health.

Sleep throughout the years
The concept of humans sleeping throughout the night may be a recent phenomenon, argues historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech University. Ekirch spent years researching and collecting historical evidence that suggests that humans used to sleep in two periods at night, known as a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep’. According to his theory, people would initially go to bed after the sun had set, wake for one or two hours around 11 pm, and then go back to sleep until dawn. This cycle of sleep started to phase out in the 17th century, as more and more people were able to purchase candles.

In the late 19th century, following on from Thomas Edison’s invention of the modern-day light bulb, sleep patterns were disrupted more than ever. Primarily, this meant that workers could stay longer at factories, night shifts were invented and the idea of falling asleep when the sun set and waking up with the sunrise, was changed forever.

In more recent years, the human ability to ‘switch off’ before falling asleep has been altered by the introduction of televisions and cell phones. This artificial lighting (also known as ‘blue lighting’) trick your brain into thinking it is daytime, meaning it can take longer to fall asleep and your natural rhythm of sleep will be altered. To prevent this, experts recommend switching off electronic devices up to an hour before you wish to fall asleep.

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