Getting quality sleep is vital to our survival. Without sleep, we are unable to form or maintain pathways in our brain that allow us to learn, create new memories, respond quickly and concentrate, and therefore, can have a massive impact on our performance at work.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in our bodies – from the brain, heart, and lungs; to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or poor quality sleep, can increase the risk of developing disorders such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
The Sleep Cycle
There are two basic types of sleep:
When we are asleep, we go through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep several times a night. As the night progresses, the length on our REM sleep periods get longer and deeper.
Our brain waves during REM Sleep are not dissimilar to our brain waves when we’re awake. Despite this, REM sleep is the deepest type of sleep in our sleep cycle and is when the majority of our dreaming occurs. Deep sleep is crucial for physical renewal, hormonal regulation and growth. Research shows that there is a link between a lack of REM sleep and ill health. If we don’t get enough REM sleep, we are more likely to get ill, feel depressed and gain weight.
As well as affecting us physically, a lack of REM sleep can also have an impact on our mental health. During REM sleep, the brain processes and synthesises memories and emotions, activity that is crucial for learning and higher-level thoughts. Therefore, if we do not get a sufficient amount of REM sleep, it results in slower cognitive processing, problems with memory and difficulty concentrating.
The Link Between Sleep And Stress
Stress and sleep have a two-way relationship. High stress levels can make sleeping more difficult, similarly, a lack of quality sleep can cause high stress levels. Getting the right amount of good quality sleep brings several health benefits and therefore can contribute to decreasing our stress levels.
- Maintains Cortisol Levels
Sleep drops the cortisol in our brains to a healthy level. When you don’t get enough sleep, these levels do not drop and therefore, your cortisol levels are elevated. After a bad nights sleep, you wake up feeling stressed which makes it harder to sleep the next night, so you become trapped in a vicious cycle.
2. Keeps you mentally alert
After a good nights sleep, you wake up feeling refreshed and more prepared to face the stressors that you may come across on that particular day. Sleep is a restorative process, flushing toxins that have accumulated in the brain during the day and consolidating memories, making it easier for you to recall them when you’re awake.
3. Keeps You Emotionally Balanced
Studies have found that sleep can have an impact on the amygdala – an area of the brain that processes emotions. If we are sleep deprived, activity in the amygdala is heightened, which can increase feelings of anxiety, affecting emotional regulation. Getting a good nights sleep is important as it enables us to deal with stressful situations in a more rational manner.
How To Get Better Sleep To Combat Stress
Ditch The Screens
Living in an ever changing digitalised world, this is easier said than done. However, if you are struggling to sleep, it is advised that you avoid using your phone, tablet or laptop at least an hour before bed. This is because, the light that is emitted from your devices has been found to suppress the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which helps us to sleep.
Take A Warm Shower/Bath
Having a warm shower or bath a couple of hours before bed is great way to relax and aid sleep. After an initial increase, your core body temperature lowers which induces sleep.
Keep Your Bedroom Sleep-Friendly
If you are someone that struggles with getting to sleep on a night, our bedroom can become somewhere that we associate with negative feelings. To prevent this association from happening, you should only use your bedroom for pleasant activities – such as relaxing, sleeping, sex and getting ready. If you do struggle to get to sleep, or wake up in the night, you should leave the bedroom, so you don’t associate the room with the negative feelings of not being able to sleep. Keeping the lights in your bedroom dimmed or off, can help aid sleep, as the darkness signals your body to produce melatonin, making us feel sleepy.
To get a better nights sleep, it is recommended that you avoid consuming any food or drink that contains caffeine, ideally 10 hours before bedtime. This means avoiding tea, coffee, fizzy drinks and chocolate. There are decaffeinated alternatives, however, bear in mind that decaffeinated tea and coffee still contain small amounts of caffeine.
Regular exercise can improve the amount and quality of sleep that we get. Physical activity increases our time spent in deep or REM sleep, which aids our physical restoration, boosts immunity and controls stress and anxiety. A regular exercise routine can help reduce our stress levels, just 5 minutes of exercise can trigger anti-anxiety responses in the body. These responses have been found to lower cortisol levers and reduce blood pressure.
Sleep is essential for our survival and effective day to day functioning. There are two different types of sleep, REM and non-REM which make up the four stages of our sleep cycle. There is a strong link between sleep and stress, and getting the right amount of good quality sleep is important for maintaining hormone levels, and keeping our emotions in check. There are a number of recommended actions you can take to get more quality sleep, and therefore, help to combat stress.