Why sleep is important and how we can sleep better

One of the areas we discuss with clients at their first or second consultation is the importance of sleep. Five or ten years ago it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to give this more than a cursory glance on an intake form, but it’s blindingly obvious to me now that if someone isn’t sleeping it’s one of the first things we need to fix.

A lack of sleep impacts our health in so many ways – including our food choices, our weight and even willpower. If I’m asking someone to make some challenging dietary modifications for a while then I need that willpower to be at a high level! Sometimes ‘a week of sleep’ is going to be the priority on their programme – even before we start modifying diet.

How much sleep do we need?

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in terms of how much sleep we need each night but most sleep research tends to focus on 7-8 hours (for adults) to feel our best. And if you want to reach a ripe old age, take note of this – short sleepers (under 7 hours a night) and long sleepers (over 8-9 hours a night) both don’t live as long! Children and those who are injured or healing need more sleep; sleep is restorative and repairing.

Why is sleep so important?

It’s important because it impacts our health:

  • Our food choices: we all know that what we eat and drink can be less than optimal when we’re tired. When our sleep is disturbed we’re more likely to want a bowl of sugary cereal and coffee for breakfast to get us going. And that sugar craving will likely continue throughout the day. It’s just a fact that it’s harder to make good food choices when we’re tired.
  • Digestive Health: sleep deprivation impacts our gut ‘micro biome’ (all the organisms that live in our digestive tract), and not in a beneficial way. Our micro biome helps to modulate weight, mood, immunity, hormones….in fact pretty much everything. A poor diet and lifestyle puts enough pressure on the digestive system at the best of times; we don’t need a lack of sleep adding to it.
  • Daily functioning: reduced sleep slows mental performance, raises our risk of errors, impairs decision-making, lowers our mood and reduces our willpower. Not a winning combination.
  • Weight: a lack of sleep affects our weight and body composition, impacting insulin, ghrelin (hunger) and leptin (the ‘brake’ on appetite). It impacts how we use and store fat – and raises the risk of fatty liver (associated with Type 2 Diabetes). In short, if you want to lose weight and stay healthy, you need to sleep!
  • Inflammation: lack of sleep is a chronic stressor (don’t we know it!). When sleep is disturbed the inflammatory ‘stress’ hormone cortisol rises, triggering a whole cascade of knock-on effects ranging from hormone imbalances to raised inflammatory symptoms to increased cardiovascular risk to muscle breakdown.
  • Cognitive function: when we’re asleep the brain is cleared of debris, such as beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles – both associated with Alzheimer’s disease. We need to sleep to rid our brain of these damaging compounds.


 What can we do to sleep better?

  • Get outside at midday! This seems contradictory but how many of us work through lunch instead of taking a walk? Daytime light is really important as it stimulates production of melatonin, our ‘sleep’ hormone, from serotonin. Exposure to light also raises our Vitamin D levels, shown to also be important for restful sleep.
  • Boost melatonin production. This means replicating dusk and darkness for a couple of hours before bed – hence the common advice to sleep in a dark room. Earlier daylight stimulates melatonin production, and as dusk arrives, melatonin should start to rise in order to prepare us for sleep. It’s therefore important to avoid stimulating bright light in the evening, as well as avoiding screens (tablets, phones, computers) that don’t have a ‘night mode’. Blue light from screens raises alertness and reduces melatonin. If your device doesn’t have night shift (note that on many phones you have to actively turn it on) then you can purchase orange ‘sleep’ glasses that protect against the blue light or download apps such as F.lux or Twilight.
  • Avoid blood sugar dips at night. Some people don’t manage blood sugar levels well (if you feel you ‘need’ a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack then this is a big clue). When blood sugar levels fall in the middle of the night this is often when we wake and start, often pointlessly, worrying about the past or future. This releases adrenalin and blood sugar – so achieves the objective, but is very unhelpful in the middle of the night. Raised adrenalin = awake. If this sounds like you, try a small snack of oatcakes or small banana and nut butter 30 minutes before bed.
  • Balance neurotransmitters. Some people have naturally high levels of stimulating histamine and/or dopamine and/or low levels of calming GABA, potentially due to a genetic predisposition (find out more about nutrigenomic testing here). If you’re one of these people you may benefit from paying more attention to sleep routines, relaxation and foods/nutrients that don’t over-stimulate, but that do calm. Consider: 
    • Making tomorrow’s ‘To Do’ list the evening before to avoid night-time worrying
    • Avoiding foods that are high in histamine or that contain stimulants such as MSG (monosodium glutamate)
    • Avoiding caffeine after lunch; if you’re susceptible to the affects of caffeine and have sleep issues don’t take caffeine after lunch (this includes cola, energy drinks and chocolate as well as coffee or tea) – it can stay in your body for at least 8 hours
    • Including magnesium-rich foods (check out our top 20 high magnesium foods here), supplements of glycine or theanine (found in green tea) and drinking herbal teas before bed: chamomile, lemon balm, passion flower or valerian
    • Including a sour cherry drink or supplement in your diet – thought to promote melatonin levels (see our cherry blog for more information)
    • Avoiding alcohol.  A low amount may raise ‘chill’ hormone GABA but there’s a fine line; too much and it will disrupt sleep, playing havoc with middle of the night dehydration, urination and blood sugar lows.
    • Reduce stimulation before bed. Read relaxing books or try listening to audio books to switch the brain off before bed. For some, meditating, pranayama (breathing exercises) or using a mindfulness app such as Calm (in night mode obviously!) prior to bed can be useful. Warm baths, a relaxing pre-bed routine, burning lavender essential oils or using herbal pillow sprays can all help to tip the balance towards sleep.
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