The Benefits of Sleeping Well
Updated: Mar 14
Sleep is one of the cornerstones of good mental and physical health. Alongside diet, and exercise, improving your sleep hygiene can be one of the simplest (although not necessarily easiest) things to tackle in pursuit of health and well-being.
What is it?
"Sleep is a naturally recurring state of mind and body, characterised by altered consciousness, relatively inhibited sensory activity, reduced muscle activity and inhibition of nearly all voluntary muscles during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and reduced interactions with surroundings. It is distinguished from wakefulness by a decreased ability to react to stimuli, but more reactive than a coma or disorders of consciousness, with sleep displaying very different and active brain patterns [Wikipedia]."
What's it for?
It's only recently that scientists have started to learn about what really happens when we sleep, and much is still unknown. However, it's broadly accepted that the benefits of sleep probably include allowing the brain to clear out metabolic waste, whilst reorganising and consolidating learning and memories.
When people are sleep deprived (the main way that has been used to discover what sleep does), their immune systems become degraded, making them more prone to infection. This is thought to be due to the stress bought on by the lack of sleep, rather than being something that sleep has evolved to do.
Good sleep habits will make you more mentally and physically resilient, contributing a significant amount to your overall well-being. To get the best from your sleep, you should try to optimise a few factors...
During most of human evolution, we've gone to sleep when it gets dark and got up when it gets light. Our biological systems have evolved alongside this process. However, the relatively recent inventions of electricity and lightbulbs have enabled us to be active 24 hours a day, meaning that people often have very variable times that they go to sleep and wake up.
To get the most from your sleep, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. 7 days a week. We have a culture of 'sleeping in' at the weekend (unless, of course, you've got children), and this habit disrupts our routine. Just as your body clock is getting used to one time, you confuse it by changing the time for a couple of days, keeping it continually guessing.
To combat this...
Go to bed and get up at the same time, every day (including days off)
Most people will have heard that 8 hours of sleep is good for them. The evidence suggests that getting less than 7 hours, or more than 9, is sub-optimal for adults. However, the social, family and work demands that we all face often lead us to miss this target.
Sleep requirements for children and babies are different and they need more sleep the younger they are. However, for adults, you should...
Sleep for 7-9 hours every night
Preparing your mind and body for sleep is a crucial component of good sleep. There are several ways you can do this...
Minimise (or even cut out) caffeine and alcohol use - no matter what your beliefs, the evidence shows that both of these drugs significantly impact on sleep quality. Alcohol produces an initial sedative effect and then disrupts brain activity later on in sleep.
Reduce light exposure - light stimulates the body to be awake. Gradually reducing light levels as you get toward bed time will signal to your body. Do this by turning off main lights and reducing screen time.
Calm your mind - try to do something relaxing before bed. If you have a million things going on in your brain, these will play on you during the night. Equally, if you are worried about all the things you have to get done tomorrow, it can help to write these down so that you don't have to worry about forgetting them. Do this in the night if you wake up because of worry.
In order to fall asleep well, you should...
Prepare your body and mind for sleep.
Your mind automatically builds associations between places and activities. Your bedroom should be a place associated with sleep but modern culture and technology encourages us to encroach on this. TVs, devices and laptops all play their part in complicating this association.
If you're having trouble sleeping, once you've tried for a while to get back to sleep, you should get up and go somewhere else. Once you're feeling tired, you should go back to the bedroom and try again. This stops your mind associating the bedroom with the problem of not being able to sleep.
Bedrooms are for sleep, not work...
So, in summary, improving the key factors of routine, duration, preparation and association will make you more mentally and physically robust, and better able to deal with whatever life throws at you.
If you'd like to know more about how to improve your mental health, why not book one of our mental health courses.
In the mean time, check out The Matt Walker Podcast (free) or his (paid) book/audiobook 'Why We Sleep' for more details about sleep.