Why is sleep important?

Good quality sleep is essential for supporting many areas of your health. It provides you with energy, supports your immune function, repairs damage, and promotes better mental wellbeing.

If you regularly don't get enough sleep, it might affect your:

  • hormone production
  • immune function
  • mood and mental wellbeing
  • memory and concentration
  • weight

Over time, it might increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

Understanding your sleep

Sleep occurs in a series of REM and non-REM sleep stages throughout the night often referred to as ultradian rhythms.

Rapid eye movement (REM)

REM is a phase of sleep where you are experiencing rapid eye movement, muscle paralysis, brain waves similar to if you were awake and the tendency to have vivid dreams. This tends to occur after a number of cycles of Non-REM stages.

Non-REM

Non-REM relates more to deeper sleep. Non-REM sees your body temperature and heart rate fall, while your brains requires less energy. Non-REM can be broken into three stages: 1 / 2 / 3.

Sleep cycles

Normally each sleep cycle would go through the Non-REM stages 1 > 2 > 3 followed by a period of slow-wave sleep, then go back through Non-REM 3 > 2 > 1 followed by a REM stage. This may occur a number of times throughout the night depending on the individual.

Typically as the night progresses there is less time spent in Stage 3 Non-REM sleep and more time in REM sleep.

What can affect sleep?

Nowadays people are naturally sleeping less and unfortunately getting less quality sleep as well.

Obvious factors like work-related stress, working night shifts, travelling especially long distances and stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol can impact the quality of sleep that you have.

Other things to consider when going through a period of bad sleep are:

Blue light

Blue light and light in general could be seen as the main external factor that impacts sleep. Regular light can trick our internal clock into thinking it’s still daytime and so delays our sleep pattern.

With smartphones and tablets being a constant in our lives these days, spending time on them at night also has a knock-on effect as it can reset our internal clocks from thinking it’s night and thus effecting getting and staying asleep.

Psychological conditions

Anxiety, stress, and depression are common factors that affect sleep, they can delay falling asleep. And when you do fall asleep, they can keep you in a light stage or REM stage making it a restful sleep.

Diet

What you eat and drink can have an impact on your sleep along with the timing of it too.

Stimulants like coffee and sugar can assist with delaying sleep cycles and actually decreases the quality of sleep.

Alcohol although usually used as a sleep aid also results in a decreased quality of sleep.

Eating a large meal before heading to bed can result in a disrupted sleep as well, so try eating two to three hours beforehand instead.

Medical conditions

Some conditions like chronic pain, liver disease, and medicines that you might be taking come also result in decreased quality of sleep.

How to improve your sleep

  1. Create a sleep routine — which you follow every night in the build-up to going to bed
  2. Have some phone-free time — build this into your routine that you avoid using your phone, or computer/tablet, in the lead up to heading to bed
  3. Meditate — just a few minutes of meditating can be really beneficial
  4. Lower your room temperature — the warmer the temperature the harder it can be to fall asleep
  5. Relax — whether this is by listening to music, a podcast or an app, reading a book, or journaling

If you're really struggling with your sleep, it's also worth speaking to your GP.

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Aisling Moran BSc (Hons)

Written by Aisling Moran BSc (Hons)

11th May 2021 • 4 min read