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The Importance of Sleep

Sleep restoration and rest

Sleep and Health

More people now actively attend to nutrition & exercise to promote good health, but fail to recognise the importance of sleep. Sleep is the foundation for optimal alertness & performance. Sleep is critical to health, wellness & longevity and a vital physical need.

One of the most important health benefits is sleeping 7 to 8 hours in darkness and quiet every night. Following your natural sleep-wake rhythm or circadian cycle, is one of the most important ways of keeping cortisol (the long term stress hormone) levels balanced during the day.

Our body, including our mind, brain and emotions, operate on a biological clock set to daily cycles, known as circadian rhythms. We normally feel more alert during the daylight hours and less alert at night, a fact of life even for people who have worked nights for a very long time.

Sleep cycle

Cortisol levels start decreasing after about 4 hours of deep sleep in quiet and darkness, reaching its lowest levels after about 6-7 hours, to slowly rise and waking us up naturally after 7-8 hours of sleep. On the other hand, melatonin (the rest, recovery and replenishing hormone secreted by the pineal gland) start rising in the same sequence, to reach its zenith after 6-7 hours of deep sleep in quiet and darkness, slowly decreasing so that we wake up naturally after 7-8 hours of restful sleep, ready to face our day. Deep relaxation or meditation any time of the day, for one hour, is equivalent to 3 hours of deep sleep.

We require sleep for survival just as we need food, water and oxygen.

Why we need to relax before trying to fall asleep:

When awake and alert, our brain waves are predominantly in the beta brain wave state, with fast, sharp waves. These waves are easily distinguishable on an electro encephalogram (EEG). The more alert, stressed or worried we are, the higher and faster these beta waves become. High states of beta rhythm are also linked to all our physical ailments and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

As we prepare for sleep, brain waves slow down to alpha rhythm, a sBrain wave patternstate of relaxed awareness. We gradually loose awareness of time and space, feeling more and more relaxed and at peace. We then slip into sleep which is identified by theta brain waves of an even slower frequency. This is also the brain wave state where we dream. Ultimately we go into delta sleep, the deep dreamless sleep where true restoration and recovery of our bodies and minds take place. We move through cycles of these brain wave states throughout the night. Sleeping tablets prevent the normal cycles of sleep. That is the reason people feel groggy and not rested after taking sleeping pills.

If the brain is too alert, we cannot relax and fall asleep. This often happens after night shift, when the environment is actively waking up, it is broad daylight and some employees have just finished work, while others are arriving for work.

Shift workers have to train themselves to go against the outside world, by creating a night world during the day. This can be done by doing mild exercises and stretches such as yoga, followed by deep relaxation exercises. Sleep also takes place in quiet and darkness, so this environment has to be created. Doing this will allow the brain waves to gradually slow down into deep, dreamless sleep.

Learn to relax: Sit in a comfortable chair, or lie on your back. Breathe in deeply through your nose on a slow count of three. Push your stomach out as you breathe in. Hold it for a count of three. Breathe out through your mouth on a slow count of five or six. Repeat a few times until you feel relaxed.  Feel your pulse rate by placing your fingers gently on your wrist below the thumb. When you’re stressed, it’s fast. Do the slow breathing for a while, and feel how your pulse rate slows down – this is a way your body will show you if you’re relaxed or not.

Deep relaxation enhances the health of your heart and lungs, balances the endocrine and nervous system, and improves mental clarity. Imagine your thoughts being the waves on the surface of the ocean. They go up and down as the mood, your feelings, emotions and your memory dictate. The deeper ocean is quiet, still and peaceful. This is the part you can access any time of the day or night through meditation, visualisation, deep breathing and prayer.

Comparing brain patterns before and after relaxation:

Comparing brain patternsThe bottom line purpose of fatigue management is therefore to optimise left brain function in beta rhythm while on shift, without beta waves becoming too high (therefore too stressed, with errors in judgment), so that adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol levels are optimal. This can be done by frequent reminders to take short breaks, eating snacks, taking enough water, using light and colour on dashboards of vehicles to stay alert, also implementing energising sound and aromatherapy (essential oils). Then, during rest, to optimise right brain function, relaxing into alpha, theta and delta rhythm and ultimately integration of the whole brain.

Essentials for Restorative Sleep

  • Quiet: use earplugs if your environment is noisy.
  • Darkness: use heavy curtains or drapes to make your bedroom as dark as possible.
  • 8 hours uninterrupted sleep is essential for optimal benefit of alertness & health.
  • Bed: mattress firm, not too hard, or too soft.
  • Colours: neutral, or healing colours of light blue, mauve, lilac.

Avoid distractions that keep you in beta mind, e.g. TV, especially news, action & thriller movies. Never have a TV in your bedroom, neither computers nor cell phones, as the electromagnetic irradiations do have a negative impact on your brain.

Sleep preparation: calm down before you go to sleep, with a warm bath, adding some aromatherapy oils of lavender or chamomile to the water; doing stretching exercises and a meditation or progressive muscle relaxation before you try to fall asleep, or listen to guided visualisations on a CD next to your bed.

AVOID: using stimulants to stay awake, as it will prevent sleep later on. Caffeine in coffee has to be used strategically. It has an effect within 15-30 minutes of drinking, and stays active in the body for 3-7 hours. It can be used as a temporary relief for sleepiness, but it can disrupt sleep and lead to more arousal, a tolerance to its effect may develop and it also has a diuretic effect, meaning you have to get up to go to the toilet. This disrupts sleep.

AVOID: using alcohol to help you fall asleep; it induces onset of sleep, but then disrupts sleep later on.

Healthy sleep habits

  • Go to bed and get up at about the same time every day.
  • Develop a pre-sleep routine where you deliberately relax, drinking a sleep drink of hot milk with a pinch of ginger and cinnamon, with a bit of honey. Eat a banana.
  • Use relaxation techniques to help you fall asleep.
  • Protect your sleep time; enlist your family and
  • Sleeping environment: 
    • Cooler temperature
    • Dark (eye shades, room darkening shades)
    • Quiet (unplug phone, turn off pager, use ear plugs, or a white noise machine)
  • Avoid going to bed hungry, but no heavy meals within 3 hours of sleep. Get regular exercise but avoid heavy exercise within 3 hours of sleep

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