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Sleep: Quality Over Quantity

When we think of what constitutes a ‘good sleep’, we tend to think more of how many hours we get, rather than the actual experience of the sleep itself. So what leans towards beneficial sleep? Ideally, we would be drifting to sleep within 30 minutes, waking up no more than once a night, and if one does awaken, falling back asleep within a 20 minute window. Total time spent asleep is still a factor, but regardless, if your 8 hours of rest are broken and not in the correct rhythm, this is not quality sleep. Let’s look at some of the factors that can encourage and discourage efficient patterns of rest.

The Biological Clock

Nearly every tissue and organ in an organism contains specific protein molecules which operate as tiny biological clocks. These ticking proteins are created and broken down in the 24 hour cycle, and they keep time with each other via being coordinated by a central clock in the brain; called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN for short). The SCN uses none other than sunlight to synchronise all of our cellular clocks with the Earth’s rotation.

So, in essence, the light from the sun speaks to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which relays this information to every cell in our body, which then as a whole work to create our circadian rhythm!

Just as circadian rhythm prompts plants to open their leaves in daylight and to close them at night, it is the umbrella term for any physical, mental, and behavioural changes an organism experiences that follow a daily cycle. This means that an upset to the circadian rhythm could influence and affect our sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits and digestion, body temperature, and lots of other important bodily functions.

The Blue Light

We know from a hormonal point of view, our sleep-wake cycle is a delicate dance of cortisol and melatonin. When we are in darkness, melatonin is produced, but when sunlight is registered by special light-detecting cells in the back of the eye called ipRGCs, melatonin production is inhibited and we are in ‘stay-awake’ mode.

The lightbulb has only been around for 140 years – very little time in the grand scheme of things. And even more recently is the sheer amount of LED screens that we see daily; these emit a large amount of blue light, and blue light is the colour that the ipRGCs are best at detecting. If you use your phone or any other screen in bed or in the hours prior to bedtime to wind down – it is affecting the levels of a hormone which is needed for you to sleep well and negatively working against your circadian rhythm.

Sleep Stages & Rest

Sleep occurs in 4 stages – 3 of these are non-REM and 1 is REM sleep. You cycle through these several times throughout the night, but the stage we tend to hear the most about is REM sleep – it kicks in about 90 minutes after we fall asleep, and most of our dreaming occurs during this stage. During REM our brain releases powerful chemicals that actually paralyze our bodies, aside from our eyes. Our amygdala is also active, a part of our brain that processes emotions. However, our actual physicality and brainwave activity is near to that of waking levels – this is not restful sleep.

Stage 3 of non-REM sleep is what is needed for us to wake up feeling refreshed. During this stage our brain produces the slow delta waves that are associated with healing and rejuvenation. It is during the deepest part of stage 3 that you are most difficult to wake, and the body begins repairing muscles and tissue, stimulates growth, maintains immune wellbeing and restores energy.

Prioritise Sleep

Quality sleep (and enough of it) is as essential to survival as food and water, yet when it comes to feeling well we often are quicker to examine our diets or day-to-day routines to see where we can improve. It is important to look at our sleep schedules are find where we falter, and address this.

  • Set a schedule – try to sleep and rise at the same times.
  • Avoid caffeine, particularly after midday, as well as nicotine and alcohol – the secret sleep thief!
  • Expose yourself to lots of daylight during the day.
  • Create a bedtime routine, one which is relaxing and helps you to wind down.
  • Dim red lights are the better night lights.
  • Screen use should be avoided for 2-3 hours before bed (yes, really!).
  • If you are using screens, consider investing in blue-blocking glasses.
  • If your sleep is still subpar, approaching your healthcare professional or considering a sleep aid supplement could be beneficial.

You can also speak to one of our fully trained staff in any of our seven Galway-based stores, or access online health advice at [email protected]

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