The Science of Sleep

In recognition of World Sleep Day on 19 March, we look at some ways to make sleep come a little easier.

With working hours getting longer, the ease of ceaselessly scrolling through your social media feeds on your phone while in bed, binge-watching all those addictive dramas till the early hours in the morning, or the result of the stresses of an increasingly confusing world—sleep seems to be getting more and more elusive.

Sleep is important—besides being a crucial time of rest for the body to repair itself, getting adequate sleep may also help to prevent excess weight gain, boost your immune system, increase your productivity, and put you in a better mood. And it’s not just about the quantity of sleep, but the actual quality of sleep, says Dr Tim Errington from Total Health Chiropractic at Capital Tower. “If you are tossing and turning all night, then it’s unlikely that you will reach the later, more restful and restorative stages of sleep. This is where the chemistry of sleep comes in and it’s only when we release vital hormones that we are able to recharge our batteries properly and make any necessary repairs.”

Getting a good night’s sleep is something of a life skill that is worth spending some time on to get right, says Dr Tim. “You’ll intuitively know that you’ve had a great night’s sleep as you’d simply feel so much better. In fact, life will be improved in almost every aspect: less fatigue, more energy, and less brain fog. You’ll be able to concentrate better, and be able to achieve so much more the following day.”

If sleep has been hard to come by of late, check your nighttime habits against this sleep hygiene checklist to see if there’s anything you can change about your routine.

The Obvious

☐ Stay away from caffeine at least four to six hours before you go to bed. Caffeine is present in more than just coffee and tea though—other drinks like Coca-Cola, or that chocolate cake and matcha ice cream you had for dessert, all have amounts of caffeine that could keep you up at night.

☐ Stay away from digital screens before you sleep. The blue light emitted from digital devices decreases melatonin, a hormone that controls your sleep cycle. 

☐ Keep a consistent sleep schedule. If you know that you need to wake up at a certain time the next morning, plan ahead so that you get sufficient sleep the night before.

 ☐ While it’s tempting to hit “next episode”, choose to prioritise sleep. Read the previous point again about ensuring that you stick to your sleep schedule.


The Not-So-Obvious

☐  Apart from a consistent sleep schedule, a relaxing bedtime routine can get you in the mood for sleep. Whether it’s taking a hot shower, doing your nighttime skincare routine, or picking out a soothing aromatherapy scent, these steps help your body recognise that it’s time to go to bed.

☐  Exercise regularly—this improves your overall health, but if nothing else, it might just tire you out enough to get a good night’s sleep. 

☐  Don’t drink to sleep. Alcohol might help you relax and fall asleep more easily, but sleep quality declines considerably after drinking alcohol before bed, says Dr Tim. “More bathroom visits, more tossing and turning, and probably worse snoring, all contribute to disturbing your precious sleep.”

 ☐  Check your sleep environment. Some people need complete silence to fall asleep; others, a bit of white noise. Explore meditation apps or relaxing ambient sounds if you need to, and figure out what works for you.

☐  With many of us still working from home, it’s so easy to settle down in bed with your laptop. However, our physical spaces can affect us more than we think. Your bed should be for sleep and intimacy only; keep your work to your table.

☐  You can’t clear a sleep debt—so aim to sleep well, every day. “If you sleep deprive yourself during the week and try to make up for it over the weekend, you will never get into a decent rhythm,” says Dr Tim. “Long term sleep deprivation causes greater stress on the body, increases inflammation, and has even been associated with cognitive decline as we age.”


Who Knew?

☐  We know that we mentioned setting a consistent sleep schedule earlier on, but here’s a point to note: go to bed only when you feel tired. It can be counter-productive to toss and turn in the dark, getting frustrated as you try to force yourself to sleep. If you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, get up and do something that usually helps you unwind (no digital screens, though), then try again.

☐  To add on to the previous point—one thing we hate is getting up in the middle of the night, glancing at the clock, and instinctively counting how many hours of sleep we have left until we really need to wake up. Avoid looking at the clock in the middle of the night, and repeat the step above if you need to. 

☐  Napping isn’t a substitute for a good night’s sleep. If you really need to close your eyes for a while, Dr Tim recommends keeping your naps to 30 minutes or less, and avoid napping too late in the afternoon. “Be careful that your naps don’t disrupt your main sleep and always remember, we need to move through the stages of sleep if our slumber is to be truly restorative,” reminds Dr Tim.

☐ Isn’t it strange how, as you lie in bed trying to fall asleep, all kinds of random thoughts can suddenly pop up in your head? Keeping a journal on your bedside is useful if you want to jot down anything that you’re worried you’d forget the next day, or any bouts of sudden inspiration. Getting everything onto paper can clear your mind and put you at ease.

☐ Get some Vitamin D. Some of us stay indoors while working from home and if at the office, may leave after the sun goes down—meaning we hardly get an hour of sunlight each day. Try heading outside for lunch to get a bit more daylight exposure, which helps to establish your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep.

☐  Sleep can be more complex than you think, with different sleep cycles involved, and your shut-eye needs changing as you age. If you need some help, check out this sleep calculator.


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