Sleep Science: Why Sleeping is Important
This is the first of a five-part series designed to highlight the bases upon which good health is built. Simple, everyday things we take for granted can have the greatest overarching impacts on our health, whether positively or negatively. Sleep is certainly one of those daily occurrences that we definitely take for granted and only seem to pay attention to when we are having trouble sleeping or are woefully sleep-deprived.
For some, especially this past year, the phrase "sleeping like a baby" is far from their reality. Statistics Canada reports that between 2007-2015, nighttime insomnia symptoms, including difficulty falling and/or staying asleep has increased by 42 percent in people aged 18 years and older.1 Now imagine how these numbers have increased over the last year!
The science of sleep
Our body works on a series of feedback loops, getting signals from our environment to activate specific processes for specific moments. For example, our bodies only start the digestive process while we're eating. Our bodies are great at being efficient: think about what a waste of resources it would be if our digestive process activated when we weren’t eating!
Similarly, a key part of good sleep involves the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS, as the name suggests, is responsible for automatic processes in the body, of which there are two main branches: the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Only one of these can be active at a given moment, as they have opposing functions.2
Rest and digest
The PSNS is responsible for both bringing our bodies into a restorative state of calm and helping to digest our food. When this system is active, our heart rate decreases, our muscles relax, and blood flow is directed to the digestive organs.
Fight or flight
The SNS, on the other hand, is responsible for getting our bodies ready for action. It is activated in times of danger and provides us with a burst of energy and increased focus, to give us an opportunity to flee from any potential threat. When the SNS is activated, our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate to help us see more of our surroundings, and blood is directed externally towards the muscles.
With our society's ever-so-familiar hustle mentality, and with innovations in technology allowing us to be accessible at any given moment in time, our bodies and minds have been trained to be "on" all the time. The downside of this, however, is an overuse of this fight or flight system, and consequential under-activation of our rest and digest system.
Checks and balances
We need both PSNS and SNS for our bodies to thrive—but an imbalance of one over the other can lead to sleep disruption, weight loss/gain, and other symptoms. Stress,3 an increase in artificial light exposure from our laptops, phones, tablets, and TV screens,4 and poor nutrition habits,5 further contribute to a dysfunctional ANS response. Creating a healthy balance between the two results in better sleep, more energy, and an overall feeling of wellness.
Sleep is crucial for cognitive function (focus, memory, learning, etc.), repair of tissues, and mood balance.6 Poor quality sleep can result in significant consequences in our day-to-day lives, including decreased productivity, increased agitation, and impaired work performance, with direct effects often evidenced in our personal and professional relationships. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and mental health disorders such as depression.7
Assessing whether or not you’re experiencing a good night's sleep involves many factors, including how difficult it is to initially fall asleep, being able to stay asleep throughout the night, and if you feel rested upon waking. Certain conditions, such as stress, blood sugar dysregulation, sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, as well as substances such as pharmaceuticals, alcohol, and caffeine can impact your sleep. To rule out any underlying issues, a thorough assessment by your healthcare provider will give you a better idea on how you can get those systems back in balance (and hopefully go back to sleeping like a baby!)
Typically it’s not a single factor, but a combination of factors working against you achieving a peaceful slumber. Fortunately, there are some simple lifestyle hacks that can make a huge difference! Good sleep hygiene means incorporating practices into your daily routine that give your body the right signals to wind down and get into that parasympathetic state at night.
Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (including weekends!) doesn’t make you boring! Your body craves the routine in order to feel tired at specific times and alert at others.
Developing a consistent exercise routine will help get the SNS regulated. Avoid excess physical activity in the evening before bed, if possible.
Light up your life
Grab some rays and expose yourself to natural light first thing in the morning to help modulate your internal sleep-wake clock.
There is plenty of evidence that light is a surefire sleep killer (even nightlights can disturb your sleep!). Making sure your bedroom is completely dark at night will help bring on those sweet dreams!
Take a pass on that afternoon cup of coffee and switch to a calming herbal tea instead.
Screen on lock
Do your best to decrease your exposure to screens in the evening. Instead of surfing social media, why not grab a good book?
Make a point of reserving your bed for sleep and sex only. Remember, your bed is a work-free zone!
Practice healthy stress management coping mechanisms, including meditation, deep breathing, journaling, and exercise.
There are numerous supplements and herbs that aid in sleep, depending on the root cause. Speak to your healthcare provider for the best recommendation for your particular situation. Some great examples include:
- B vitamins
For references visit ecoparent.ca/TWF/LATESPRING21.