How many hours a night do you sleep – seven, eight? Or can you survive quite happily on three or four hours, waking up revived and invigorated the following morning?
Nobody really knows why humans need to sleep anyway. Some believe that it enables the brain to decipher and ‘file’ our daily memories. Others think that sleep may be a primitive hangover from prehistoric times when it was safer to curl up and hide during the night. Whatever the reason, regular sleep deprivation can cause problems; increased stress; lethargy; sadness and aggressiveness, to name a few.
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Focusing on Diet and Exercise
While many focus on diet and exercise, few of us give sleep – one of the most crucial factors influencing health – the same priority. Lack of sleep can literally be a nightmare for many people- conjuring up the sort of loneliness and despair that come only from lying awake through those unrealistic night and dawn hours.
Not to mention the depression that stems from a tired, worried and anxious mind. Many people panic if they don’t get what they believe is their eight-hour sleep ration, and start worrying that something is wrong with them.
Sleep is a form of unconsciousness and is our natural state of rest. Scientists still don’t fully understand how or why we sleep, but they know it’s essential for our physical and mental well being.
Good, sound sleep should be a time of rest, rejuvenation and regeneration – growth hormone is secreted in increased amounts while we are asleep and, as well as allowing our muscles and joints to recover from constant use during the day, most of our body’s repair work is done while we are in the Land of Nod.
More skin cells are produced during sleep than when we are awake, as are other cells with a rapid turnover rate, such as red blood cells, immune cells, intestinal lining cells and hair follicle cells. Protein is replenished faster during sleep as well, yet there is no conclusive evidence that sleep is essential for any of the body’s organs except the brain. Even here, researchers are stumped, as paradoxically the brain is actually more active during sleep than when we are wide awake.
Famous Folk with Sleep Deprivation
Through the ages, we hear of many famous people who have thrived on just a few hours of regular sleep. Salvador Dali claimed that he resented the time wasted when he was asleep so much that he switched to dozing through the day. Before nodding off, the artist would hold a spoon over a metal plate. The moment he let it go and it hit the plate, he would wake up all set to take on the surreal world once again.
Leonardo da Vinci had a similarly mind-boggling regime: he was said to sleep for just a 90 minutes in the form of six 15-minute naps. Winston Churchill was known to cat-nap during the day particularly during the anxious war years in London. But was always alert for the many strategy meetings called in his Underground London War Rooms and Margaret Thatcher famously existed on four to five hours nightly and was up at dawn to meet her Ministers, bandbox fresh and full of beans. She was then well into her late-fifties.
Sleep Research Labs
If these brilliant minds need so little sleep, why do we mere mortals need to sleep at all?
What may appear an idiotic question, in fact, preoccupies some of modern science’s best minds and in Sleep Research Laboratories all over the world, scientists are studying the effects of sleep deprivation and have discovered that many people who may only require a few hours’ rest each night are often both extrovert and efficient during waking hours and have the type of personality that is unlikely to let problems worry them too much.
Since research into sleep patterns began some 30 years ago, it has been established that we all have our own ‘body clocks’ monitoring individual needs. Problem sleepers are often very hard working and ambitious characters, often obsessively active and probably high achievers in both personal and work life.
From Babyhood to Old Age
Sleep patterns change throughout our lives. Young babies sleep for about 18 hours a day and this decreases with age. As we get older, we spend less and less time in stage 4 really deep sleep; by the age of 70 most people get no stage 4 sleep at all.
This is particularly upsetting for people who, when they were younger, slept like logs. As their sleep tends to be light, it is common for elderly people to wake several times through the night, though they may not recall this the next morning. Older people are also more likely to take catnaps during the day, which will reduce the amount of sleep they need at night, too.
In fact, we all have a natural tendency to sleep in the afternoon. In many countries, this has evolved into the custom of taking a siesta. Even if you are not used to an afternoon nap, drinking alcohol at lunchtime will accentuate the natural instinct and lead to afternoon drowsiness.
Early Morning Waking
Here are five points to consider if you are having sleep problems.
- Don’t drink tea or coffee before going to bed – they work as stimulants and diuretics and can waken you in the middle of the night. Consider instead, a small glass of herbal tea – camomile, lemon verbena or fennel are particularly soothing.
- Transform your bedroom into a haven of peace. Make sure it is clean, tidy and well ventilated. Your bed should be comfortable.
- Before going to bed, massage the middle of the sole of your food for a few minutes. According to Chinese medicine, massage this acupoint helps to induce sleep.
- Read some of the deep breathing exercise in a simple Yoga book.
- Try sleeping on a herb, (lavender is effective) or hop pillow.
- The new acupuncture mats are proving effective. The Yantra Mat is helpful used for an hour before retiring.
Early morning waking is one of the biological signs of a depressive illness. If you feel low in yourself, have difficulty getting to sleep, wake early – typically between 2am and 4am – and find it difficult to get back to sleep it is important to tell your doctor.