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The Power of Sleep

“As part of my continuing professional development this year, I have read the international bestseller “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology,” says Ann-Christin,  Registered Osteopath, when she was working at our clinic.

“Despite thoroughly enjoying this book, I often found myself nodding off reading it. It was as though my brain took the repeated mention of “sleep” as a command. Could the author be onto a new cure for insomnia?”

Ann-Christin summarises the key points below:

Sleep and its effects on our health

The book claims that regularly sleeping fewer than six or seven hours a night has detrimental effects on our immune system. It can more than double the risk of cancer and can contribute to the development of weight gain and pre-diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke. In addition to that, it can worsen depression and anxiety.

If you do get enough sleep though, you may feel fit and healthy:

  • Our brains love sleep as it enriches many of its functions, including learning, memory, logic and decision making.
  • In the body, sleep helps our immune system do its job, helps fight infection and malignancy. It regulates appetite, is involved in controlling our weight and maintains a healthy gut biome.

With that in mind, I wonder why bad sleep is not more talked about and acted on? Why is good sleep not more of a priority in our society knowing how much pressure could be taken off the NHS?

Matthew Walker proposes a possible reason for this: For the longest time, science could not explain why we actually sleep. People have just not regarded it as very important.

Other biological drives; like to eat, to drink or to reproduce have clear aims. But sleep?!

Is sleeping a bit dangerous?

He goes on to say that from an evolutionary point of view, it makes absolutely no sense for us to fall into a “coma” every 24 hours. It’s risky. During that time, we can’t gather berries or hunt deer and are completely vulnerable to predators. Yet this behaviour has persisted across most species for thousands of years. Sleep must be vitally important.

The reality is, we have found a way to minimise this risk. You may know (or be) someone whose peak alertness is at 5am. For others it is at 11pm. As a morning person myself, I always find it difficult to understand how people can write novels/plan their weekly shop/go to the gym all through the night. My brain and body would just be incapable of doing that. However, this is exactly what’s keeping us alive: back when we were still sleeping in caves together, someone would always be up while everyone else slept and therefore could alert their family and friends of dangers. “Early lark” and “night owl” behaviours therefore have a very good reason and seems to be largely genetic.

The elderly and sleep

The book claims that the common belief of older people needing less sleep is a myth. Sleep length declines with age but that does not equal less sleep is required. Just like bone density reducing with age, we wouldn’t say that older people needed weaker bones, quite the contrary, actually.

Deep sleep starts to decline in quantity and quality in our late 20s/early 30s. According to the author, in our mid to late 40s, we will have lost 60-70% of the deep sleep we used to get as teenagers.

By the time we reach 70, it’s 80-90%.  A bleak fact about the ageing brain is that the neurones in our brains progressively die with age. Matthew Walker and his team used thousands of brain scans and found that those areas of the brain that are associated with deep sleep are the ones that degenerate first with old age.

He suggests that ailments often associated with old age, like high blood pressure, forgetfulness and diabetes, are strongly linked to the decline of deep sleep.

The author calls for more research into this field as in his opinion, there should be a treatment for loss of deep sleep just as there is a treatment for age-related loss of bone density. Natural approaches using melatonin, exercise, the use of sunglasses at certain points during the day, regulating the exposure to screens (blue light) and diet should be the top priority rather than the use of sleeping pills which he says do more damage than good.

So, why do we sleep?

According to Matthew Walker, there isn’t one reason why we sleep, there are hundreds. In his opinion, there’s not one cell/tissue/organ in the body that does not benefit from sleep in enhancing its function, like a “miracle reset button” while dreaming acts as the body’s very own therapy session.

7 practical tips to improve your sleep

1.     Don’t eat late and depending on the efficiency of your digestive system, don’t eat anything too fatty or too starchy as you’re giving the body a lot of work to do overnight.

2.     Avoid caffeinated drinks and high sugar foods before going to bed as they’re stimulants.

3.     If you’re waking up at 3am feeling a bit peckish, why don’t you try and have some protein or fat before you go to bed. This may be a sign that you blood sugar levels are disrupted. (There are many other reasons why you might wake up at 3am, this is just one of them).

4.     Avoid blue light, so any sort of screen before bedtime.

5.     If you know that you dream very easily about things that you watched on TV in the evening, why not keep it light and leave the heavy crime dramas for the daytime?

6.     Exercise during the day, especially out in daylight, can be a real help to get a good night’s sleep.

7.     Spend as much time outside in daylight as you can if sleep is an issue to help the brain detect day and night-time.

Some of you may have noticed that you sleep very deeply after an osteopathic treatment. Reasons for that may be the deep relaxation of the nervous system as well as the body’s healing mechanisms taking over and helping you go to sleep more easily.

In case you suffer from disturbed sleep, do mention it to us on your next visit. As osteopaths, we can support in looking at some potentially unhelpful habits and explore ways of improving your general health.

If you would like to find out more about sleep, why don’t you give “Why we sleep” a go?

This article was written by a Registered Osteopath when they were working at our clinic.