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The science of sleep: why it’s important and how to get more of it

The science of sleep: why it’s important and how to get more of it

Emma Green

We all know the anecdotal advantages of getting a good night’s sleep: having a better workout, getting more work done and a reduced need for naps. However, there is a growing body of scientific evidence documenting its widespread consequences for both mental and physical health. So, how can you go about to improve your sleep?

Recent studies have highlighted the risk of poor sleep in increasing the risk of inflammatory diseases. Circulating inflammatory markers, such as high sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), have been associated with cardiovascular events, hypertension and type 2 diabetes in adults. It’s important to note that this evidence is correlational, and thus conclusions about cause-and-effect relationships cannot be drawn.

Interestingly, it seems to be sleep disturbances that are more strongly linked to inflammatory conditions than sleep duration. This suggests that quality rather than the quantity of sleep is more important in maintaining good health.

How to improve your mood with sleep

Sleep also plays a key role in maintaining mood. Inadequate sleep, in terms of duration, continuity, or quality is associated with experiencing more negative emotions and fewer positive ones. Furthermore, poor sleep can affect the ability to regulate emotions. It makes it harder to identify them as well as select and implement effective coping strategies.

There are also other brain-related consequences of low-quality sleep. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep results in reduced cognitive functioning. This includes a lower attention span, worse executive functioning (planning, initiating, sequencing, and monitoring complex goal-directed behaviour) and poorer memory.

In light of all these negative effects, it is clear that sleep is a big deal. Fortunately, there are a lot of science-backed ways to improve sleep. Plus, have you heard of clean sleeping?

One of these ways is physical activity

A single bout of exercise has been demonstrated to improve sleep latency (the time taken to get to sleep), as well as the length and quality of sleep. Regular exercise seems to enhance these benefits, which are comparable to those obtained from behavioural therapy or medications. Although it is sometimes stated that late-night exercise can lead to poorer sleep, this has not been shown to be the case in the scientific literature.

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Moderating caffeine intake is another key strategy as well as managing stress

Research has consistently shown that having high levels of caffeine, particularly close to bed disrupts sleep. This is particularly the case for individuals who are sensitive to caffeine. It appears to be a dose-response relationship, which means that the more caffeine you consume, the poorer your sleep is likely to be.

Unsurprisingly, managing stress is also important for optimising sleep. Psychosocial stress is associated with more difficulty relaxing before going to bed as well as poorer sleep quality. Research has highlighted the significance of individual differences, both in terms of the factors that cause stress but also in ways to cope with it.

The importance of routine

Other ways to improve sleep include reducing bedroom noise, maintaining a regular sleep schedule and avoiding daytime naps. These are often categorised under the term ‘sleep hygiene’ and have been consistently shown to have a positive impact on sleep when implemented.

Sleep may seem like a boring topic but its importance cannot be overstated. Prioritising it is key for optimising physical health and wellbeing. Take into account a few of these daily habits and routines to improve your sleep quality and get more of it.

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