The power of a good night’s sleep

Insufficient sleep has a big effect on our level of alertness, and performance, the next day....
Insufficient sleep has a big effect on our level of alertness, and performance, the next day. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The  cooler months make it easier to bunker down and get a good night’s rest but for many, work and ingrained habits, often involving screens, override our natural circadian rhythm’s need to rest and repair, writes Deanna Copland.

Deanna Copland
Deanna Copland
One hundred years ago, less than 2% of the American population slept six hours or less a night. Now, according to neuroscientist Matthew Walker, almost 30% of all developed nations experience sleep deprivation.

Dr Satchin Panda, who is an author and researcher in the area of circadian rhythms, says that sleep loss, over time, leads to four major effects on our circadian code. They are:

1.Insufficient sleep doesn’t give our brain enough time to consolidate memories.

2.Staying up late reduces brain function and productivity that evening.

3.When we sleep less, we are exposed to additional light and the opportunity for eating late into the evening, both of which disrupt the circadian rhythm.

4.The following morning, as we sleep in and rush to work, we have little time to get the necessary amount of morning light exposure needed to brighten mood.

Abnormal circadian rhythms have been linked to various sleep disorders including insomnia, as well as obesity, type-2 diabetes, depressed mood, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.

There are real benefits to achieving the prescribed number of hours of sleep. From tracking a million individuals, researchers have identified a pattern, known as the "U curve of sleep and longevity". People who consistently sleep too little are more likely to die sooner than those who get a full seven hours of sleep each night. Similarly, people who sleep 10-11 hours are also likely to live shorter lives. Therefore, too much or too little sleep can be detrimental.

The human body begins to get ready for the day the night before. This is why, when we are in good health and have the correct amount of sleep, we wake feeling refreshed.

Great sleep is created when there are cycles of quiet sleep and active sleep. The quiet sleep takes place in three stages that occur in a specific sequence: N1 (drowsiness), N2 (light sleep) and N3 (deep sleep). Unless something disturbs the process, you will proceed smoothly from one stage to the next, and as you do, your body and brain perform different functions depending on your circadian clocks. The main causes of a fragmented sleep are dehydration, room temperature being too hot or cold, acid reflux caused by eating too late in the evening, a pet/child, and snoring or sleep apnoea or other noise.

A good night’s sleep ensures better performance the next day. It puts you in better alignment with your circadian code by increasing growth hormone production while you rest, rejuvenating your brain and body. It also increases cortisol production in the morning, which helps with alertness, and balances your hunger and satiety hormones for stronger, more efficient metabolism. Best of all, it synchronises all of your internal clocks so that your whole body is working at peak performance.


If you are consistently not getting a good night’s sleep, or if you are waking up at night, you could try the following techniques. 

Try to get up around the same time each morning and expose yourself to bright light in the morning to encourage wakefulness.

The most valuable sleep is between the hours of 10pm to 2am, so aim to be in bed by 9.30pm and up around 6am.

Napping within 8 hours of your bedtime will affect your ability to reach deep sleep, so have a smaller-portioned meal at night and avoid nodding off in the armchair after dinner.

Exercise, particularly outdoors under the sun, increases the drive to sleep well —aim for at least 20 minutes of physical activity each day.

Caffeine reduces our sleep drive, so avoiding after noon is worthwhile.

Switch off electric blankets and other powered devices at the wall and avoid sleeping with a phone near your body.

Check what is on the other side of the wall to your head; i.e. fridges and meter boxes emit radiation, which can affect sleep quality.

Have a relaxing herbal tea in the evening while sitting in dim lighting. Herbs such as lavender, passionflower, chamomile and valerian are useful.

Magnesium is a useful mineral to take before bed to encourage relaxation.

Avoid all food and alcohol for 3-4 hours before bedtime.  Saliva secretions are lower at night so it is unable to effectively neutralise stomach acid when you snack in the evenings, which can trigger acid reflux. 

Limit bedroom activities to only sleep and sex; no TV.

Lying on a shakti mat (for acupressure) for 10 minutes before getting into bed can improve sleep onset.

Turn down the temperature in the bedroom — around 16degC is an ideal temperature. 

Take a hot shower or bath just before going to bed.

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