If we were told there was a pill we could take, that would increase our brainpower, make us physically stronger, help us to eat more healthily, be more emotionally resilient, improve relationships with those around us, help us make better decisions and even improve our sex life and there were no side effects, would we take it? Of course, we would, and we can; as these are all the benefits we can achieve if we get the sleep we need. Sleep is the manna from heaven, the golden elixir, the magic potion that makes life better, brighter and more beautiful.
Sleep is the foundation that the rest of our health is built upon. During sleep, our brain cleans itself of the neurotoxins that contribute to conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia (and note the word contribute here, they don’t cause it, there needs to be a genetic predisposition to the condition; basically poor sleep means they could occur quicker). During deep sleep, our body physically repairs and in REM sleep we consolidate memory and we go through a session of overnight counselling, where our brain builds its emotional resilience ready for the day ahead.
When we are not sleeping well it’s the impact it has on our emotional resilience that we feel the most. When you have not slept well you might feel like you want to explode, waiting for someone to say something, do something or look at you in the wrong way. Sleep is so important to us being able to deal with the stresses and strains of life, whether it is work, family or relationships.
Do we really understand sleep?
Poor sleep was often seen as a symptom of mental health issues, a by-product of the depression and anxiety that we may be experiencing. However our understanding has improved, and we now see sleep issues and mental health issues as co-occurring conditions, that one can cause the other and vice versa.
Yet we still don’t really understand sleep as a society. We obsess over numbers when it comes to sleep, we need to be in bed before 12, we need to have 8 hours sleep and so on and so on. What we, and so many of the experts who talk about sleep forget, is that sleep can’t be forced, that if we are told that we are going to die if we have less than 7 hours sleep for one night (and yes there are sleep experts who claim this and no, it isn't true for us as individuals) then that isn't going to help us sleep better; if anything we are going to sleep worse as we worry about dying if we do not fall asleep in the next 10 minutes!
As we can see, sleep is important, but it is also different from other wellbeing factors like exercise and nutrition, in that it cannot be forced. The better we understand the processes around sleep, the more we understand our sleep, who we are as sleepers, and the sleep of those around us, in addition to understanding what small changes we can make to our behaviours, environment and mindset around sleep, the better we will sleep and get the life-changing benefits from sleep.