The importance of sleep

As last year came to a close and I reflected on where I was and what I’d achieved during 2017, I found myself feeling a bit down and dejected about things.  I will explain, because otherwise it will likely sound really self-indulgent of me to have felt that way at all, let alone publicly whinge about it!  The reason I was feeling a bit glum was because I’d spent many months and a great deal of effort on radically transforming my diet for the better, healing my gut, naturally balancing my hormones, and managing my stress levels, and yet after all this I still wasn’t feeling awesome (this is the goal, you see 🤔). I was actually feeling chronically tired and weak from fatigue most days.  I complained to my herbalist that I usually felt pretty good in the mornings, but I was ‘done’ by about 10.30am. By morning tea time, I felt like I’d been up for 14 hours and I would spend the rest of the day feeling sluggish, often grumpy or moody at the very least, and my body felt physically tired.  Even if I did manage to get a good 8 hours’ sleep, I would still find myself yawning through every sentence of my kids’ bedtime stories (at 7pm 🙄).  I’d had blood tests to check my iron levels and thyroid, and I’d been tracking my basal body temperature for a few months so she could see if there were any signs of hormonal problems (eg. adrenal fatigue, hypo/hyper thyroidism), but nothing really leaped out as being problematic.  I just couldn’t understand how I could be living such an amazingly healthy lifestyle, be in such a good place in my life, and still not feel awesome?!  My husband suggested I needed to get more exercise, but I merely complained that I’m on my feet all day and going for a walk was really tiring for me, not invigorating.

Fast forward to now, just two months later, and I feel like I’ve turned a real corner.  Apart from this past week (I’ve had a head cold and was feeling pretty sorry for myself), I’ve felt so much better this year – I have more energy, I’m not as grumpy, and I want to get out of bed in the morning and get moving.  And it had nothing to do with new/different food, dietary supplements, or hour-long sessions at the gym. It had everything to do with SLEEP, and some little lifestyle changes I’ve made to ensure I’m getting quality sleep.

It’s a funny thing how sleep has taken such a back seat thus far into my Mrs Goodness journey.  Funny, because as a parent I know for sure that good sleep and good food are two inextricably linked essentials for a healthy, happy baby/child.  I learned this from the very experienced, very wise old nurses at the Waikato Family Centre, way back when Stella was a little baby and I was desperate for help with her feeding.  They wouldn’t let us tackle her feeding issues without a new sleep routine.  “But she sleeps just fine,” I insisted, “It’s just her feeding that’s the problem.” (They’re not listening to me, I thought. )  “If there’s a problem with her feeding, there’s a problem with her sleep, and vice versa. You can’t have one without the other,” was their final say on the matter. And of course, they were right. Turns out dozing randomly through the day was not the kind of quality sleep Stella needed and was more than capable of getting once we got her feeding sorted. Which we did. So now I’m a parent who considers quality sleep and quality food to be two key aspects of my children’s daily lives.  I prioritise them above most other things and I manage them closely.  However, for some reason when it comes to my own life, I’ve found it easier to quit coffee, quit sugar, gluten and dairy, make all our food from scratch, completely reorganise our kitchen …than go to bed earlier 🙄. Or have a day nap. Because when the kids are napping that’s the best time to do something very important, like fold washing or pay bills, not sleep!

And I guess that comes from conditioning since my adolescence. I used to stay up till 1 in the morning when I was in high school, finishing my homework projects and reading (no, not partying; I wasn’t one of those), and then that sleep-depriving behaviour was rewarded with good marks and praise. After high school, I went on to study architecture at university and I spent the next 5 years of my life in a total haze of sleep deficit. I actually remember crawling under my drawing board in the wee hours and getting a few z’s before crawling out and continuing my work in the studio till morning (with my classmates all around me, also working the same way). It was part of the deal of being an architecture student. I wore my sleep-deprivation like a badge of honour. The less sleep I got, the more committed and passionate I was about my studies, and the more likely it was in my mind that I would succeed in the architecture world, and therefore in life. Simple thinking that was encouraged and rewarded by our tutors and lecturers, and admired and respected by our peers.  Now I firmly believe that those sleep-deprived years of my youth (stress and diet played a part too) were directly responsible for the debilitating health problems in my 30’s that have taken me years to manage and overcome.

Quality sleep is absolutely essential to quality of life – the two go hand in hand and just one night of disturbed sleep can affect our body and minds in pronounced and measurable ways.  So what happens when we are sleeping, that makes it so important for our health?

  • Your body heals damaged cells – it repairs tissues and stimulates growth in children (a growth hormone is released during sleep);
  • Your brain lays down memory, restores daytime mental functioning, and carries out processes that lead to physical growth;
  • We acquire new information when we are awake, but the consolidation of that information in our brains (which will allow us to recall that information later) occurs when we are sleeping; ¹
  • Your brain flushes out waste and toxins through the glymphatic system (similar to our body’s lymphatic system, but the lymphatic system does not include the brain because of the blood-brain barrier);
  • Your immune system is boosted;
  • Your heart and cardiovascular system are recharged for the next day;
  • Your blood glucose levels are controlled, which regulate your appetite and weight;
  • Your hormones are regulated. During deep sleep, the activity in our sympathetic nervous system decreases and the parasympathetic nervous system activity increases. Most endocrine organs are sensitive to these changes in our autonomous nervous system (that which controls our bodies’ involuntary responses, like digestion – for me, it’s bladder weakness since childbirth… 😓).²

Sleep deprivation affects learning, memory, behaviour, mood, coordination (one night of poor sleep impairs our physical and mental focus comparable to when we are drunk), libido, hormones, growth and aging, it aggravates chronic pain, and studies have shown that it alters our genes.³  Sleeping pills don’t count, because they don’t actually send us to sleep. They merely sedate us, meaning we don’t experience the restorative effects of real sleep.

I think it’s interesting that sleeping, an activity so fundamental to our health and well-being, is so underrated by us.  Technology that allows us to be physically and mentally active 24 hours a day is revered by all of us for increasing human productivity and efficiency, but it’s really difficult to remove from our environments when we want to get a good night’s sleep!  We are so resigned and accepting when we’re deprived of sleep (that doesn’t mean we’re not grumpy as a result), and often we praise and admire each other when we choose to sacrifice it.   I still do it now, even though I know better, because my habits are so entrenched.  I know it will take a lot of discipline and effort to retrain myself to prioritise sleep, because there are so many distractions and excuses for me to fall back on.   But I do want to make it a priority sooner rather than later, because I want to model good sleep habits and good values around sleep to my children as they grow up.  There’s no point in me putting all this effort into ensuring they have an amazing diet and meaningful life experiences if they are not also getting really good quality sleep EVERY SINGLE NIGHT.

In my next blog post I’ll share with you some the little changes I’ve made to my daily life that have made a huge difference to the quality of my own sleep (and therefore waking life) these past couple of months.  I still get around 7 hours’ sleep each night, and although I think I could do with an extra hour, I feel much more refreshed, focussed, and positive than I did with the same amount of sleep just two months ago.

For now, here are some interesting articles on sleep and the importance of it, just to give you the motivation you need, to (like me) change some of your habits and improve your sleep – because I’m just going to assume you’re sleep deprived like the rest of us! 😜

¹ From Healthy Sleep (Harvard Medical School): “Sleep, Learning, and Memory”

² Medscape Neurology: “The impact of sleep deprivation on hormones and metabolism”

³ Dr Mercola: “What happens in your body when you’re sleep-deprived?”

Huffington Post: “Your body does incredible things when you aren’t awake”

National Sleep Foundation: “How much sleep do we really need?”

Mindful Mia Blog: “Torturing new mothers and then wondering why they get mentally ill”

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