• Jane Williams

Why cheese has a bad rap: getting more sleep in a world that doesn’t want you to stop

Firstly, an American style disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. This blog is a personal overview of information that I found interesting about sleep and doesn’t constitute medical advice. As you were…..

Sleep: what’s your relationship like with it? Do you see it as a necessity for your wellbeing or an inconvenience that gets in the way of doing other stuff or continuing with that gripping box-set? Do you love snuggling down and relaxing, drifting off easily into the land of dreams? Do you sometimes find your mind whirling and whizzing and feel anxious when sleep doesn’t come easily? What about dreams: do you remember them? Have vivid or frightening ones?

Whatever your personal experience of sleep, we spend around 1/3 of our lives doing it. Despite this being a huge chunk of our lives, until relatively recently, sleep has been something quite mysterious from a scientific perspective. In the last couple of years there has been much more about sleep in the mainstream media, likely in part due to the fantastic book by Matthew Walker. It’s something that I’m interested in because I know for me, my quality and quantity of sleep is very related to my mental wellbeing.

I recently went to a conference called ‘Mind or Body: what’s in charge?’* where I attended a fantastic ‘Masterclass on sleep for counsellors and therapists’. Presented by Emma Pipe and Ruth Webb of Think Well Sleep Well, I found the workshop a fascinating delve into the mysteries of sleep. In this post, I’ve focused on what for me were some of the most practical take-home pieces of information, which I hope can help you to understand more about sleep and offer some practical tips about getting good quality sleep. Being an out-and-proud wellbeing geek, I’ve also included some more reading and thinking about sleep from other sources, which you can check out below.

So, why do we sleep? A list of the effects of sleep deprivation read a bit like a health horror story: irritability; memory impairment; symptoms similar to ADHD; halluciations; increased risk of heart disease; reduced immune system functioning; tremors; aches and decreased reaction time and accuracy.

Sleep is a restorative, biological function that helps our bodies to heal and our brains to consolidate learning. It is a time when our body repairs tissue, growth hormones are released and hormones such as cortisol are produced. In other words, lots of things happen in our bodies when we sleep that help us behind the scenes when we are awake. Sleep is also your brain’s time to do the mental filing: one fascinating fact was about a study which demonstrated that for GCSE students, half an hour of extra sleep each night can be the difference between and an A and a C grade. So if you have teenagers, or know any who are studying, revising into the small hours is likely to be less beneficial than going to bed earlier.

Sleep also provides an opportunity to release our emotions and this happens during the type of sleep called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is our dreaming sleep, and because your muscles are paralysed, this can be a safe way of discharging emotions without acting them out. As well as REM sleep, there are three other stages of non-REM sleep. Interestingly, we all have a night waking after three or four hours of sleep but if we don’t for example have the urge to go the loo or anything else disturbs us, we may well just roll over and not notice that we’ve woken.

You probably know that adults need seven to eight hours sleep a night for good health. There is also evidence for the idea that some of us are ‘larks’- preferring to rise early, and some are ‘owls’, preferring to stay up late. This is something that’s inherited through our genes, meaning that our body clock (circadian rhythm if you like the technical words) naturally runs at slightly longer (owls) or shorter (larks) than 24 hours. Even if you’re an owl though, you do still need that seven to eight hours of sleep. And interestingly, sleeping in late doesn’t reduce your ‘sleep debt’: according to Emma and Ruth, it’s better to maintain a good sleep routine, so getting up and going to bed at the same time each morning and evening.

So what stops us sleeping? I’d say that one answer is modern life. It’s no mistake that the big TV streaming companies have reduced the amount of time before the next episode of your favourite box-set starts. The chief executive of Netflix even admitted a couple of years back that the company’s main competitor is not Amazon, but sleep. For our ancestors, before the invention of electricity, never mind all of the other technology that now competes for our attention, it was generally bedtime when it got dark outside. And then you woke up when it got light. Our body clocks are intimately linked to the natural cycles of night and day, and also to the seasons. These days, we don’t generally get enough light in the day time and we get too much artificial light at night. It takes one hour for our brain to switch off after blue light stimulation (think phones, tablets, laptops, TVs) so it’s likely that we are regularly disrupting our body clocks. Some devices have night mode settings which mean you can set the display to have less blue light emission. You can even buy blue-light blocking glasses, which some people use to help with jet-lag when travelling, but you could no doubt wear in the evenings too. Dimming the lights in your lounge can also be helpful in letting your body know that it’s night time.

These days, I try to switch my phone off around 8pm, which helps to avoid blue light, though for me it was more about winding down and not mindlessly scrolling or getting distracted into something. It has also helped me in moving away from what can be a societal mindset of ‘always on’ and that we should be instantly responding to any messages. Stress can manifest in a bad night’s sleep, so finding ways to wind down and relax in the evening, rather than tackling the to-do list right up until bedtime, may help for better sleep.

Natural light can help us reset our body clock too. Getting out into the daylight at any time of year can help to reset our rhythms and therefore help us to sleep better. Between March and September this also gives us a good shot of vitamin D from the sun. Between March and October there simply isn’t enough UVA in the sunlight in the UK so we need to either get it from our diet (think oily fish, liver, red meat and egg yolks: not great for vegans!) or take a supplement. As many as one in five UK adults is thought to have a vitamin D deficiency and NHS advice is to consider taking a supplement in the winter months, as it can be difficult to get enough from your diet. I mention this because the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can be very similar to those of both sleep deprivation and depression. If you think you are getting enough sleep in terms of hours, but still feeling exhausted, it may be worth considering your vitamin D levels.

We all know that having a drink containing caffeine right before bed will likely disrupt our sleep, but my mind was blown by the fact that caffeine can stay in your system for up for 12 hours after you’ve drunk that cup of tea or coffee. This is because caffeine has a half-life of six hours and a quarter-life of 12. So let’s say you have a double shot coffee at 1pm. A quarter of the caffeine is still circulating at 1am- a bit like you’ve just downed a quarter of that latte sitting up in bed. Again, genetics come into play here: some people have a gene which means that metabolise caffeine more quickly than others. I don’t know about my genes but I have stopped having caffeine after 1pm these days and I do think I’m sleeping better for it. I do love a café trip but if it’s in the afternoon I’ll have a decaff, so I still get to enjoy the warm fuzzy sensation of a good coffee.

There’s good news for the cheese lovers out there though. A small snack an hour or so before bed can help you sleep better. There are two reasons for this. Firstly a small snack can help you to get through the night without waking up hungry. It might be worth bearing this in mind if you eat your dinner early in the evening and then go to bed at 10 or 11. Secondly, if you choose a food rich in tryptophan, this will actually help with your sleep-wake cycle. Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps to increase serotonin and melatonin in your brain: both important sleep chemicals. Tryptophan can be found in cheese, milk products, meat, fish, fruit and veg, seeds, nuts and grains. So a small, healthy snack an hour before bed could help with your night’s shut-eye, and cheese apparently does not give you nightmares. Someone needs to let the cheese marketing board know.

What about once you’re actually in bed? A dark, uncluttered bedroom helps with sleep. Somewhere with less stuff in helps to give your brain cues about relaxation and sleep rather than stimulation. Surprisingly, a cooler room of 16-18 degrees has been shown to promote good sleep, so keeping the central heating low can help with a restful night. Learn to associate your bed with sleep by just using it for sleep and sex (no laptops and doing work on your phone in your bed, for example). Once you’re in bed, winding down by reading a book or some sort of relaxation technique may be a helpful addition to your routine. All of the main meditation apps, such as Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer, have guided relaxation exercises to support sleep but if you’ve already switched the phone off for the night, it’s easy to do something simple. This might be bringing your focus to your body, starting at your toes, and noticing sensations here, trying to gently relax your muscles. Move slowly up through your legs and your body, gently releasing and relaxing any areas of tension. Gently continue this until you reach your head. Alternatively, placing one hand on your belly to help you focus on a slow, deep breath may help you to drift off. Try and breathe deeply so that your hand rises as you inhale into your belly. When your attention wanders to thoughts, gently bring it back to the sounds and sensations of your breathing.

Is there anything here that you’ll be thinking about or doing differently to help with sleep? Let me know in the comments below. There’s lots more to say about this topic so do put in a request if there’s anything about sleep that you’d like to know more about.

Further information and resources:

*Hint: like many things in life, I don't think the answer to this is a simple black or white one. Particularly when we’re talking about biological marvels as unique and complex as our minds and bodies. All those hormones, neurotransmitters, brain connections unique to your experiences and learning, genetics, environment and many other factors suggest that if we wanted a neat answer to this question, it’s probably ‘Neither and both: our thoughts and feelings affect our bodies and our bodies affect our minds in many fascinating and complicated ways’. That’s where I’m at with it, for this week, anyway!

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