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Sleep: what is quality slumber and how do we get it? Our expert has the answers

Most of us don't get enough shut-eye for a whole host of reasons. Wellness expert Tom Coleman outlines the importance of a peaceful slumber


You will perform better in many areas of life if you get good-quality sleep

You will perform better in many areas of life if you get good-quality sleep

You will perform better in many areas of life if you get good-quality sleep

Sleep, glorious sleep - we crave it, we chase it and mostly we feel we're not getting enough of it. According to experts, too much sleep is also bad, but few people appear to be afflicted by this problem. A cumulative lack of sleep can have long-term health consequences, and links are seen with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and dementia. Below, we list 10 facts sleeping.

1 Just can't get enough...

Irish people are not getting enough sleep. Most of us don't even think about it unless it becomes an issue - and then it's all we can think about. Without consideration, it's usually the first thing we sacrifice if we are under pressure in our work or personal life.

Recent research from Sleep Cycle backs this up with the global average dropping from eight hours in 1942 to 6.8 hours today. Irish people are averaging about seven hours with many different cohorts reporting sleep problems, from tech-addicted teenagers to overstimulated office workers. Meanwhile in Japan, the average is less than six hours.

It is the accumulation of what is known as 'sleep debt' that we wish to avoid. This occurs over several days and if it becomes chronic then we need to re-prioritise our sleep. The general recommendation is seven-and-a-half to eight hours per night. As we sleep in 90-minute cycles, this equates to five 90-minutes cycles per night.

2 The return on investment is huge...

In terms of protecting health, increasing productivity or boosting performance, sleep is the most undervalued commodity. The return on investment in real terms is huge. The financial implications of poor sleep manifest in different ways, from missed days due to illness, reduced productivity to increased rates of accident and injury.

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our ability to focus and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions. The combination of these factors is what is referred to as mental performance. Sleep issues also affect attention, memory, learning, decision-making and creativity, to the detriment of work productivity and performance. Leading businesses and top-class coaches have realised the secret weapon in super-charging energy and performance may be down to sleep management or an extra hour or two in bed!

3 Snoozing is stigmatised...

"He is a great man, he is up early in the morning!" The earlier a person rises and the harder they work seems to be a badge of honour in Irish society and indeed beyond. To those of you who say that "the early bird catches the worm…", I would say the second mouse gets the cheese! Ask any crowded room of people how many of them nap and watch very few tentative hands rise. We appear to be ashamed somewhat if we require the full eight hours sleep. I feel we must overcome this stigma and prioritise our health by reframing the importance of sleep.

4 Missing out on slumber leads to weight gain...

The accumulation of sleep debt has a profound impact on our physiology. Production of the hunger hormone ghrelin rises; essentially telling us we are hungry, and we need to eat more. Conversely, the hormone which tells us to stop eating (leptin) drops. This generally manifests in cravings and, let's face it, most of us are not craving leafy green salads. We tend to want refined carbohydrates because this triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. If we are sleep-deprived, our mood will be low as well, and our brain will be eager to apply this white-carbohydrate solution to our low mood.

We can short-wire this and reduce ghrelin production by eating a high-protein breakfast. Hunger cues can also be dampened down by eating nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, berries, leafy greens and other foods high in tryptophan - which can be converted to serotonin and melatonin. It's not just these hormones - our gut bacteria is negatively impacted through increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which also encourages our body to store energy as fat.

5 Train yourself to fall asleep...

Many people have an inherent belief that they are unable to nap, while others suffer with sleep anxiety - the worry that they might not be able to sleep is the exact thing that keeps them awake. There are many people with sleep issues which vary in their nature from low melatonin levels to sleep apnoea.

It is important that people get a grasp of why they cannot sleep. Is there a medical issue, are they unable to switch off, or is it an unhealthy belief that they are unable to sleep? Setting aside those with medical issues, we are all capable of napping and inducing sleep. We are the only species on the planet that does not obey the natural urge when it comes upon us. It's not socially acceptable in our society to fall asleep at work, unlike Japan, where it is seen as a badge of honour; napping or inemuri is common practice and encouraged.

6 It has a huge impact on performance...

Many leading global brands and elite coaches have come to the realisation that investing in sleep is improving their numbers in terms of bottom line and personal bests. The Chicago Cubs ended a 105-year wait for a World Series in 2016 after they implemented a ;'fatigue management system' with their players.

A recent Harvard Study found that insomnia leads to the loss of 11.3 days' worth of productivity each calendar year. In the world of business or sport, the ability to recognise and manage it effectively pays dividends.

Leading coaches have recognised the effect of sleep and proper fatigue management has on their athletes' ability to perform and recover. If specific nutritional strategies are coupled with sleep strategies, muscle repair and metabolic recovery can be accelerated. As much as 75pc of human growth hormone is secreted during sleep, facilitating muscle and tissue repair.

7 Sleep & tech in bed together...

Light is really the master switch when it comes to sleep. As we all know, one crack in the curtain is enough to wake us up an hour earlier. We are very sensitive to light and many people now bombard their brains with blue LED light from tablets and phones. This type of light is twice as powerful as natural sunlight at keeping us awake and interfering with melatonin production. Researchers in Harvard found that this blue light suppressed melatonin and shifted sleep by as much as three hours. Most phones and devices have a setting which cuts out this short-wave blue light completely.

An inexpensive eye mask is something which can improve sleep onset and sleep quality immediately. For those bringing their devices into the bedroom, there are many useful apps which help us unwind with relaxing music, white noise or meditation. Managing screen time and unwinding is critical.

8 Smart people sleep...

Our sleep/wake cycle is directly linked to the structure and make up of the brain in terms of grey matter and white matter. Changes in brain structure due to lack of quality sleep can affect cognitive performance at an individual level. Cognitive function, learning, memory retention, decision-making and many aspects of health including our cardiac health can be affected by duration and quality of sleep. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that learning leads to rapid microstructural changes in grey matter which can be reverted through sleep. What this really means is that a good night's sleep enables us to perform better mentally. Our thinking and memory recall is sharper and more efficient.

9 It keeps us looking younger...

So engrained is the importance of sleep that cellular activity responds to the amount and quality of sleep we get. Cellular function is negatively impacted when we are sleep deprived. Missing out on sleep effects moisture balance, metabolic build up, inflammation, free-radicals and interferes with the integrity of collagen in skin. This usually translates to drier skin, brittle hair, more fine lines, puffiness and dark circles around the eyes. We just look older and more tired after a poor night's sleep. Whereas we look younger, healthier and more vibrant after a solid eight hours.

10 Slumber is a personal thing

We are all individuals and we all know someone who sleeps for four or five hours and appears to function very well on that amount. Sleep is a personal thing and different people need different amounts. People must try to identify why they are not sleeping and find a solution that works. We must also learn to adapt to circumstances and take whatever opportunity we can during the day. There is absolutely nothing like a new baby to really test how much sleep you can operate off. I have very recently become a father to a healthy baby boy - Kai - and he has laughed and cried at my sleep expertise...

Tom Coleman is a nutritionist who has worked with many of Ireland's elite athletes, coaches and teams in nutrition, performance, recovery and fatigues science. He is speaking at Thrive Festival, a brand-new bespoke health, fitness and well-being event taking place on March 30 & 31 in the Convention Centre, Dublin. See thrivefestival.ie

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