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Sleeping well should be a priority

Last week we were discussing how to get our children sleeping well, knowing that if they slept better then we would too.

Although mine were terrible sleepers as babies, I was saying how good they are now …. I should have known I was tempting fate!

Last night, Chloe kept popping up while I was downstairs getting the last of the chores done … one more drink, a bedtime snack, how about we plan my birthday party? What about a story?

Go to bed!!

Then at two in the morning Belle appeared, accompanied by the cat and a soft toy platypus. They all slept star-shaped in the middle of the bed and I was exiled to the very edge, worrying about all the sleep I wasn't getting. I drifted off about ten minutes before the alarm went off. Gosh I hate alarms.

For the longest time I've known that I need to get more sleep, but I've quietly ignored it. Lately though, I read some research by Matthew Walker, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Berkeley (previously at Harvard) and renowned sleep expert. He was making the point that “you can sleep when you're dead” is possibly the worst bit of advice ever given, proposing that sleep actually — in fact — is Mother Nature's best attempt yet at immortality.

After reviewing statistic after statistic, I finally gave in. It seems that we can get our nutrition as perfect as we like, but if we aren't getting enough sleep, we are putting ourselves at an absolutely massive disadvantage, risking premature ageing, poor productivity and early death (yikes)! It's not a comfortable realisation (especially when you know you haven't been sleeping enough for years) but I also found it very motivating. Here are some of the main points and statistics that had me in bed by 10.30pm last night (good, even if I was interrupted by all those little sleep assassins).


Did you know that you are three times more likely to be able to solve a problem if you have enough sleep, hence the phrase “sleep on it!” Interestingly, it's a phrase that exists in nearly every language, illustrating the universal consensus that staying awake trying to fix something probably isn't a wise idea.


Sleep literally hits the “save” button in your brain. Without sleep you can't absorb new facts. Sleep deprivation results in a 40 per cent deficit in your ability to learn. Forty per cent is the difference between acing an exam and failing it.


The big powerful brainwaves you produce during REM sleep, combined with the sleep spindles that ride over the top, transfer your short-term vulnerable memories into long-term, permanently stored, protected memories. Basically, sleep puts them in the cloud! Hooray!


Sleep reduces inflammation and promotes healing and recovery from stress. Sleep deprivation does the opposite. In fact, during Daylight Savings, when we lose an hour in the spring, there's a 24 per cent increase in heart attacks the following day — that's based on data from 1.6 billion people in 70 different countries.

When we gain an hour in the autumn, there's a 21 per cent reduction in cardiovascular events. The data is similar for road traffic accidents. It makes sense but the statistics are still shocking aren't they?

Immune system:

Sleep deprivation results in a big reduction in natural killer cell (NKC) activity. These natural ninjas identify dangerous cells (including cancer cells) and destroy them.

If you sleep for less than four hours, you experience up to a 70 per cent drop in NKC activity. It's like leaving your car unlocked at night with all your electronics in it. You're just asking for trouble.


Finally, men who sleep four or five hours a night only, have the same level of testosterone as men 10 years older, meaning that sleep deprivation can age you by a decade! A similar impact is seen in women and we all know that when we are tired, we look haggard. The cause and effect of this one is clear, but it's to do with the DNA repair that occurs when you sleep.

So now that we know we need more sleep, let's get on to the detail of how to get it. Presuming those of you with children have tucked them up in bed (and they're sleeping like angels). Here are the other factors to consider:

1, Avoid alcohol and caffeine

Keep alcohol to a minimum as, although it makes you drowsy, it does inhibit your ability to sustain REM sleep. You can get stuck in a vicious cycle with caffeine; if you don't get enough sleep you need it to keep you awake, but then it can stop you sleeping, so …. it's not a good idea. Conventional wisdom says no caffeine after 12pm, but if sleep is an issue I would ditch it completely, especially regular coffee. You could try green tea instead which has less caffeine and contains l-theanine (which is relaxing), or switch to decaf (ideally an organic or water-processed decaf).

2, Balance your blood sugar

Eating too many refined carbs or sweet things can send your blood sugar ricocheting during the night.

A blood sugar crash when you're asleep can trigger anxiety or palpitations. If you wake with your heart or mind racing, it may not be psychological stress, it might be a physiological trigger. Steady your blood sugar by eating little and often, choosing slow-releasing carbs and pairing protein with your carbs. For detailed help with this, come and see me in clinic or join me for Nutrifit (which starts soon — the information is online).

3, Avoid naps if you find it hard to sleep at night

I love naps. Most of us do. But if you can't sleep at night, you have to ditch them. Sorry!

4, Become a creature of habit

This one is hard! But all the research shows that people sleep better (with more quality REM sleep) when they go to bed at the same time and wake at the same time. This anchors your sleep in both quantity and quality. Hard to make yourself do this at the weekend, but it's definitely worth a shot!

5, Keep it cool

Again the data shows us that people sleep better in a cool room. Apparently, a temperature of 65F is optimal. Now you know!

6, Melatonin, L-theanine, herbal tea

Supplements can be helpful, especially as sleep prescriptions often don't improve sleep quality (although they can be useful for breaking the cycle of insomnia). I find melatonin works for some people, but note that it only works if you are deficient in it in the first place.

L-theanine is great for relaxation and helping to calm anxiety, but note that it can't be taken alongside a pharmaceutical version. Also, don't underestimate the impact of a well-brewed cup of herbal tea. Choose a night-time option and brew a small cup not a large one, otherwise you will be waking to pee!

7, Try 4-7-8

If you don't think you get enough deep REM sleep, look up the 4-7-8 breathing technique online and watch a video on how to do it. It's relaxing and helps to extend REM. Try doing it as you drift off to sleep, and again if you wake up.

Catherine Burns is a qualified nutritional therapist. For more details:, 236-7511 or Natural Nutrition Bermuda on Facebook

Bad habits: alcohol inhibits your ability to sustain REM sleep while too many refined carbs can send your blood sugar ricocheting during the night

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Published September 06, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated September 06, 2019 at 12:56 pm)

Sleeping well should be a priority

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