The UK is a seriously sleep deprived nation, reveals a new study from Direct Line Life Insurance. Over 7.5 million people (14 per cent) sleep for less than five hours a night on average, which is seen as a dangerously low level and a threat to mental and physical health by medical professionals. It is widely recommended that adults have between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.
Find out more now about the importance of sleep for your body and mind, the causes of sleep problems and how you can fall asleep faster and sleep better.
- Sleep and its importance for body and mind
- What are the sleep problems?
- Why can’t I sleep?
- What are the effects of sleep disorders?
- What treatments are available?
- Personal help for a better night’s sleep
- Conclusion: good sleep is important for health, performance and quality of life.
Sleep and its importance for body and mind
Adequate sleep is not only essential for your health, well-being and performance, it’s vital! It has been proven that long-term sleep deprivation leads to death.
While you sleep, many regenerative processes take place in your body. Not only does the immune system fill up with energy, but the maintenance and repair of the body’s cells is also accelerated. For sportspeople, sleep is particularly important, as night-time rest is essential for developing and maintaining muscle mass. (1)
Sleep also promotes balance between body and mind, helps to assimilate experiences and even promotes learning.
What are sleep problems and when can we talk about sleep disorders?
Few people manage to get into bed and fall asleep immediately. Nor is a sleepless night a serious sign of insomnia. However, if problems accumulate, they may be linked to sleep problems.
If you are unable to fall asleep within 10 to 20 minutes of going to bed, this may be the first sign of a sleep disorder. The time it takes to fall asleep is known as sleep latency. If staying asleep becomes a regular problem, this is also a sign of a sleep disorder.
But at the very latest, if you experience such sleep problems at least three times a week over the space of a month, you have a pathological sleep disorder (insomnia).
Why can’t I sleep?
Fear of an exam, conflicts in your private life or stress at work – there can be many reasons for poor sleep. The good news is that once the stress factor has been eliminated, sleep quality generally returns. If sleep problems persist over the long term, serious illnesses – neurological or psychiatric, for example – may be the cause.
The most common causes of insomnia are :
- Working in a team
- Alcohol or drugs
- Too much caffeine
- Illnesses (e.g. depression)
- Medication (e.g. special antibiotics)
- Personality traits (e.g. low self-esteem or pronounced perfectionism)
People who work in teams in particular find it difficult to get good quality, restorative sleep. The alternation of morning, evening and night shifts does not correspond to the human body’s internal biological clock. As a shift worker, you should therefore consider all the possibilities for preventing sleep problems at an early stage (see the chapter on self-help).
What are the effects of sleep disorders?
Sleep disorders can have serious consequences for quality of life and entail health risks. The ability to concentrate suffers, cognitive functions are affected and emotional balance is disturbed. The immune system also suffers, and the risk of various illnesses – such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases – increases.
Scientific studies also prove that chronic sleep deprivation promotes obesity. (2) Even more fatal, permanent sleep deprivation is even linked to increased mortality. (3) This is also illustrated by the fact that chronic sleep disorders are closely linked to suicide. (4) Generally speaking, lack of sleep increases the risk of depression. Because of the many health risks involved, sleep problems need to be taken seriously. If you suffer from sleep disorders, it is essential that they are treated by a doctor.
What treatments are available?
Pathological sleep disorders should be treated by a doctor. Your first point of contact is your family doctor. In some cases, it may be necessary to refer you to a sleep specialist.
Different treatment options can be considered depending on the underlying causes of the sleep disorder. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be useful in cases of sleep disorders. Medication may also be considered.
It is important that sleep medication should only be used if absolutely necessary. In addition, they should only be taken for a short period of time. Sleeping pills such as benzodiazepines are prescription drugs that can lead to physical and psychological dependence after only a short period. You should also be aware that taking sleeping pills can have side effects.
Personal help for a better night’s sleep
If you occasionally experience slight sleep problems or would like to improve your sleep, the following advice may be useful.
Studies: physical activity and sport promote better sleep
A scientific study has found that physical activity such as jogging or brisk walking helps older adults suffering from chronic insomnia to improve the quality of their sleep (5).
Weight training can also help improve sleep. According to one study, morning workouts reduced the time it took to fall asleep, while exercises performed later in the day resulted in fewer night-time awakenings. Training sessions in the second half of the day also reduced periods of nocturnal wakefulness (6).
Sleep hygiene: follow these rules
The term “sleep hygiene” covers certain behaviours that promote healthy, restorative sleep. A fixed sleep rhythm – i.e. fixed times for going to bed and getting up – is particularly useful. A limited time slot for sleep (sleep restriction) is also an effective approach for treating patients suffering from sleep disorders. Studies conducted in the 1980s have already confirmed its effectiveness. (7)
You should also avoid taking in large quantities of food and liquids before going to bed. At the same time, it’s not a good idea to go to bed hungry. Avoid drinking alcohol in the time before going to sleep. cigarettes and drinks containing caffeine.
If you do take a nap, opt for a short one lasting no more than 30 minutes. As a general rule, you should ensure that your sleeping environment is pleasant. This means a cool, dark room. Darkness is particularly important, because it is in the dark that melatonin, the sleep hormone, is secreted.
Do medicinal mushrooms help you sleep better?
Among the many active substances present in certain mushrooms, several have been studied for their potential benefits on sleep. Although further clinical trials are needed to confirm these effects, a number of promising avenues are emerging. Among the most widely studied mushrooms are Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) and Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis).
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is known in France as ganoderma luisant. Interestingly, the “mushroom of eternal life”, as reishi is also known, is regularly the subject of sleep studies. The reason is obvious, because to this day, reishi is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to treat insomnia. And indeed: Scientists have found evidence of a potential sleep-promoting effect – at least in animal experiments. When mice were given reishi extract, not only was the time taken to fall asleep shortened, but the duration of sleep was also extended. (8)
On the other hand, a study of eight Japanese undergraduate students evaluated the efficacy of Lion’s Mane in the treatment of chronic sleep disorders. After one month’s supplementation with Lion’s Mane extract, the group reported a reduction in anxiety and insomnia. As for Cordyceps sinensis, its cordycepin composition makes it interesting for future research. This adenosine analogue could be an interesting candidate for improving sleep. Adenosine, produced during wakefulness, accumulates progressively and promotes sleep by gradually inhibiting cerebral activity. During the night, adenosine is gradually eliminated. Because of its similar structure, cordycepin could have comparable effects when it interacts with adenosine receptors, thereby promoting sleep.
The aim of future studies should be to confirm these indications and clarify whether the effect can also be proven in humans.
Use relaxation techniques
Whether it’s progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training or breathing exercises, all these measures can help you relax. Physical tension and racing thoughts often prevent you from getting to sleep. Meditation, yoga or tai chi can also help.
Conclusion: good sleep is important for health, performance and quality of life
Sleep is not only important for health, performance and well-being, it’s also vital! Regular sleep problems are therefore a problem to be taken seriously, as quality of life suffers and health risks appear.
The causes can be of various kinds. Stress is considered to be one of the main causes of poor sleep. You can talk about a pathological sleep disorder (insomnia) if you suffer from sleep problems at least three times a week over a period of three months. This may involve difficulty in falling asleep or sleep disorders.
If you have serious sleep problems, consult a doctor! While pathological sleep disorders should always be treated by professionals, you can start by treating yourself for occasional, mild sleep problems.
As well as exercise and sport, optimal sleep hygiene is a good place to start. This includes adopting a fixed sleep rhythm, not consuming alcohol, caffeine or nicotine close to bedtime, and darkening the bedroom to allow the secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
A reishi-based dietary supplement may also be considered, as studies show that animals fall asleep faster and sleep for longer. However, this effect has not yet been proven beyond doubt in humans.
- Pål Jåbekk, Rein M Jensen, Martin B Sandell, Erin Haugen, Line M Katralen, Bjørn Bjorvatn, NCBI, “A randomized controlled pilot trial of sleep health education on body composition changes following 10 weeks’ resistance exercise” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32141273
- Sanjay R Patel, Atul Malhotra, David P White, Daniel J Gottlieb, Frank B Hu, NCBI, “Association between reduced sleep and weight gain in women” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16914506
- Jane E Ferrie, Martin J Shipley, Francesco P Cappuccio, Eric Brunner, Michelle A Miller, Meena Kumari, Michael G Marmot, NCBI, “A prospective study of change in sleep duration: associations with mortality in the Whitehall II cohort” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18246975
- Andrea A Woznica, Colleen E Carney, Janice R Kuo, Taryn G Moss, NCBI, “The insomnia and suicide link: toward an enhanced understanding of this relationship”, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25454672
- Kathryn J Reid, Kelly Glazer Baron, Brandon Lu, Erik Naylor, Lisa Wolfe, Phyllis C Zee, NCBI, “Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20813580
- Jessica R Alley, John W Mazzochi, Caroline J Smith, David M Morris, Scott R Collier, NCBI, “Effects of resistance exercise timing on sleep architecture and nocturnal blood pressure” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25426516
- A J Spielman, P Saskin, M J Thorpy, NCBI, “Treatment of chronic insomnia by restriction of time in bed” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3563247
- Chunyan Yao, Zhiyuan Wang, Huiyong Jiang, Ren Yan, Qianfei Huang, Yin Wang, Hui Xie, Ying Zou, Ying Yu, Longxian Lv, “Ganoderma lucidum promotes sleep through a gut microbiota-dependent and serotonin-involved pathway in mice” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34211003