Along with good nutrition and exercise, the key to combatting illness is sleep. Considered to be the third pillar of health, sleep is not only necessary for mental and emotional wellbeing but is also necessary for strengthening our body’s ability to fight off infection.
Dr David Burton said:
“Sleep, nutrition and exercise are known as the three pillars of health, and in order to maintain optimum physical and mental wellness, we need all three pillars to be fortified.”
When we sleep, our brain moves through a continuous five-stage cycle, with each stage playing an important role in our body and mind’s ability to recover and recharge. This cycle begins with a four-phase process, called non-REM (NREM). It is during NREM, that brain waves slow down and, as we enter into deep sleep (the last two phases of NREM), the body rests, recovers and repairs, and our immune health and energy levels are recharged. Following NREM we move into rapid eye movement (REM), during which our brain becomes more active and our memories are processed and organised.
For our brain to perform at an optimal level, and for our body to be able to effectively fight off illness, we need to have restorative sleep and go through this sleep cycle a number of times.
Dr Burton explained:
“If we lack adequate NREM and REM, our physical, mental and emotional health is compromised as our brain, muscles, nerves, neurons and complex internal systems, including our immune system, are slow to respond and unable to function or perform well.”
What happens if we don’t have “good sleep health”?
During sleep, our body makes and releases small inflammation and infection-fighting proteins called cytokines. Studies have shown that without adequate sleep, less of cytokines are produced and the body struggles to fight of infection.
Difficulties in learning, memory, perception, maintaining focus and motivation, and coping with stressors, are all consequences of poor sleep health. “When we are sleep deprived, the neural connections used to form and consolidate memories throughout the sleep cycle, particularly during REM, are not able to fully develop and strengthen.”
Long term, the Australasian Epidemiological Association has identified that poor quality sleep leads to a “greater risk of cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension, stroke, heart attack and arrhythmias; the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in increased; there is a greater risk of dementia and more rapid progression of the disease; and the prevalence of some cancers may be increased.”
How can we improve our sleep health?
There are some basic things you can do to help keep your sleep pillar standing strong:
Develop a bedtime routine that includes 30 minutes of screen-free time before bed.
Minimise night-time disruptions such as light and noise. Darken the room, turn off your phone, and keep the bedroom environment conducive for sleeping with a comfortable temperature and minimal sound disturbance.
Avoid drinking alcohol before sleep as it can affect the time it takes to enter that important REM stage of sleep.
Ideally, adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep.
If you are unsure and think you may have a medical condition or serious sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, speak to your doctor in order to get a correct diagnosis, treatment and support.