Who doesn’t love sleep? Unless you’re Cornishman Tony Wright and are aiming for a shot at a world title, then that comforting feeling of climbing into your quilted cocoon, unplugging from another day of digital dealings and drifting off into a tranquil state of slumber are second to none.
In Britain, March is National Bed Month. A month long celebration dedicated to the importance and benefits of a good night’s rest – particularly poignant with the clocks set to go forward by one hour on March 31st. Equally, in the US, the first week of March is National Sleep Awareness Week.
Sleep is an indispensable necessity for human beings. Without it we leave ourselves open to a whole host of health problems. Recent studies have linked insomnia and hopelessness about sleep to suicide, with lack of sleep shown to contribute to obesity, poor bone health, diabetes, depression and even death. Clearly the saying “You snooze, you lose” shouldn’t be taken too literally – unless it’s weight you’re aiming to lose.
As a society we are progressively torn when it comes to sleep – mourning its loss whilst conversely boasting of how little we require. But how much sleep do we need? This is probably one of those “How long is a piece of string” questions, as the answer for this is based upon varying factors and will differ from individual to individual. One thing research has shown us, though, is that regularly getting less than six hours sleep a night is a no-go, resulting in increased risk of stroke and heart disease. Yet shockingly, it is reported that nearly half of us are getting just six hours sleep or less a night.
According to a 2009 report from the Trades Union Congress, Britons spend more time working than ever before, with more than four million full-time employees working over 48 hours a week (700,000 more than during the 1990s). We work the longest hours in Europe, take the shortest lunch breaks and also enjoy the fewest public holidays, in comparison with our European neighbours. Particularly notorious for its Herculean working hours is London’s financial district, with working weeks of 70 hours or more tending to be the norm. Arguably these workers are more than compensated in terms of their pay packets, significant bonuses and other perks, but the fact still remains that the long-hours working culture in Britain sees many of us sleeping a lot less than we should.
With the current economic climate and the rise in stress and anxiety levels, it is little wonder that, according to recent market research statistics, sales of calming and sleeping products increased by 5% in 2011, to reach a value of £47 million. It was also reported that products like herbal teas, which boast calming and relaxing properties, are proving ever popular as an aid to relaxation.
But did you know that certain nutrients in the foods we eat could actually play a role in the quality of our sleep? In a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania, people who report eating a large variety of foods – an indicator of an overall healthy diet – had the healthiest sleep patterns.
When they compared people’s diets to how long they slept each night, researchers found that people who got too little shut-eye tended to ingest more calories, but drank less water and consumed less vitamin C and other important nutrients than people who slept the normal seven to eight hours a night.
Although this study only shows an association and not a causal link between the foods eaten and the amount of sleep derived, the findings are still very relevant and interesting given the interplay sleep and weight have.
When it comes to nutrition and sleep, there are three main substances to consider:
• Tryptophan: An amino acid derived from proteins, that is converted to serotonin in the brain.
• Serotonin: A chemical that carries messages between brain cells. At night time, serotonin is converted into melatonin.
• Melatonin: A hormone that helps to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm and promotes restful sleep.
Remember how well we slept as children with the staple milk and cookie(s) before bedtime? Well originally it was thought that this was because milk was chock-full of tryptophan. However, whilst milk does contain a small amount of tryptophan, the answer actually lies in the combination of protein with carbohydrates, in this case the cookie, which facilitates the entry of tryptophan into the brain, and the fact that calcium helps tryptophan convert to melatonin – making for a good night’s rest.
So if you’re having trouble getting that forty-winks each night or find yourself reaching for the snooze button more than you should in the morning, try taking a look at your diet before turning to sleeping pills or relying too heavily on Mr Caffeine.