by Emma Parnham

The importance of sleep and the impact of sleep deprivation is well documented. Nevertheless, when someone wants to ‘get in shape’ and perform at their best, the first thing that typically comes to mind is eating a healthier diet, quickly followed by the thought of working out. Sleep is often overlooked in the master plan to achieve peak performance. However, large volumes of research from all around the world prove that sufficient sleep is indeed one of the most important things one can do to maximize well-being and performance. In an era where we are more connected than ever before, and ‘presenteeism’ (being at work but unable to perform to one’s full ability) is a real concern, sleep and sleep quality has become somewhat of a hot topic.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institue, our increasingly 24/7, globalized work world demands some people work at night, have extended work hours or rotate between working night, day and evening shifts. Nearly one-quarter of all workers have shifts that are not during the daytime, and more than two-thirds
of these workers have problems with sleepiness and/or difficulty sleeping. In addition, according to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly a third of Americans report working 10 hours or more each day. Such extensive work hours can affect how much time we have for sleep, as many on a limited time budget sacrifice sleep for needed leisure time, attention to domestic tasks, or multiple jobs.

The purpose of this article is to share some ideas on how to create an environment which optimizes the conditions for not only getting to sleep, but also getting into the stage of deep sleep where our bodies recover best. While the importance of sleep is a subject in its own right, below are some of the physiological effects of a lack of sleep and why it is so important for peak performance:

  • Puffy eyes, hunger pangs and aching muscles
  •  Headaches and irritability
  • Reduced cognitive performance—confusion, memory lapses, impaired reaction times
  • Increased blood pressure and increased cortisol levels—which can put a person at higher risk for obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, high blood sugar, and other metabolic disorders (NHBLI 2019)
  • Reduced immune system increasing susceptibility to illness

Getting to sleep
The most obvious and effective way to prevent sleeplessness is
to reduce stress. Of course, in an era where we are more digitally connected than ever before and have competing work and social pressures, avoiding stress is challenging or nearly impossible. Exposure to long-term stress can be significantly reduced by eliminating stress factors and dealing with problems promptly. Making good choices and prioritizing recovery through sleep is an important first step in managing stress.

Work-life integration
Consider how you, as well as your employer, can address your work-life routine:

  • Depending on a number of factors, employers might consider individual and flexible work arrangements.
  • Employees may have to realistically assess their workload and find more efficient methods of organizing work better to keep work hours reasonable. There are numerous courses and self-help books which can help with organization and time management.
  • Both employers and employees should pay attention to health-promoting lifestyles. This might include regular exercise, healthy diet, good human relations. As well as finding ways to engage employees in programs such as yoga and meditation while forging meaningful relationships at work.

Promote positive sleep hygiene
A regular nighttime routine can help prepare the mind for rest:

  • Turn ALL screens off at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from any kind of screen (TV, computer, mobile device, video games) is known to suppress the body’s release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Increased screen time throughout the day has been linked to insomnia and depression.
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom. Although it is tempting to use phones as alarms, invest in an alarm clock. Cell phones, laptop screens, and iPads are all too easy to watch last thing before bed and to check first thing in the morning. There are physiological effects of dopamine and cortisol released as a result of checking email and social media. Try reading a book or engaging in meditation before bed instead.
  • Take a warm bath or shower before bed. This increases the basal temperature and helps the body relax, making it easier to fall asleep.
  • With the body’s basal temperature warm, the National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping bedroom temperature between 60–67 degrees.
  • Try deep belly breathing whilst lying down, perhaps with feet slightly elevated. Use visualization techniques, body scanning meditations and gratitude meditations to help calm the mind, slow the pulse, and reduce cortisol levels; all of which help to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, commonly known as our rest and digest system. If you find your mind wandering and find it difficult to quiet the voice in your head, don’t give up; meditation does require practice. Given time, the mind and body learn to relax.
  • Ensure your bedroom is dark—use blackout blinds.
  • If you are typically a light sleeper and easily disturbed by traffic, early morning activity on the street or if you work night shift and need to reduce everyday noise, try ear plugs or a white noise machine. A white noise machine might also be beneficial if you struggle with ‘dead quiet’, as it can provide some relaxing background noise.
  • Consider using aromatherapy and essential oils. Essential oils have been used for centuries to promote relaxation and mental and physical wellness. Oils can be added to a bath or used in a diffuser. Essential oils that are commonly used to help with relaxation, reducing anxiety and enhancing sleep include lavender, vanilla, rose and geranium, jasmine, sandalwood and citrus.

Other lifestyle tips:

  • Our circadian rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. Maintaining a regular and sensible sleep-awake rhythm promotes sufficient and good-quality sleep. While
    it might differ for everyone to a degree, the recommended sleep time is approximately 7-8 hours per night. Recent research has shown that an irregular sleep pattern can be just as detrimental to health as lack of sleep (NHBLI 2019).
  • Engage in exercise. There is scientific consensus that not only can regular exercise help sleep, but sufficient quality sleep can also help exercise. Regular exercise supports physical as well as mental health and wellbeing. A consistent exercise routine also increases the amount of time spent in restorative sleep—where immune function is boosted and stress and anxiety (and therefore cardiac health) are improved. Research recommends anything from 10 minutes to 60 minutes a day depending on physical health and intensity and the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.
  • The quality of our nutrition can also support getting to sleep and into restorative sleep. Food sources should be as natural as possible and it might prove helpful to avoid eating sugary snacks close to going to bed or overeating at dinner time.
  • Many adults enjoy a glass of wine or other alcoholic beverage in the evenings. Be mindful that alcohol may impair deep sleep and can be detrimental to the body’s ability to repair itself, particularly if immunity is low or recovering from injury.

There are some great resources at our fingertips about the importance of sleep. Overall, to allow our bodies and minds to repair, help prevent disease, reduce weight gain and improve overall performance, sufficient quality sleep is a must.