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Importance of sleep

by Dan Farnworth


When I was asked to write a blog about the importance of sleep, I didn’t really know where to start because as shift workers, we fully understand the draining feeling that comes with fatigue and the lack of sleep. Shift work aside, the majority of us have experienced sleepless nights for a variety of reasons, be it the night before starting a new job or worrying about elements of life that are out of our control. On top of that I think we can all draw on times when a good night’s sleep has helped us to view the world in a more positive way.

I must confess I am no expert on sleep, which makes writing a blog on the subject that little more difficult. Sleep is nothing new to us, but I do wonder if anyone else has ever had that feeling that they can’t switch off at night and does counting sheep actually work for anyone? Does eating cheese before bed really give you nightmares!? Therefore, this week I have put together an unconventional blog. Instead of drawing on my experiences (we all have experiences with sleep) I have attempted to investigate and learn three main points:

  • Why sleep is important to us

  • What the science says about sleep

  • What we can do to improve sleep at home and what resources are out there to help us

Below is an overview of what I have found. You can find out more in the links at the bottom of this blog.

Why is sleep important to us?

I always thought of sleep as a time when the mind and body shut down. It turns out that this is not the case; sleep is an active period in which a lot of important processing, restoration and strengthening occurs.

The experts say, ‘getting enough sleep is essential for helping a person maintain optimal health and wellbeing’ – numerous examples of the benefits of good sleep are given such as:

  • Better productivity and concentration

  • Better calorie regulation

  • Greater athletic performance

  • Lower risk of heart disease

  • More social and emotional intelligence

  • Stronger immune system

Sleep Station UK tell us that a lack of sleep is proven to have a negative effect on mood, memory, attention, decision-making and motivation (I can definitely relate to that). Interestingly sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice when life gets busy, we have all done this from time to time.

What the science says about sleep

It turns out that in the 1920s, Hans Berger (German psychiatrist) first used the electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain wave activity in humans. For the first time, he recorded the electrical activity of the brain during sleep and whilst awake. Scientists came to realise that sleep was not a uniform or passive process but that it changed through the night.

Exactly how the processing, restoration and strengthening happens during sleep and why our bodies are programmed for such a long period of slumber is still somewhat of a mystery. But thanks to Hans Berger and advances in technology since, scientists do understand some of sleep’s critical functions and the reasons we need it for optimal health and wellbeing.

The science tells us that there are are two basic types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep (NREM has three additional different stages). Each is linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity.

REM sleep is the phase of sleep in which most dreaming occurs

Intense dreaming occurs during REM sleep as a result of increased brain activity, but paralysis occurs simultaneously in the major voluntary muscle groups. REM is a mixture of brain states of excitement alongside muscular immobility. For this reason, it is sometimes called ‘paradoxical sleep’.

NREM sleep is relatively dreamless sleep

During NREM, the brain waves on an EEG recording are typically slow and of high voltage, the breathing and heart rate are slow and regular, the blood pressure is low, and the sleeper is relatively still.


You cycle through all stages of NREM and REM sleep several times during a typical night, with increasingly longer, deeper REM periods occurring towards morning.

What we can to improve sleep at home and what resources are out there to help us?

Apparently, it is easier to work shifts in your 20s and 30s because your sleep is more resilient the younger you are. Fast forward to your 40s and it is suggested that it becomes more difficult to cope with frequent changes to shift patterns. Unfortunately, this won’t get us out of working nights once we surpass 40-year-old. Fortunately, there are various techniques that can help us to maintain our physical, mental and emotional health when working shifts.

A few of the tips and techniques include:


Your bedroom could be keeping you awake

To be able to sleep regularly and consistently, especially as a shift worker, your bedroom needs to be dark, quiet and cool. We’re sure you’ve heard this advice before, but that’s because the science doesn’t change on this, and it’s one of the most important factors for good quality sleep.


To achieve darkness during daylight hours, fit heavy curtains or blackout blinds. If this isn’t possible, use an eye mask and cover up any light sources within the bedroom.

The day is, by nature, noisier than the night so consider using earplugs if you need to sleep during the day because you’re working a night shift.


Preparing for sleep after a night shift

You may also consider putting a ‘do not disturb’ note on the front door explaining that you are a keyworker, working shifts, and that you should only be disturbed if the matter is urgent.

Put your phone on silent. Make sure to switch off alerts/notifications on your mobile phone before you try to sleep.


Transitioning between shifts

The experts don’t lie, they admit that this is difficult. However, there are ways to manage this and the majority of us probably do this without realising;

  • If you feel sleepy then go to sleep, whatever time this may be. Equally, if you are not sleepy, then your body and brain don’t want to sleep. The critical thing is to listen to your body.

  • Don’t expect to switch from night shift to a typical day. For the first day of your rest period you will need to get some sleep during the day. The more hours you try to switch at any one time, the harder it will be to adjust.

  • When moving from a day to a night shift, it may be beneficial on the day before starting a block of nights to try and have a long period of sleep in the late afternoon or early evening.

Resources

If you’re not sleeping well, or if you want to sleep better hopefully this blog has helped to inspire you to look at sleep in a new way. So, where do you go to learn more? Truthfully, there really is a myriad of resources out there to support you to sleep better from charities through to medical providers. So, where do you start? The good news is I have discovered that it is often the small changes that make the biggest difference, so hopefully a good night’s sleep isn’t as far away as you may think.

I highly recommend checking out ‘Sleep Station’, they are an NHS accredited sleep improvement programme, what’s more is that they are offering free access to NHS and Keyworkers until the end of the year – that may be just enough time to get your sleep where you want it to be. To visit the Sleep Station Key Worker site where you can download your sleep guide and register for free access to the service visit www.sleepstation.org.uk/key-workers.

Other helpful sites include:

www.sleepfoundation.org – it’s an American site but jam packed with helpful information and tools.

www.sleepcouncil.org.uk – Sleep Councils mission is to help people take preventative measures to look after their sleep health and to stop sleep issues developing into bigger problems.

Final note, please remember that sleep is very important to us as individuals. If you are struggling with your sleep reach out to one of the organisations above or even your GP who may be able to help guide you towards a more restful night’s sleep.

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