Nordic Fit writes....

Useful tips on exercise, nutrition and lifestyle

Why we sleep

Oh, the beauty of sleep.. the sheer bliss of waking up rested and refreshed to the sound of birds tweeting and the smell of freshly made coffee… Don’t we all wish it was like that every morning! For most of us, this is a fading memory of a distant past. Or a fairy tale we’ll never know to be true. And whilst tweeting birds may not starting waking us up anytime soon, we should do what we can to optimise our sleep and wake up revitalised.

Our brain and gut needs a rest

We spend a third of our lives asleep and for good reason. The body regenerates overnight; cells are renewed and the brain is busy dealing with all it needs to process. The brain gets a clearout of toxins and the sympathetic nervous system gets a chance to relax, lowering blood pressure and slowing respiration. The parasympathetic nervous system is in its zone however – the ‘rest and digest’ system boosting your digestion and helping with repair and relaxation. Our gut is sensitive to sleep, or lack thereof, and given how important gut health is for everything else going on in the body, we need to look after it with a good snooze.

You know that jaded feeling when you haven’t slept well? Not only does it make you feel a bit rubbish, but your cognitive function is negatively affected. Your mental performance lags behind and you can even be more prone to injury, as messages related to speed and reaction doesn’t quite reach where they need to be. Forcing yourself to do exercise, or doing a new, technical lift, is not a sensible thing to do when you are sleep deprived. Not only can you injure yourself, but your stress response increases and you are unlikely to enjoy what you are doing. Which is hardly the point of exercising!

Keep your hormones happy

With sufficient sleep, our highly complex endocrine system is kept in a balanced, well-oiled state. The endocrine system is responsible for regulating hormones in the body and good sleep is particularly important for growth hormones (GH). Human growth hormone is important for brain function, metabolism and generally keeping all organs and muscles maintained throughout life. Sleep also affects levels of the friend and foe, grehlin and leptin. Grehlin regulates how hungry you feel, leptin how full you feel. Lack of sleep increased grehlin production and limits leptin, which can lead to weight gain. Combined with a lack of energy and feeling sluggish, it is easy to see how we can make poor nutrition decisions when we’re tired! Pass the coffee and croissant, you say? Well, if you need to maintain a healthy weight or lose a few pounds, you may want to review your sleep quality before you reach for the pastries.

Sleep to maintain a healthy weight

If you are trying to lose weight, but simply can’t shift the excess, particularly around the middle, it could have something do to with cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that lowers when we sleep. Whilst it has a purpose as a short-term ‘get up and go’ booster, it is detrimental if it is in a chronically high ‘fight or flight’-mode. If you don’t sleep well, particularly if it is due to stress, your cortisol levels remain high, which can in fact be the reason why you can’t sleep in the first place. Stress is not your friend when it comes to sleep and you should focus on your stress management and find what works for you.

Snooze to avoid the sneeze

The immune system is in the spotlight at the moment and guess what – sleep improves your immune response! When we sleep, immune-boosting proteins cytokins are released, targeting inflammation and help build blood cells. If you are sleep-deprived, you have less cytokines and antibodies available to attack infections and you are more likely to get ill. If doctor’s order is to ‘get some rest’, make sure you rest to get over your illness faster.

It is pretty obvious we need sleep to function. So how do we get our quality zzzz? We all need different amount of sleep and we all have a circadian rhythm, the internal clock telling us when to wake and snooze. It is worth getting in tune with how much sleep YOU need and when YOUR bedtime and waking window is for a good night’s rest.

Top tips for good sleep

1. Consistency is king, yet again – be consistent with your bedtimes and wake-times to give yourself the best opportunity to sleep well.

Stay active during the day and make sure you get some fresh air. Even a 20-minute brisk walk during your lunchbreak, or on the way to the school gates, can make a difference.

2. Getting a dose of the all-important Vitamin D is helpful, too – and sunshine is our best source. Studies show that Vitamin D can increase fatigue and tiredness in the day and reduce sleep quality at night.

3. Avoid the temptation to eat or drink, particularly alcohol, too close to bedtime. Whilst that glass of wine may help you go to sleep, you are more likely to have a restless night and even wake up at 3am, due to how we metabolise alcohol.

4. Blue light from devices play havoc with our circadian rhythm and tricks our body into thinking it’s still daytime. Stop the mindless scrolling and read a book instead. If your phone is your alarm clock, turn on airplane mode to avoid any disruptions.

5. If your thoughts keep you awake, keep a notebook on your bedside table. You can write down anything that is on your mind before bed, or if you wake up in the middle of the night, to avoid the brain going down a rabbit hole of to-do lists.

6. Lastly, if you haven’t tried a meditation app yet, give it a go. Soothing nature sounds, or someone’s soft voice telling you to relax and breathe, is a perfect go-to for when you can’t quite hit the snooze button at night.