How to sleep smarter

Article Mar 14, 2016

Tweaking the way you sleep can help you slim down, beat pain and boost your brain power

Consider this: we spend 26 years in the Land of Nod over our lifetime. So it makes sense to put effort into making your shut-eye work for you.

Good-quality sleep is vital for your health, allowing your body to renew and repair itself, bolstering your immune system and regulating hormones. But dig deeper and you'll find that your sleep habits could sort out a slew of body issues. Can't shake those last few pounds? Can't get pregnant? In pain? Your bedtime could be to blame.

A study by British and Australian researchers showed our individual sleep tendencies are largely connected to genetics. Whether you're an early bird (going to bed early and rising with the sun) or a night owl (staying up late and sleeping late), is controlled by a gene dubbed Period-3. Scientists at the University of Surrey say there are two variants of this gene - long and short. It's thought that people with the long version tend to rise early, whereas those with the short version are more likely to be night owls. It's called your 'sleep chronotype'. 

What does that mean to you? Well, there are strategies you can use to optimise your sleep chronotype and get the most from your kip. Here's how to sleep smarter.

SLEEP YOUR WAY SLIM

There's a wealth of evidence to show that those who regularly get a good night's sleep are slimmer than those who scrimp on snoozing. As we doze off, our brain regulates the appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin, as well as the stress hormone cortisol. When these are out of balance, you're likely to be hungrier and eat more. 

If you're an early bird

You're naturally in sync with your body's circadian rhythm which dictates that cortisol levels should be higher in the morning and lowest at night. This means you feel refreshed rising and tired when night draws in. 'Our metabolism thrives on routine so it's important to keep a regular sleeping pattern,' reveals Martin Budd, registered naturopath and author of Why Am I So Exhausted (£14.99, Hammersmith Health Books). When you're up early, you might be tempted to put breakfast off, but this can mess with your blood sugar levels, leading to fatigue and food cravings later on.

If you're a night owl

'You probably won't get to sleep until the early hours, resulting in a shortened night's sleep,' says Dr Victoria Revell from the Surrey Clinical Research Centre at the University of Surrey. Your natural body clock is likely to be out of sync, resulting in fluctuating cortisol levels throughout the day. This can leave you run down and vulnerable to food cravings. As long as you make sensible food choices you should be able to avoid weight gain.

What to do: Snack regularly throughout the day to keep your blood sugar balanced and curb fatigue. Try avocado on oatcakes or fruit with a spoonful of nut butter.

SUPERCHARGE YOUR BRAIN POWER

As you drift off your brain switches on, transporting learned information from the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory and learning) to the neo-cortex, known as the brain's 'hard drive'. 'Lack of sleep, or inadequate deep sleep can impair this process, leading to forgetfulness,' explains Martin. 'Sleep is a time when the brain cells grow and repair themselves and our brain stores and synthesises the day.'

If you're an early bird

A good night's sleep leads to a sharper brain as your body gets enough time to go through a full sleep cycle - and digest the day's new information. A study by the University of Illinois revealed that the m ore we value a piece of information the more likely we are to review it in our sleep! On the downside, early risers may find it harder to keep their eyes open during the afternoon, when our bodies have a natural slump due to plummeting hormones. You may be tempted to have a shot of caffeine which can lead to a spiral of blood sugar highs and lows and an irritable, tired mood.

If you're a night owl

'Being chronically sleep-deprived can affect your alertness and ability to recall information,' says Dr Revell. Research by the University of Groningen indicates that lack of sleep could damage grey matter, shrinking the hippocampus and reducing levels of serotonin, the precursor to the sleep hormone melatonin.

What to do: During the day, drink uplifting herbal teas such as ginseng to keep your energy high. Avoid laptops and television at night; instead, have a hot bath with essential oils to lull yourself into a sleepy state.

MAXIMISE YOUR PAIN THRESHOLD

There's a connection between physical health and sleep patterns. Joint pain, muscle stiffness and conditions such as fibromyalgia are common side effects of insomnia. 'Recent studies show that the immune and inflammatory responses are affected by sleep loss,' says Dr Revell. Sleep deprivation disrupts the production of anti-inflammatory chemicals so you might find you're less able to deal with pain when you skimp on your sleep. 

If you're an early bird

Decent sleep helps to keep your body systems health and speed up your workout recovery rate. 'Sleep can reduce inflammation, which is linked to painful conditions like arthritis, heart disease and type 2 diabetes,' says Martin. Stick to morning workouts, as evening exercise can raise cortisol, which should be lowest in the evening.

If you're a night owl

Poor sleep can disrupt pain tolerance and make painkillers less effective. Take naps instead of lying in to pay back your sleep debt.

What to do: Have a cup of valerian, marshmallow root or lemon balm tea at least one hour before you go to bed.

BOOST THE FERTILITY FACTOR 

Research suggests that those who get good-quality shut-eye are less likely to suffer problems conceiving. A good sleep-awake cycle helps to regulate reproductive cycles and reins in stress.

If you're an early bird

Your chances of a healthy baby are thought to be higher. A study by scientists at Inje University in South Korea also found that women having IVF treatment who had seven to eight hours of sleep a day were 15 per cent more likely to conceive than women who had less. On average, seven hours is ideal.

If you're a night owl

Studies by Northwestern University in the US show that night workers and those travelling across multiple time zones can suffer irregular periods, which could make it harder to conceive.

What to do: 'Ventilate your bedroom as insufficient oxygen leads to sleeplessness. Turn off phones and keep your room dark,' advises Martin. Prenatal vitamins, sensible eating and regular exercise all help to improve your chances of conceiving.