Not everyone is clued up on the importance of regular, good quality sleep when it comes to their ability to cope with health challenges, but researchers at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry want to change that.
Their new study, recently published in the journal Sleep Medicine, draws a link between how well a person sleeps, and how much sleep they get, and their odds of living with multiple chronic health conditions (think Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and others).
The study used data from over 30,000 adults, aged 45 and above, who were taking part in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA). The team looked specifically at multimorbidity, defined as when a person has more than one chronic health condition. Based on the findings, researchers argue that good sleep habits should be given far greater focus when it comes to health.
Researchers stated that the study shows, ‘A consistent relationship between instances of multimorbidity and self-reported poor sleep quality and altered sleep duration, which includes both too much and too little sleep.’
In particular, the study found that:
- Participants aged 65-74 years of age who self-reported poor sleep quality had a 43% increase in the odds of multimorbidity
- Women who self-reported short sleep durations (less than six hours a night) had a 16% increase
- Men who self-reported longer sleep durations (more than eight hours a night) had a 45% increase in odds
- Women who self-reported longer sleep durations had a 44% increase in odds
What consistent poor sleep does to our health
The researchers also pointed to established data showing how a lack of sleep has negative effects on our cardio-metabolic, endocrine, immune and inflammatory systems, and how over the past several decades people have been experiencing a poorer quality of sleep. And it isn’t just because we don’t have the best mattress or pillow for our sleep style.
“This is concerning because if poor quality of sleep can increase the risk of a range of chronic conditions, then we should be concerned about sleep hygiene and put that at the centre of our focus both as clinicians and as public health scientists,” said the study’s lead author, Kathryn Nicholson, PhD, professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
“High-quality sleep can be very beneficial, but achieving this high-quality sleep can sometimes be a challenge. We hope that this study will continue to emphasize the importance of focusing on sleep as a key health indicator.”
How to sleep better, starting tonight
If you feel as though you aren’t getting the right quality or amount of sleep, there are lifestyle changes you can make to help you sleep a little better each night. Hopefully, over time, these will become a habit, and you can regularly bank better quality slumber.
To help us out, we recently spoke to James Wilson (aka The Sleep Geek), a Sleep Behavior and Environment Expert, to get his tips on how to sleep better. “The key thing is to be at a cool temperature, and letting your heart rate slow down so you are relaxed,” he says.
Wilson’s general tips for a good night’s sleep include:
- Understand your sleep type: are you a lark, an owl, or somewhere in the middle? Make sure your sleep time is right for your sleep type
- In the hour before bed, focus on dropping your heart rate and dropping your core temperature
- Have a consistent wake up time
For people who are constantly experiencing poor sleep, Wilson argues there are some simple things we can do to get better sleep. “Firstly, remember we all ‘wake up’ three to six times a night. What is happening at the moment is that something is triggering you to fully wake up. It could be stress and anxiety. If so, ensure in the hour before bed you are doing things that help drop your heart rate.”
“It could be temperature (look at your mattress - if it’s foam it could be making you too hot, as could a high-tog duvet). It could be caffeine too close to bedtime, too much alcohol before bed, or it could be you are trying too hard to sleep,” suggests Wilson.
“Try not to worry too much about your sleep and remind yourself: although your sleep has been broken you are still functioning the next day. I find the more we take the stress out of sleep, the better our sleep gets.”
Common sleep mistakes to avoid
According to Wilson, there are things we shouldn’t be doing close to bedtime if we want to sleep better. This includes eating a heavy meal in the three hours before bedtime. “This can impact on our sleep, as digesting a heavy meal means our core temperature rises slightly. One of the important parts of the process that our body goes through to get to sleep is a drop in core temperature, and digesting our evening meal makes it harder for our body to do this.”
Other sleep mistakes to avoid, according to Wilson, are as follows:
Going to bed when you are not sleepy
“For many of the people I work with who struggle to sleep, an obsession with numbers is a big part of the problem. ‘I need to be in bed by 10pm because I get up for work at 6am and I NEED eight hours.’ Firstly, we need to consider our bedtime in terms of who we are as sleepers. If you regularly struggle to get to sleep, you may be going to bed too early.
"Even if your bedtime is generally right, you may have had a stressful day or got in late, and on those nights you should be making sure you are wound down properly and feeling sleepy before you go to bed."
Not being ready for bed before we start winding down
“This is a big one. The amount of people I meet who tell the same story: They are sat on their sofa, feeling sleepy, and then they think ‘I am going to bed, but they then start doing stuff – they put the pets out, check the doors, fill the dishwasher, go upstairs, take their makeup off, brush their teeth and then get into bed.
“By this point our body has woken up and we are not ready for sleep. The advice here? Get ready for bed before you start the routine. PJ’s, dressing gown, fluffy slippers, and make sure your teeth are brushed so when you feel sleepy, you can go straight to bed.”
Exercising too close to bedtime
“Exercise is brilliant for sleep. It helps us feel physically tired and relieves the stresses and strains of the day. However, for some people, if we do it too close to bedtime, the cortisol and adrenaline from exercise impacts our ability to fall asleep and particularly to stay asleep. If you exercised late, make sure you are winding down properly. Most people will need about three hours from exercise to sleep for the effects of the exercise to diminish.”