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Self Care Week: Why sleep is so important

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With our busy lives and tight workout schedules, sleep can often feel like a waste of time. All too easily, it falls to the bottom of our priorities list, something to be put off or excuses to be made for. The problem is that sleep is absolutely essential for everything we do. If you go without it for too long, your performance will drop across the board. This Self Care Week, we’ve made it our business, together with stress specialist Jacob Drachenberg, to explain how sleep supports both the body and the mind, and how you can make sure that you’re getting enough of it.

The importance of sleep

Sleep seems like a no-brainer. Just something that we do. But actually, sleep plays a much more important role in your well being than you think. Sleep affects your mood, ability to lose weight, how fast you age, your performance and can even prevent cancer.

Without sufficient sleep, you suffer. Your productivity declines, your stress hormone, cortisol, is higher which can result in weight loss, your thyroid slows down, you feel restless, you can’t focus and on top of that, you increase your risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Like everything else in life, there are no shortcuts to achieving your goal - even if it is sleep. Sleeping pills don’t work. These might give you an extra 30 minutes of sleep, but it’s likely to not even be the high quality of sleep that your brain and body both need. By actively ensuring you’re getting enough high quality sleep you can improve everything from skin health to hormonal balance, weight loss and your immune system. Here’s how:

Sleep science in a nutshell

There are two primary categories of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM. Sleep starts in non-REM, which consists of three phases, moving from the drowsy stage between awake and asleep through to the third stage, called deep sleep, when heart rate and breathing fall to their lowest levels, blood pressure and body temperature drop, and muscle activity slows. Typically, we move from non-REM into REM about 90 minutes after falling asleep and the body moves from REM to non-REM and back again throughout the night. REM sleep is a bit paradoxical; although the muscles are deeply relaxed, the heart rate is higher than in non-REM and the brain is more active. This is when dreaming occurs and when the brain processes information it’s absorbed during the day. Sleep needs vary, but 7 to 9 hours a day suffice for most people.

Why athletes need REMs

It goes without saying then that sleep is vital for Free Athletes. Time spent asleep is just as important to training as the hours spent in the gym, says stress expert Jacob Drachenberg. “Muscle-building doesn’t happen in a training session, but during the recovery phase,” he explains. Sleep is also the ultimate stress management tool; it gives you energy but also makes you more resilient to everyday stresses.

Sleep Strategies

So, how can you achieve regular, restful sleep? Drachenberg has five key hacks:

Take time to relax

30 minutes before you plan to go to sleep, turn off all electronics, says Drachenberg. “Artificial light keeps us awake and prevents the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone).” Try reading a book, lighting some candles or meditating to get yourself sleep ready.

Feng shui your room

Many believe that arranging your sleeping space in. certain way lowers stress and promotes relaxation. Get rid of clutter, get a small plant and keep the colors gentle for maximum melatonin production and optimal relaxation.

Keep it cool

Keep the room temperature between 16 and 20 degrees and choose light bed covers. Cooler temperatures promote good sleep because the body’s core temperature needs to drop for sleep to kick in. Darkness also signals to the body it’s time to sleep, so consider getting blackout curtains.

Minimize disturbances

Even the quietest noises can create a barrier to a good night’s sleep. We might be able to sleep through TV on standby, a dripping tap or the hum of traffic, but it could be harming our quality of sleep without us noticing. Consider using earplugs, or even a white noise machine if total silence feels unnerving.

Make yourself comfortable

Make sure that you have a comfortable mattress, pillow and duvet and take time to find ones that meet your needs. Detergent is also important; find one with a fresh scent that doesn’t irritate your skin. Finally, invest in comfortable pajamas. Just like your workout clothes make you feel ready to train, so should your sleepwear signal to your body that it’s time to relax.

Get enough sunlight during the day

Your body’s sleep cycle - or circadian rhythm - is controlled by a pattern of light and darkness. This means the amount of sunlight you are exposed to during the day impacts your sleep at night. Natural light exposure (sunlight) during the day triggers neurotransmitters that regulate your body’s clock and ensure you sleep well at night, whereas artificial light exposure before going to bed does the opposite and is likely to result in a bad night's sleep.

Whilst foregoing a good night’s sleep for an extra workout might seem like a good idea in the moment, in the long term, disruptive sleep patterns can have a negative impact both on your training and on your lifestyle as a whole. Just as you train your body, train your mind to become accustomed to healthy sleep patterns. Think of sleep as part of your warm up, preparing you for the day’s activities and getting you ready to perform. Being a Free Athlete isn’t just about how many workouts you can do in a day, it’s about optimizing and caring for every aspect of your life, and sleep, whilst often overlooked, might just be the most important of them all.