Every species living on this earth needs sleep, though the exact reasons are still not completely understood. When we are asleep, most of our body’s systems continue to function. All we know is that we need it, and we aren’t too chirpy without it! If we don’t sleep well or if we don’t sleep enough it can do damage to our mental and physical health.
- 1 Why do we need sleep?
- 1.1 Recharging the brain
- 1.2 Recharging the body
- 1.3 What prevents us from getting a good sleep?
- 1.4 How to get a good night’s sleep
- 1.5 Why is it important to get into a good routine for sleep?
- 1.6 Sleep Positions
- 1.7 Most common sleeping positions
- 1.8 Why should you sleep on your left side?
- 1.9 Benefits of Left-Sided Sleeping
Why do we need sleep?
Recharging the brain
Experts have discovered that sleep could be a way to help our brains recharge. Our brains get a chance to process information, solve problems and process memories. ‘Useless’ information is removed and everything new we have learned is stored, like in a huge computer with amazing processing ability. Glucose levels in the brain are replenished during sleep. We need sleep to survive. Researchers found that rats will die after 14 days without sleep. They began to lose weight and developed infections. In people, sleep deprivation leads to memory loss, reduced mental capacity, altered mood and even hallucinations. It is believed that we could go for longer without food than without sleep.
Recharging the body
Sleep offers a chance for the heart and lungs to have a rest. Blood pressure and heart rate are lower when we are sleeping. Muscles repair and cells rejuvenate, and the immune system is boosted.
What prevents us from getting a good sleep?
Not getting enough quality sleep can make you tired the next day and it can really affect your mood. But why are you not getting enough sleep, or enough quality sleep? Here are some factors which can affect your shut eye.
Waking up to use the loo
Don’t drink too many fluids at night-time. It could be because of a medical problem though like bladder weakness or an infection. See your Doctor if this happens regularly. It tends to happen as we get older when the bladder does tend to become weaker.
Alcohol may make you feel drowsy, but after this point, alcohol is a stimulant, so you won’t go into a deep sleep. This will make you feel more tired the next day. Try not to drink alcohol within 4 hours of going to bed.
Heartburn and indigestion
When you lie down in bed, the stomach’s juices can flow back up into the oesophagus. Leave at least 3 hours between having dinner and going to bed and avoid fatty or spicy foods. You can raise your body by using another pillow, or raise the head of the bed. Try an over the counter remedy to prevent acid reflux.
You’re in pain
If you have arthritis or any condition that might cause chronic pain this might keep you awake. See your Doctor and they might be able to adjust your pain medication or suggest a sleeping aid.
The teas and coffees you drink to get you through the day can keep you awake at night. You should ideally avoid caffeine for 8 hours before bed; yes, it really does stay in your system for that long! Limit tea and coffee to 2 cups per day. Don’t forget that other items can contain caffeine, such as cold and flu remedies and chocolate!
This is a condition where your breathing stops periodically when you’re asleep. This may wake you up so that you feel exhausted the next day. You are more likely to have this problem if you are overweight as fat around the neck can put pressure on the muscles and restrict the throat. See your Doctor if you suspect that you have this problem. Treatments involve losing weight, using nose strips and in severe cases, therapeutic oxygen
Restless leg syndrome
About 10% of people have this condition. You have an almost constant need to move your legs. This can be due to a health condition or a side effect of medication. See your Doctor who might prescribe a muscle relaxant.
Stress is a common cause of night-time wakefulness. Try and exercise during the day to get rid of tension and do things before bed which help you to wind down and relax. Even writing your worries down before bed can help.
Your bedroom could be too hot or too cold, it could be too bright or noisy. This can keep you from getting to sleep. Try putting blackout curtains up. Leave electronic gadgets in another room too, the blue light they emit can make you alert. If you don’t fall asleep within around 20 minutes of going to bed, go and do something non-stimulating such as reading in a dimly-lit room.
How to get a good night’s sleep
It’s important to try and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, yes, even on weekends. This will ensure that you have a good sleeping pattern. Having a lie in on the weekend is nice sure, but when it comes to getting to sleep on a Sunday evening for work on Monday, it’s going to be tough if you have slept for an extra 3 hours on Sunday morning.
Don’t oversleep or scrimp on sleep. More time in bed is linked to being overweight and suffering from heart disease, and too little sleep is linked to dementia and mood disorders. If you are sleep deprived, you will most probably eat more because you’re lacking energy and will make bad choices to perk yourself up.
Avoid taking a nap during the day as it will disturb your normal sleeping pattern. If you really must nap, don’t nap for longer than 90 minutes, as your brain goes into a deep sleep after this time and you will feel extra groggy when you wake up.
Avoid anything that stimulates your nervous system too close to bedtime. So, don’t drink coffee, alcohol or smoke. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are all stimulants.
Exercise can help you get a good sleep, if you don’t exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise in the morning or late afternoon. Any later and you risk giving your body a shot of adrenalin which is not what it needs if you want to wind down.
Don’t have meals too close to bedtime, especially anything spicy or fatty which can lie on the stomach and cause indigestion.
Have a relaxing bedtime routine. Have a warm bath, a milky drink and read a good book to wind down. Don’t watch TV or work in bed, that way you will associate your bedroom with sleep. Make sure the room is not too hot, cold, bright or noisy.
Why is it important to get into a good routine for sleep?
Having a good sleep routine is important for everyone. If you constantly feel tired through the day, or you are taking too long to fall asleep at night, you need to review your lifestyle and see what might be contributing to your sleep problems. Of all the things that might be contributing to your sleep issues, have you considered that the position you sleep in might be having an impact too?
The three main sleeping positions are on your side, on your back and on your front, though there are many variations of these. Experts usually recommend sleeping on your side for more comfortable sleep and better postural alignment. For people with a bad back, sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees helps to align the hips and spine. It’s also the most comfortable position for pregnant women as well.
If you sleep on your back, this may not be good If you snore or have sleep apnoea as this position puts the most pressure on the muscles of the throat. If you have lower back pain, this position isn’t great for you, but you can place a pillow under your knees to alleviate pressure on the lower back.
Sleeping on your stomach is not recommended as it causes neck and back strain. If you do sleep on your stomach, use a very soft pillow so the angle of your neck is not too awkward.
Most common sleeping positions
Foetal position – around 41% of people sleep in this position, on their side with their knees curled up. Women are more likely to sleep like this.
Log position – sleeping on your back with your arms down by your sides. 15% of people sleep like this.
Yearner position – this is the 3rd most popular position. It’s lying on your side with both arms out in front of you. 13% of people sleep like this.
Freefall position – These people sleep on their stomach with their head turned to the side. 7% of people sleep like this.
Starfish position – People who sleep in this position lie on their backs with their arms up near their head. Around 5% of people sleep this way. They are more likely to snore.
Why should you sleep on your left side?
As well as the position you sleep in, the side on which you sleep can make a difference and experts tend to agree that people should sleep on their left side to get the most health benefits.
Benefits of Left-Sided Sleeping
Better sleep during pregnancy
Sleeping on your left side will take pressure off the back and alleviate pain caused by the weight of the growing baby. It can also improve circulation to the uterus and alleviate pressure on the liver, which is on the right side.
Better sleep if you suffer from heartburn
When you lie on your left side, the stomach is positioned below the valve which stops the reflux of stomach acid into the oesophagus. This reduces or stops acid reflux. A study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that sleeping on your right side increases acid reflux compared to sleeping on the left side. If you suffer from acid reflux after meals, you can try lying on your left side for 10 minutes after eating.
It can reduce or stop snoring
Snoring is a common problem, which is made worse by sleeping on your back. If you sleep on your left side it will keep pressure off the airway.
It can relieve neck and back pain
Neck and back pain are common problems and they can be affected by the position you sleep in. Sleeping on your left side can alleviate back pain by allowing you to rest with your neck and back positioned in their proper anatomical curves. This effect is even more beneficial if you put a pillow between your knees.
It promotes better digestion
The stomach is on the left side of the body, so sleeping on the left can promote better digestion. The gastric juices flow more easily and naturally, and the peristaltic action of digestion works more smoothly when you lie in this position
Sleep on the left for better lymphatic drainage
The lymphatic system carries fluid called lymph around the body. This fluid contains white blood cells which fight infection and rids your body of toxins. The lymphatic system is mostly located on the left of the body. The spleen is one of the body’s major lymphatic organs and it is located on the left side of your body. When you sleep on your left side, gravity helps the spleen to work more efficiently.
Your body will eliminate waste better.
The body eliminates waste through the intestines. The small intestine carries waste to the large intestine on the right side. The large intestine then carries the waste to the stomach where it moves to the colon on the left side of your body. When you sleep on your left side, gravity makes it easier for the body to move waste from the small intestine to the large intestine. This helps the colon to be full and ready to eliminate waste the next time you visit the loo. As mentioned earlier, digestion works more smoothly when you are lying on your left side, whereas on the right side, the digestive organs tend to hang awkwardly and the process is not able to work as well.
It can relieve varicose veins
Sleeping on your left side is also beneficial for those suffering from varicose veins in the lower leg. Sleeping like this can take the pressure off one of the largest veins in the body which carries blood from the lower body to the heart. Easier backflow of blood means less pressure on the veins in the limbs.
We all need sleep. In today’s modern world, we have so many demands on our time that we can view time spent sleeping as wasted time. We work more and we spend more time on smartphones and computers, when we probably should be sleeping. But we need to rest and rejuvenate. We aren’t robots, we are human beings. If we don’t allow our minds and bodies time to recharge, something will go wrong and we pay the price, usually with our health.
If we don’t sleep enough, we become forgetful, we make mistakes and we become ill more often because our immune system isn’t getting the boost it needs from restful sleep. We can play hard but we need to rest harder.
How many of us get a restful sleep however, when we have been drinking caffeine to get through the day, when we are answering emails or playing on our smartphones until the early hours in bed, then we try to go and do a full day’s work on 4 hours sleep and fool ourselves that we will ‘catch up’ later? But it doesn’t work like that. We need routine, we need a regular sleeping pattern for optimum health.
As well as making sure we get enough sleep, we need to make sure the conditions we are sleeping in are going to help lull us off to the land of nod. A cool, but not cold, dark, quiet bedroom without the glow of the blue light of electronic gadgets is the most conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Stress is prevalent these days and is a common reason for sleepless nights. Being stressed out is even more of a reason to try and be well rested as much as you can. When your mind won’t switch off, listen to gentle music, try mindfulness or meditation, keep a notepad beside the bed to write worries down before you sleep so they aren’t in your head. Find out what works for you.
You or your partner may have their favourite sleeping position. It may be quite normal or even a little weird. The most important thing is that you are comfortable and able to sleep, of course, but you should consider whether your sleeping position is helping or hindering your health. You are usually in that position for between 6 and 8 hours per night so you should adapt your sleeping position if necessary. If you have a health complaint, who knew just lying on your left side might help?