Why good quality sleep is important and how to get more of it

Justin Jones Justin Jones Professional Head of Physiology at Nuffield Health
We all know sleep is vital for our physical and mental health. While duration is key, with the sweet spot being around 7-8 hours, sleep quality is often overlooked. Justin Jones, Head of Physiology at Nuffield Health, explains how poor-quality sleep can affect us, and what you can do to improve your sleep.

Having the opportunity to see family and friends over the summer has been a welcome change, but feeling tired and lethargic can dampen celebrations and gatherings.

Most of us have had the odd night of disturbed sleep for one reason or another, but now more and more of us are experiencing disrupted sleep.

The pandemic has caused a huge amount of anxiety for many over the past 18 months, from health fears and job worries, to home-schooling struggles and loneliness, all of which can keep you up at night. Changes in habits haven’t helped – many people are working and sleeping at different hours, which can in turn upset circadian rhythms.

In fact, COVID-19-related insomnia is a Venn diagram of connected vicious circles. Along with the insomnia-causes-stress-causes-more-insomnia cycle, these can include: sleeping in the day, odd meal times, increased alcohol and weight gain.

And even if you're regularly getting your nightly quota, you may still wake up feeling lethargic and tired, relying on coffee, and wishing the day away so you can get your head down again. If so, there's a good chance your sleep quality needs some work.

The impact of poor quality sleep

Going for long periods of time with poor sleep quality can disrupt metabolism, hormone regulation and growth and repair. This can lead to serious health conditions:

  • Obesity: During sleep, your body regulates the hormones which control your appetite. Two key ones are ghrelin, which makes us feel hungry, and leptin, which signals when we’re full. Poor sleep is associated with higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin, which can result in more calories being consumed and, over time, an increase in weight
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure): While sleeping, your resting heart rate and blood pressure are lower, especially during the deeper stages of sleep. Therefore, the worse you sleep, the longer your heart has to work harder
  • Diabetes: Insulin is a hormone that helps control blood glucose levels. Both reduced sleep quality and quantity has been shown to lower insulin sensitivity, making it harder for your body to regulate blood glucose levels, which can lead to diabetes
  • Immunity: Your immune system is strengthened during deep sleep. So if you’re failing to get into the deeper stages of sleep, or not sleeping for long enough, it can lead to reduced immunity
  • Accidents: Poor sleep doesn’t just affect your future health, there are immediate risks too. It’s been reported that work-related accidents cost the UK as much as £240 million per year. Also, driving while tired can be as dangerous as drunk driving, with fatigue being implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads
  • Work performance: A lack of sleep can lead to poor emotional regulation, stifled creativity, reduced memory formation and impaired problem solving, all of which are likely to impact your performance at work
  • Stress: Sleep deprivation can activate the body’s fight-or-flight response, which increases emotional arousal, making you feel on edge. This affects both physical and mental processes, placing the body under stress, while impacting energy levels and mood.

You can find out more about how poor sleep could be affecting your health here.

7 ways to improve your sleep quality

The good news is there are several simple things you can do to get a better night’s sleep:

  1. Stick to a routine: Aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time, even at the weekends. The more consistent you are, the more consistent your sleep will be. In fact, naturally waking up at the same time each day is a sign of good sleep health
  2. Have a warm bath: Soaking in the tub before bed increases your body temperature, but the subsequent cooling down afterwards is a strong signal to the body that it’s night time and that you should get ready to sleep
  3. Control the room temperature: 16 to 18°C is considered an ideal bedroom temperature, so try to control this as best you can. With the summer months approaching, consider a fan if your bedroom gets too hot. Plus, the white noise it produces can help light sleepers
  4. Avoid alcohol and caffeine: Most of us know that a cup of coffee might not be great for sleep health, but some turn to alcohol because they think a nightcap will help them to nod off. In fact, alcohol actually impairs our ability to cycle efficiently through the stages of sleep where we have the greatest physical and mental restoration
  5. Improve your work-life balance: Try to keep the bedroom a space for sleeping. Aim to disconnect from work emails, calls and texts between certain hours and/or at weekends. With more and more people working from home, research suggests that those who work from their bedroom are more likely to have disturbed sleep than those working from a dedicated office space
  6. Reduce lighting: For an hour or so before bed, avoid bright lights, turn down the brightness and use night mode on your phone, and restrict other light-emitting devices such as TVs and computers. Light tells the body that it’s daytime, so if you’re getting too much before you sleep, you’ll reduce your production of melatonin – the hormone that makes you sleepy
  7. Exercise regularly: Moderate-intensity exercise, which finishes at least 90 minutes before bed, can improve sleep health while resetting the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Try to avoid HIIT-based exercise prior to sleep as this increases heart rate and adrenaline, affecting your ability to fall asleep.

Read more tips on maintaining healthy sleep during the pandemic here.

References

Human factors/ergonomics - Fatigue
In Brief: Your Guide to Healthy Sleep
How to get to sleep
Waking up to the health benefits of sleep
Survey reveals the mental and physical health impacts of home working during COVID-19
Sleep and Recovery: A toolkit for employers
How Does Lack of Sleep Effect Cognitive Impairment?
Driving While Drowsy Can Be As Dangerous As Driving While Drunk
What is Sleep Hygiene?

Last updated Monday 11 October 2021