Sleep your way to better health

A good night’s sleep provides a range of health benefits for the brain and the rest of the body.

09 May 2018

Many of us tend to underrate sleep. It may surprise, but retirees still need, on average, eight hours sleep each night.

A good night’s sleep provides a range of health benefits for the brain and the rest of the body.

A good night's sleep triggers several beneficial restorative health effects for ageing well. That’s why it’s an important aspect of your Vitality Plan. Professor Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist at Oxford University is a strong advocate of the health benefits of a good night’s sleep. Professor Foster says that sleep allows certain genes, which only ‘turn on’ when we sleep, to perform their special restorative work. Furthermore, Professor Foster tells us that brain processing occurs when we sleep, which allows our brains to consolidate our memory and find novel ways to solve complex problems.

In other words, a good night’s sleep allows your brain to work for you while you sleep.

Sleep does wonders within our brain for our concentration, attention, decision-making and for our creativity. Without it we suffer mood change, stress, anger impulsiveness, and we also crave stimulants such as caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Alcohol does not provide restorative sleep, it sedates and slows the repair systems of the brain.

The benefits of sleep extend to the rest of our body too. A good night’s sleep will also reduce your risk of other health problems, including weight gain, inflammation, reduced immunity, increased blood pressure and gastrointestinal issues. You have a 50% increased likelihood of obesity if you sleep only 5 hours a night, says Professor Foster, because it increases your hunger for sugar, leading to increased blood glucose levels and greater risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Lack of sleep causes "gut leakiness" in mice.  A recent study found that a mutation in the gene for circadian rhythm led to "leaky guts", increased weight and advanced alcohol induced fatty liver disease. If confirmed in humans, this has important implications for many diseases.

Yet many of us find seven to eight hours sleep each night difficult to achieve. As we age, many traps cause our sleep to fragment, such as our decrease in production of melatonin. But sleep remains an important part of our biology as we age.

Many health issues affect older people's sleep for example pain, anxiety, depression, dementia, reflux, getting up in the night and sleep apnea. It useful to address any change in your sleep requirements and very important in the case of sleep apnea to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Medications can cause sleep problems. Anti-arrhythmics, beta blockers, corticosteroids, diuretics, serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, a common drug used to treat depression) and drugs for hypothyroidism (if in too high a dose) are all examples of drugs that can affect sleep. (More details here.)

Some foods can cause wakefulness. Histamine has been described as the wakefulness molecule in our body. Hereditary factors mean that people vary in their ability to tolerate histamine. If you find that sometimes you are alert when you should be getting to sleep, think about whether you have eaten chocolate, aged cheeses, alcoholic beverages, fish sauce, soy sauce, fermented foods, walnuts, cashews, avocadoes or foods containing preservatives. These foods may be making it difficult for you to get adequate restful sleep. Consuming these foods (high in histamine) to keep awake can have harmful effects on the body. Read here for more information.

Tips for a better sleep include daily exercise, retiring and waking at regular times each day, not eating dinner just before bedtime, taking time away from the TV and other technology to relax before bedtime. Some find it useful to have lower lighting at least half an hour before bed and having a cool environment and bedding.

‘This article has been reproduced with permission from Gabrielle Leahy of Retire & Flourish Pty Ltd’

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