Why Good Sleep Habits Are Essential For Health

It’s clear that good sleep patterns are a health essential, but with stress and disturbance on the increase, good habits are even more vital

Researchers are increasingly emphasising the importance of a good sleep routine to overall health. A study by the University of Notre Dame suggests that straying from your set bedtime by just a few minutes could increase your risk of heart disease, and recommends that you aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.

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Despite increasing awareness of how critical sleep is to our health, getting a good night’s rest remains increasingly difficult in a world that’s always “on” — responding to emails at all hours, news cycles that change with every tweet and staring endlessly into the blue light of cell phone, tablet and computers screens.

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Scientists have stressed the importance of healthy sleep habits, recommending at least seven hours each night, and have linked lack of sleep to an increased risk in numerous health conditions, including diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Resting Heart Rate

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame studied the correlation between bedtime regularity and resting heart rate (RHR) and found that individuals going to bed even 30 minutes later than their usual bedtime presented a significantly higher resting heart rate that lasted into the following day.

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“We already know an increase in resting heart rate means an increased risk to cardiovascular health,” said Nitesh Chawla, the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Notre Dame, director of the Center for Network and Data Science and a lead author of the study.

“Through our study, we found that even if you get seven hours of sleep a night, if you’re not going to bed at the same time each night, not only does your resting heart rate increase while you sleep, it carries over into the next day.”

Dr Chawla and his team analysed data collected via Fitbit health monitors from 557 college students over the course of four years. They recorded 255,736 sleep sessions — measuring bedtimes, sleep and resting heart rate. Significant increases in RHR were observed when individuals went to bed anywhere between one and 30 minutes later than their normal bedtime. Normal bedtime was defined as the one-hour interval surrounding a person’s median bedtime. The later they went to bed, the higher the increase in RHR. Rates remained elevated into the following day.

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Sleep session

Surprisingly, going to bed earlier than one’s standard bedtime also showed signs of increasing RHR, though it depended on just how early. Going to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual appeared to have little effect, while going to bed more than a half hour earlier significantly increased RHR. In cases of earlier bedtimes, however, RHR leveled out during the sleep session.
Circadian rhythms, medications and lifestyle factors all come into play when it comes to healthy sleep habits, but Dr Chawla said it’s vital to consider consistency as well.

“For some, it may be a matter of maintaining their regular ‘work week’ bedtime through the weekend,” he exlpained. “For shift workers and those who travel frequently, getting to bed at the same time each night is a challenge. Establishing a healthy bedtime routine — as best you can — is obviously step number one. But sticking to it is just as important.”

Dr Katharina Lederle is a human sleep and fatigue specialist who helps people improve their sleep and live their lives to the full. Katharina gained an MSc in Biosciences in Germany, then completed a PhD in Human Circadian Physiology & Behaviour (the human body clock) at the University of Surrey, looking at the effects of light on human sleep patterns.

Katharina is also trained in Mindfulness and Acceptance Commitment Therapy, which she uses in her work with insomnia clients. Based in London, she has worked with a number of sleep-centred organisations, including Clockwork Research where she advised national and international airlines, emergency helicopter services, petrochemical and mining companies around the world on sleep and fatigue.

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She also provides sleep consultancy services to a range of businesses, including The Sleep School and pharmaceutical companies. Katharina is co-founder of Somnia, an organisation that raises awareness about the importance of healthy sleep and provides one-to-one sessions, sleep workshops and educational talks helping people sleep well and feel good.

From her book Sleep Sense, Dr Lederle’s top tips for sleeping better are:

  • Don’t cut into your sleep time by staying up late, then having to use an alarm clock to wake. This means we are ‘burning the candle at both ends’ – shortening our sleep at both ends.
  • To sleep better and wake up more refreshed, make sure you go to sleep at the time right for you and for the duration you need. Sleeping (and being awake) at the times your internal body clock tells you will give you the best and most refreshing sleep.
  • Keep your sleep times regular. That means no long lie-ins on the weekend too! (If you have a late Friday night, an extra 30 minutes or one hour the next morning is ok, but no more. If you still feel tired have a 30 minute nap in the afternoon but before 3 pm. And go to bed 30 minutes earlier the following night.)
  • Have an active, healthy lifestyle and get 30 minutes of sunlight (ideally in the morning). It doesn’t matter if its overcast, the natural light will still be much brighter than your typical indoor lighting. You could also consider getting a light box to help brighten up your day, again, use it in the morning. A lunch time wake is also good thing to do.
  • If you consume caffeine, don’t have any after 3 pm. Otherwise it can negatively affect your sleep.
  • Take mini-breaks during the day and do something small you enjoy. By stepping back from everyday stressors this can help you relax. Why wait until the evening as the only relaxation time?
  • Having said that, find nice relaxing activities that only provide little stimulation during the evening. A gentle wind-down, dim the lights, and put away any LED device 60 minutes before you go to bed. Worried about what to do? Embrace the opportunity, that is your chance to find out what calming activity you might enjoy. Remind yourself of one thing you did today that brought you joy, that made you smile. Meditation exercises can help your mind and body relax, and gently let go of the day.
  • Have a welcoming bedroom. Decorate it in a style that you like so you feel comfortable and able to relax. Keep it dark and cool to help your sleep come naturally.
  • If you enjoy reading for a bit in bed, use a low light placed on the bedside table next to you.

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