Why You Should Prioritise Sleep and How to Do It

 

Life today is fast, and as far from natural as we can imagine. The thought of running off with the tribe to search for a catch or sitting around preparing and chatting with the foragers seems more like a day at a retreat than real life. Prioritising sleep often takes a back seat to other seemingly more urgent tasks. But what does it mean to prioritise something? To prioritise means to treat something as more important than other things. This feels like a patronising statement to write, but when I heard Jay Shetty speak about prioritising sleep and saying he turns down anything – ANYTHING – that would affect his sleep routine, I remembered that prioritise doesn’t mean do it when you can. It means to  allocate time and resources to ensure you address the most critical aspect of your life first. I believe, after a home and warm enough clothing, we should all prioritise three things – sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Fundamental pillars of health that we should prioritise to maintain and enhance well-being.

 

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Drawing from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we understand that our basic physiological needs are the foundation of our ability to achieve higher levels of personal growth and fulfilment. Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid, with the most basic needs at the bottom. The base of this pyramid consists of physiological needs like food, water, warmth, and rest. Only when these foundational needs are met can we move on to higher needs, such as safety, love, esteem, and ultimately self-actualisation. So, when someone comes to me to remedy a problem, the first thing I need to know is that sleep, nutrition, and exercise are all prioritised. Because – if you believe in Maslow’s theory – how can anyone move beyond this if not?

 

The Importance of Sleep

 

Taken from Matthew Walker's How We SleepSleep is a vital process your body requires every 24-hour period. Sleep experts recommend adults give themselves a sleep opportunity of 7-9 hours of sleep each night. This sleep opportunity ensures your body can go through the necessary cycles to rejuvenate and repair itself. But what exactly happens during sleep, and why do we need it so much? Like I write so regularly about feelings, all stages of sleep offer different benefits to the brain. Each type of sleep is necessary and valid. Missing out on any type of sleep will negatively affect your brain and therefore your body.

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During sleep, your body undergoes several essential processes. Below I mention just a few:

 

Memory and Learning: When you learn something new, your brain stores it in the hippocampus. However, this part of your brain only has a small capacity. The brain moves these memories into the cortex – the bigger long-term storage with sleep spindles produced during stage 2 NREM sleep. Without these sleep spindles, your brain cannot complete this process, so you go about life with a full hippocampus, unable to take in more information.

Interestingly, people aged 60 – 80 years old find it harder to generate the sleep spindles required for this process. The greatest concentration of these spindles is richest in the late morning hours sandwiched between long periods of REM sleep, according to Matt Walker of the book Why We Sleep. If you sleep for less than six hours, you’re not giving your brain the full opportunity to fulfil this process.

 

The Glymphatic System: is a crucial mechanism in the brain that plays a significant role during sleep. The glymphatic system is a network of channels in the brain that serve as a waste clearance pathway. The primary purpose of the glymphatic system is to remove metabolic waste products and other toxins from your brain, which accumulate during waking hours. Some of these toxins contribute to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Without the glymphatic system process, the toxins build up and put you at greater risk of cognitive decline. This process also happens during NREM sleep.

 

Therapy: REM sleep does not always involve dreaming. However, dreaming is important for certain brain processes. When you dream, your brain completely shuts off concentrations of the stress hormone noradrenaline (the brain’s version of adrenaline). When you dream about a particularly emotional event from the waking hours, your brain processes it without noradrenaline – so in a calm state. During this process, the brain strips the memory of emotions, leaving you free from trauma. This process does not work effectively in people with PTSD, because the amounts of noradrenaline are so high the brain cannot cut them off. It therefore cannot fulfil the process, and many people with PTSD report repeated dreaming of the event/s. The brain is trying and trying to fulfil its process.

 

Misreading People: During REM sleep, your brain resets the parts of the brain that accurately read emotions and expressions of faces. When you do not get enough REM sleep at night, your ability to do this weakens. In a research study, participants with deprived levels of REM sleep slipped into a default of fear bias. They viewed gentle and somewhat friendly faces as menacing. This makes the outside world feel more threatening and aversive – to an irrational extent.

 

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How to Prioritise Sleep

 

To prioritise sleep effectively, you need to make it #1 in your life and establish some healthy habits. Firstly, remember the sleep opportunity of 7 – 9 hours. To truly prioritise your sleep, you need to give yourself this every night. Rather than fitting sleep around life, make life fit around sleep. I recently learned about the 10-3-2-1-0 Sleep Rule:

 

10 hours before bed: Avoid caffeine. This allows your body enough time to clear the stimulant from your system. Caffeine has a half-life of 12 hours, so a cup of coffee at midday is like having half a cup of coffee at midday and another half cup at 6pm.

 

3 hours before bed: Avoid alcohol and large quantities of food. These can interfere with the quality of your sleep.

 

2 hours before bed: Avoid work. Allow your mind to wind down and relax.

 

1 hour before bed: Avoid screens (phones, tablets, computers, TV, LED lights). The blue light emitted disrupts your sleep cycle, because your brain thinks it is the sun and time to stay awake. Studies show your brain needs two hours without blue light to start producing melatonin. To really prioritise your sleep, avoid screens two hours before bed.

 

0: The number of times you should hit the snooze button in the morning. Get up at the same time every day to regulate your sleep patterns.

 

By prioritising sleep, you invest in your health and quality of life. Remember, you cannot improve other aspects of yourself without meeting your basic needs first. Sleep is not a luxury; it is a necessity. So, give yourself the gift of restful nights and wake up ready to conquer your days with renewed energy and clarity.

 

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Welcome to my website, a space where I try to catch your eye, and explain the heart of my practice.

My journey over 16 years has taught me that true knowledge isn’t about the letters after my name or the timeline of my academic pursuits. It’s about the stories shared, the moments of vulnerability, and the human connection that transforms both you and me. It’s holding space, listening intently, and noticing the patterns within your words and emotions.

Together, we can navigate the complexities of life, embracing both the shadow and the light. So, if you’re seeking more than just a quick fix, and ready to make lasting changes, you’re in the right place. Let’s embark on this journey together. Read more about my approach here.