The 3R’s – Rest, Repair, Recovery… the importance of Sleep

We’re deep into the pandemic now, and regardless of whether we’re in one or out of it – Sleep is important! Lack of it can have a severe physical and psychological impact on us as individuals, from changes in mood to more significant effects such as depression, anxiety and there are known links between Insomnia and mental health issues.

Sleep is Important
(Creepy photos of me sleeping however are not)

So I’m sure by now most of us have had a stress induced sleepless night, or a number of nights, or our usual rest and active cycle has been destroyed by the lack of routine [hands-up right here].

So why do we sleep?
There are a number of theories surrounding it but there was an article by Harvard Med (linked here) that described sleep in a way that made the most sense to me;

One way to think about the function of sleep is to compare it to another of our life-sustaining activities: eating.

Hunger is a protective mechanism that has evolved to ensure that we consume the nutrients our bodies require to grow, repair tissues, and function properly. And although it is relatively easy to grasp the role that eating serves— given that it involves physically consuming the substances our bodies need—eating and sleeping are not as different as they might seem.

Division of Sleep Medicine at
Harvard Medical School

Deprivation of sleep in this description equates it (and I know I personally need it as equally as I need refuelling) to starvation. It’s essential, and a number of important process (hence the 3Rs above) occur during sleep.

During our restful hours our bodies repair tissue, synthesise proteins, grow muscles, these have an impact on our ability to have a functional immune system, and therefore stay fit, healthy and functional. It’s more important than ever that we sleep – we need our immune system (which is negatively impacted by stress itself) to be given the strongest chance to fight infection.

As an everyday human the impact of lack of sleep is significant but it’s even more so in the body of an athlete, take note everyone who’s taken to a cray training routine to fill in their day, and also I know those feels! Athletes place themselves under stresses through intense training schedules and sustained endurance needs that their bodies need to have an opportunity to heal and repair. And it can have a huge impact on their performance (you can listen to Dr Cheri Mah discuss the topic in depth in this podcast). So how can you improve your sleep pattern…. here are my top tips for getting not just more, but better sleep during times of crisis (and everyday life when this pandemic is OVER);

  • Routine – I’m 34, and I have a bedtime, that may sound super nerdy but it works for me – my bedtime now is earlier than it was pre-pandemic, but I think that’s a combination of not having my usual ream of activities running late into the evening, and I’m trying to become a better morning person! It’s getting to the point where my body and brain actively know when it’s time to start winding down for bed. Give it a try for 10 days, and let me know how you get on!
  • Mindfulness/Breathing Exercises – I start my breathing exercises once I’m horizontal and most nights in my night time meditation (I use a sleep visualisation through fitbit) I never make it to the end and they’re around 20 minutes long so they clearly work – I also try to fit in a morning meditation upon waking as well.
  • No Caffeine after 3pm – This has been the hardest, but I’m starting to see the benefits. I had a real issue with waking and having restless nights, I would wake-up watch a season of Rick and Morty and then drift off again – this would repeat at least 3/4 times in the night. I attribute this behaviour stopping to the no caffeine rule and I was a 20 cups a day kinda gal!
  • Phones Off (Emergency only) – My phone does not ring, call, beep, vibrate or do anything to disturb me after 9pm, if it’s an emergency the folks who need to get in touch have my house number but mobile is dead to the world. We live in a world where people expect instant results – we don’t need to do this. It’s giving me a healthier relationship with social media scrolling and also means I get my beauty sleep without being woken by someone else suffering from insomnia messaging me because they can’t sleep!
  • No More Naps – This has been the hardest thing to break, if there was an olympic sport for Napping I’d win the gold medal. I have however found how much they have destroyed my ability to get proper restful sleep. Don’t get me wrong, after a heavy day at work I do sneak in a quick 30 minutes of what I like to call active rest – but I no longer take a nice little 3 hour nap anymore (and yes I know the irony of calling a 3 hour eyes closed spell a Nap). I set a timer and have ‘peaceful’ time, which is either spent listening to podcasts, or music in a horizontal position. There are benefits to napping, but right now getting my sleep pattern right is more important

So Sleep is important, at all times, but never more so than now – I’ve only really discovered the impact in the past few weeks, and introducing these small changes has had a quick and significant impact. It’s not perfect but it works for me… Hope you all are coping ok out there – See you on the other side!

Some Interesting Sleep Articles:
Altered sleep–wake cycles and physical performance in athletes; Reilly and Edwards 2007
Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students; Okano et al 2019
The impact of frequent napping and nap practice on sleep-dependent memory in humans; McDevitt et al 2018
Binge Viewing, Sleep, and the Role of Pre-Sleep Arousal; Exelmans 2017

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