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Better Sleep for Health of Self

Health Care 15 Oct, 2022 Follow News

Better Sleep for Health of Self

By Andrew Vincent MBA DipM Director, Integra Healthcare Ltd

The song begins that “the best things in life are free” but I’d like to offer a minor adjustment to “the best things FOR life are free” and perhaps the most universally accessible and cost-free of those is sleep. The health benefits of sleep are literally astounding – the ultimate health supplement, with no purse or wallet required.

So, just why is it that I am sat here, late at night, with a non-decaf coffee, looking at a screen, as I tap out this week’s article? It’s almost as though I am going out of my way to undermine the very best opportunity I have for better health for self. What’s more, sleep is a pastime that is almost universally loved, so I can’t even use the “I hate running” argument to explain away my counterintuitive behaviour. There is a reason though, and we’ll come to that shortly.

So, what has sleep ever done for me?

Well, from my earliest days it assisted my healthy growth. Sleep duration and quality has long been known to contribute to growth spurts in infants, mediated through the release of human growth hormone (hGH). Perhaps I wasn’t such a great sleeper then, having reached the not so lofty height of only 5 foot 7 inches. But as an adult, hGH still plays a role and it is still mediated through sleep, even though I’m still not going to break through my low personal ceiling.

The onset and then quality of sleep affects the release of hGH and when we understand the role of hGH, we can easily see why we might want to take sleep seriously. Growth hormone contributes to healthy muscle, how and where our bodies collect fat, for instance around the stomach area, the ratio of high density to low density lipoproteins in our cholesterol levels and our bone health. It’s also needed for normal brain function and markedly affects normal metabolism. As I look at my figure, one that isn’t blown over so easily in a storm, I can’t help but wonder if my sleep pattern needs attention.

So, what else does sleep do for me?

Well, with varying degrees of evidence base, there is fairly common agreement that sleep contributes to no less than the following:

• Blood sugar regulation through its impact on insulin

• Heart health through the lowering of heart rate and blood pressure

• Appetite suppression through release of the hormone leptin, and suppression of another caller ghrelin

• Reduction in stress, along with improvement in mood

• Healthy immune systems, better able to fight infections

With that set of benefits, if sleep was a supplement, we’d be spending a fortune on it. And yet it is free. And now here I am looking at my range of mid-life health grumbles wondering if it’s proper sleep I need, not pills and potions ironically for some of the above. Which returns us to the question of why we are prepared to spend a fortune fixing our health whilst ignoring perhaps life’s greatest value freebie?

And that’s a behavioural issue. Overcoming a simple behavioural trap is in fact the ultimate key to better health for self, and many other life benefits too. It’s called present-bias and results in most of us discounting benefits that are not immediately visible or present, as well as being overly concerned or influenced by the consequences of the immediate future. In my case, wanting to avoid the failure of late delivery of this article, tomorrow, results in me burning the midnight oil rather than snuffing out that flame in favour of my future wellbeing through sleep.

It’s a conundrum we must revisit too. The well-meaning advice of most health practitioners has to fight this bias if it is to stand any chance of success. And this is especially true in the domain of better health, because almost every benefit lies in the future, and every barrier (or excuse) is right here in the now. Fortunately for me, with the very immediate fear of busting my word count, I am behaviourally compelled to now engage in that most beneficial of health investments, sleep. And with that, a good night.

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