Plus the one essential rule for better shuteye…

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It’s fair to say that Matthew Walker  is as close to a sleep guru as it gets. As Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, he knows a thing or two about nodding off. Here he shares the latest research and wisdom on how workouts and what you eat can impact on the quality and quantity of sleep you get, plus his one essential commandment for catching some z’s...

“For those of us who are not suffering from insomnia  or another sleep disorder, there is much we can do to secure a far better night of sleep using what we call good “sleep hygiene” practices, for which a list of twelve key tips can be found at the National Institute of Health website (US). 

All twelve suggestions are superb advice, but if you can only adhere to one of these each and every day, make it: going to bed and waking up at the same time of day no matter what. It is perhaps the single most effective way of helping improve your sleep, even though it involves the use of an alarm clock.

That said, two of the most frequent questions I receive from members of the public regarding sleep betterment concern exercise and diet. Sleep and physical exertion have a bidirectional relationship. Many of us know of the deep, sound sleep we often experience after sustained physical activity, such as a daylong hike, an extended bike ride, or even an exhausting day of working in the garden. Scientific studies dating back to the 1970s support some of this subjective wisdom, though perhaps not as strongly as you’d hope. One such early study, published in 1975, shows that progressively increased levels of physical activity in healthy males results in a corresponding progressive increase in the amount of deep NREM sleep (dreamless sleep) they obtain on subsequent nights. In another study, however, active runners were compared with age and gender matched non-runners. While runners had somewhat higher amounts of deep NREM sleep, it was not significantly different to the non-runners.

Larger and more carefully controlled studies offer somewhat more positive news, but with an interesting wrinkle. In younger, healthy adults, exercise frequently increases total sleep time, especially deep NREM sleep. It also deepens the quality of sleep, resulting in more powerful electrical brainwave activity. Similar, if not larger, improvements in sleep time and efficiency are to be found in midlife and older adults, including those who are self-reported poor sleepers or those with clinically diagnosed insomnia.

Sleep may have more of an influence on exercise than exercise has on sleep.

Typically, these studies involve measuring several nights of initial baseline sleep in individuals, after which they are placed on a regimen of exercise across several months. Researchers then examine whether or not there are corresponding improvements in sleep as a consequence. On average, there are. Subjective sleep quality improves, as does total amount of sleep. Moreover, the time it takes participants to fall asleep is usually less, and they report waking up fewer times across the night. In one of the longest manipulation studies to date, older adult insomniacs were sleeping almost one hour more each night, on average, by the end of a four-month period of increased physical activity.

Unexpected, however, was the lack of a tight relationship between exercise and subsequent sleep from one day to the next. That is, subjects did not consistently sleep better at night on the days they exercised compared with the days when they were not required to exercise, as one would expect. Less surprising, perhaps, is the inverse relationship between sleep and next-day exercise (rather than the influence of exercise on subsequent sleep at night). When sleep was poor the night prior, exercise intensity and duration were far worse the following day. When sleep was sound, levels of physical exertion were powerfully maximal the next day. In other words, sleep may have more of an influence on exercise than exercise has on sleep.

Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker

It is still a clear bidirectional relationship, however, with a significant trend toward increasingly better sleep with increasing levels of physical activity, and a strong influence of sleep on daytime physical activity. Participants also feel more alert and energetic as a result of the sleep improvement, and signs of depression  proportionally decrease. It is clear that a sedentary life is one that does not help with sound sleep, and all of us should try to engage in some degree of regular exercise to help maintain not only the fitness of our bodies but also the quantity and quality of our sleep. Sleep, in return, will boost your fitness and energy, setting in motion a positive, self-sustaining cycle of improved physical activity (and mental health).

One brief note of caution regarding physical activity: try not to exercise right before bed. Body temperature can remain high for an hour or two after physical exertion. Should this occur too close to bedtime, it can be difficult to drop your core temperature sufficiently to initiate sleep due to the exercise-driven increase in metabolic rate. Best to get your workout in at least two to three hours before turning the bedside light out (none LED-powered, I trust).

Severe caloric restriction makes it harder to fall asleep normally, and decreases the amount of deep sleep you get.

When it comes to diet, there is limited research investigating how the foods you eat, and the pattern of eating, impact your sleep at night. Severe caloric restriction, such as reducing food intake to just 800 calories a day for one month, makes it harder to fall asleep normally, and decreases the amount of deep NREM sleep at night.

What you eat also appears to have some impact on your nighttime sleep. Eating a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet for two days decreases the amount of deep NREM sleep at night, but increases the amount of REM sleep dreaming, relative to a two-day diet low in carbohydrates and high in fat . In a carefully controlled study of healthy adult individuals, a four-day diet high in sugar and other carbohydrates, but low in fibre , resulted in less deep NREM sleep and more awakenings at night.

It is hard to make definitive recommendations for the average adult, especially because larger-scale epidemiological studies have not shown consistent associations between eating specific food groups and sleep quantity or quality. Nevertheless, for healthy sleep, the scientific evidence suggests that you should avoid going to bed too full or too hungry, and shy away from diets that are excessively biased toward carbohydrates (greater than 70 percent of all energy intake), especially sugar .”

How an insomniac finally broke the sleeplessness cycle

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, Allen Lane, RRP £20,  buy it now

Follow Matthew on Twitter  @sleepdiplomat