Sleep is the foundation of overall health

Enough deep, restorative sleep is one of the most powerful tools available to us in our health toolkit, yet it’s so often compromised. Dr Maureen Allem expands on this.

To accommodate busy schedules, unrealistic deadlines and the pressures of society, we steal the hours from our sleep time, but it may well be one of the most detrimental decisions that we make.

Our busy lives require us to keep a whole lot of balls up in the air and with only 24 hours in a day, sleep is generally where we steal the extra hours from. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is a phrase commonly used, but the truth is that the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

Many are fooled by thinking that they can make up for lost sleep over the weekend after a week of late nights and early mornings.

Keeping a consistent schedule is best for the body, and fact is that you can throw your body off even more by trying to catch up on sleep, which can create a vicious cycle as it’s then harder to sleep during the week.

Sleep as a superpower

Sleep should be regarded as a personal superpower, and a lack thereof not at all negotiable. The physiological impact that sleep has on the body is spectacular, but it’s not only the number of hours that you spend in bed that counts, the quality of deep sleep is as important.

The body experiences different types of deep sleep before and after midnight, both which are very important. Therefore, consistently going to bed at a late hour can be detrimental to your health.

During the sleep stages the body goes through various processes, all of which are very important to optimise health. The first and second sleep stages are very light and combined can make up approximately 55% of total sleep.

The earlier hours of the night are generally when stage three deep sleep, also known as slow wave sleep, occurs. This stage is vital for detoxification processes, tissue repair, hormone balancing, immune regulation and more. This is one of the most important sleep stages, and at least 25% of total sleep is spent in this stage to ensure enough restorative, deep sleep.

During the later part of the night, we get more REM deep sleep, which is stage four of the sleep cycles. This phase is important for the processing and consolidation of memory, formation of new memories, learning, and more. This stage should ideally make up 20% of our total sleep time.

The vicious cycle

A high intake of refined sugar and carbohydrates causes inflammation in the body, and it’s known that high inflammation in the body causes restlessness, which in turn disturbs healthy sleep.

High inflammation means that the third stage of sleep is interrupted, and as this stage is important for the body to restore itself, insufficient stage three sleep is associated with high blood pressure, high blood glucose, insulin resistance and weight gain.

Due to this inability to restore blood glucose levels among others during this vital phase of sleep, sleep deprivation is linked to Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, congestive heart failure and even short-term memory loss, mood disorders and increased systemic inflammation to name but a few.

The lack of sleep causes havoc with energy levels, which in turn create cravings for high sugar and refined carbohydrates during the waking hours, which raises inflammation in the body and again disturbs the sleep processes. It becomes a vicious cycle that needs intentional intervention to start restoring blood glucose levels and healthy deep sleep. 

Optimising your health

Because it’s clear that blood glucose levels impact sleep and vice versa, managing both is crucial. As the body cycles through the different stages several times in the night, you should aim to get enough uninterrupted sleep to ensure that the right time is spent in all the different cycles.

To optimise sleep:

  • Establish a bedtime routine which includes going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends.
  • Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
  • Limit blue light entering your eyes by limiting the use of electronic devices at least two hours before bedtime. Blue light disrupts your internal body clock or circadian rhythm, and further blocks melatonin which balances cortisol.
  • Wind down an hour before bedtime by reading something spiritual, doing some pre-sleep meditation or practicing some deep-belly breathing.
  • Ensure that your room is completely dark, as even the smallest amount of light can disrupt the internal body clock, and in turn your pineal gland’s production of melatonin and serotonin.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol from midday, as both are known to disrupt sleep.

Stabilise blood glucose levels, which will in turn help with better sleep:

  • Eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrate from the diet.
  • Eliminate additives and tartrazine from the diet as it’s known to disturb sleep.
  • Eat smaller meals closer to bedtime.
  • Intermitted fasting between 14 and 16 hours can stabilise blood glucose levels, but should be done only in consultation with a medical practitioner.

Nothing stands in isolation

A holistic approach to health is required to maintaining optimal health. The Renewal Institute termed the five pillars of health as a guideline to ensure that all aspects of healthy living are addressed.

Pillar 1: Nutrition

Eating a well-balanced diet that consist of nutrient-rich foods is important to fuel the body. Correct supplementation goes hand in hand with a healthy diet, as not all the nutrients required are accessed through the food we consume.

Pillar 2: A healthy gut

The gut involves around seven to nine metres of digestive organs with a surface exposure area almost equivalent to a tennis court. Along this vast contact surface, we have hormones, bacteria and signals which have an impact on our overall health. Gut health needs to be optimised for improved digestion, bacterial balance, absorption of nutrients and elimination of toxic waste.

Pillar 3: Managing stress

In our modern lifestyles, we have become almost too accustomed to unnatural chronic stress exposure. This causes inflammation, increased oxidation or cell damage, hormone imbalances and stem cell and DNA damage.

Stress management techniques that are practiced regularly is essential for the body to reset, as chronic stress can disrupt cortisol levels, leading to weight gain and possibly disturbances.

Pillar 4: Healthy exercise

A sedentary lifestyle has been found to be as dangerous to our health as smoking. It’s important to find a regular activity routine that incorporates flexibility, aerobic exercise and strength training without over-stressing the body unnecessarily. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is particularly effective to level blood glucose levels.

Pillar 5: Sleep

Sleep optimisation forms the foundation for overall health. Quality is as important as quantity. Deep restorative sleep maximises the effect of all the other pillars previously addressed.

It’s important to note that no single pillar stands in isolation and that all contributes to a person’s health and well-being. If you are out of sync, it may very well impact the other, and therefore a holistically balanced lifestyle should be the aim.


Dr Maureen Allem is the founder and Medical Director of the Renewal Institute. She is a general practitioner with a special interest in aesthetic procedures and integrative and anti-ageing medicine.

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