Sleep tight


Sleep is one of the keys to all-round good health. A recent study suggests that Britain’s obesity crisis could be getting worse because people are not getting enough sleep. A poor night’s rest can increase the levels of hormones that make us crave more fatty and sugary foods

The mattresses on the king-size beds are the best that money can buy and the sheets are made from top-quality Egyptian cotton.

Blackout blinds cover the windows while the lights can be dimmed at the turn of a switch. Tasteful art adorns the walls and the decor is uber-stylish.

The new Centre for Sleep Research at Northumbria University (UK) boasts all the trappings of a luxury boutique hotel. Here in an environment that has been designed to create the ideal conditions for a good night's rest scientists are unlocking the secrets of sleep.

Good sleep allows the brain to rest and its cells to renew, leaving us feeling alert and refreshed in the mornings.

However it is estimated that a third of the adult population suffers from some symptoms of insomnia. Each year GPs write 10 million prescriptions for sleep medication costing £15 million. At the centre in Newcastle insomniacs are studied for up to three days at a time.

While they sleep in the two-bedroom apartment, which also has a kitchen and living area with the latest pull-down television screens, they are connected wirelessly to a nearby control room. Every aspect of sleep including brain activity, muscle movements and breathing patterns can be monitored and studied.

"To get the most accurate results we wanted relaxed conditions which are as close as possible to the best natural environment for good sleep rather than just putting beds in a lab," explains Dr Nicola Barclay, associate director of the centre.

"There are vast individual differences in how each of us sleeps and we are trying to assess these. We hope we can understand more about sleep disorders and their causes. "Because we have created a complete living area we are also able to study people over a longer period to really capture the nature of their sleep."

Sleep is one of the keys to all-round good health. A recent study suggests that Britain's obesity crisis could be getting worse because people are not getting enough sleep. A poor night's rest can increase the levels of hormones that make us crave more fatty and sugary foods, according to research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Another new study at the University of Warwick reports that people who sleep fewer than six hours a night are more likely to die before the age of 65 than those who sleep for longer.

Poor sleep has also been linked to heart attacks, strokes and depression. At the centre, which opened its doors for trials in March last year, scientists have been looking at sleep genes.

It is thought that our family history along with our surroundings plays a role in sleep quality. Scientists believe there are a group of inherited sleep genes which make us more or less likely to enjoy a restful night.

"Some people could have a predisposition to insomnia, which can be triggered by something in our environment or daily lives, such as stress," says Dr Barclay.

The researchers have also discovered that the brain is much more active during sleep than previously thought and has the ability to block out sudden sounds to prevent us waking.

To test this, a range of sounds has been played through earphones to gauge what types of noise can be tolerated during sleep. A dripping tap, cats fighting and a thunderstorm have all been put to the test.

Dr Barclay adds: "When we sleep we might think that to a certain extent the brain switches off but that's not the case."

Darkness is another key factor in sleep. The hormone melatonin which helps sleep is inhibited by natural and artificial light.

So it is important to invest in good quality curtains or blinds. Watching television or using a computer immediately before bedtime can also disrupt sleep. Many of us make the mistake of having our bedrooms too hot, says Dr Barclay.

As we sleep the body cools naturally so leaving on the central heating or your electric blanket can be disruptive. Have different duvets appropriate for the time of year. Spend as much as you can on pillows which support the neck and a good quality mattress. Don't forget to replace them after a few years.

The burning question about sleep is how much is ideal? Most of us need between seven and eight hours but it is just as important to focus on the quality of sleep rather than time alone. 


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