Charlotte Willis shares some advice on the importance of getting good sleep.
I lose count of the people I speak to on a daily basis who tell me they are tired, exhausted or on the verge of nodding off during their next meeting. We are a nation of workaholics, do-aholics and always-on-the-go-aholics. Work emails ping to your phone, which never leaves your side even when relaxing. We never stop! But what about our body’s restorative mechanism? What impact does all this action and activity have upon our much lusted after 7-8 hours of sleep? Are we truly getting enough rest, and if so, is it the highest quality or the correct sort?
The science of circadian rhythms
For something so intrinsic and valuable in our lives, sleep is a phenomenon only recently beginning to be understood. Discoveries into how we fall asleep, what happens when we’re unconscious, and our body’s reaction to a reduction in sleep are questions we finally have the research capabilities to answer.
For example, it has recently been discovered that there is a dedicated sleep centre in the brain (the suprachiasmatic nucleus). This area of the brain contains 10,000 cells, each with an influence on our biological body clock using light sensation. It turns out that this bundle of brain cells helps to control almost every single other cell in the body, by providing them with their own 24 hour clock rhythm. Put simply, almost every single one of your body’s cells has its own bedtime (during which the cell is relatively inactive) and wake time (after which the cell is at its most active) based upon the time of day, affecting the different rates in metabolism and bodily functions over 24 hours. Pretty amazing stuff!
These internal body clocks are also known as circadian rhythms, and are directly affected by the amount of daylight and artificial light the body is exposed to. It’s like an internal self-timer or dimmer switch, telling us to feel sleepy in the evening and fuelling our cells when we require the most energy during the day.
The cycle of sleep
There’s a reason why we can’t function without sleep. This necessity is critical to our existence. Sleep allows our bodies to undergo important repair and restorative functions including muscle and bone repair, tissue growth, hormonal regulation and healing mechanisms. This cyclic rhythm of unconscious rest also helps to increase memory, aiding mental performance and reducing anxiety and stress.
During sleep, we travel through a series of cycles involving different levels (phases) of unconsciousness, with each complete cycle occurring 5-6 times per night. We begin with the transitional phase (phase 1), which is when we float in and out of nodding off. Here, we are likely to experience auditory hallucinations and jerky muscular movements.
You eventually slip into phase 2, which is the most frequently experienced phase of sleep. Here, body temperature and heart rate are low, eye movement is still, with the odd burst of movement known as sleep spindles.
Phases 3 and 4 are the deepest periods of sleep, in which you require a loud or sudden noise to be woken! During these phases brain waves are at their slowest, resulting in rhythmic, deep breathing. These phases are the most restorative as growth hormones are produced to help aid our recovery internally.
Phase 5, also known as REM sleep (rapid eye movement), is characterised by vivid dreams. In this phase, the body enters a state of muscle paralysis to prevent us acting out our dreams!
Too little? Too much?
I’m sure you’re aware of the dangers of getting too little sleep. Not only does it make you feel zombified, leaving you bleary eyed and lusting after a siesta, but a lack of sleep can have serious effects on your cardiovascular and immune health, while decreasing fertility and increasing the risk of diabetes and depression. However, too much sleep can be just as bad for us! Oversleeping for months on end, night after night, can result in the exact same symptoms.
It seems our bodies are accustomed to a healthy balance, and how much sleep we each require depends on a few factors, including activity
level and health conditions. However, the pivotal factor in determining sleep requirements is our age.
Age Suggested Sleep Hours
- 1-3 yrs – 12-14 hours
- 3-5 yrs – 11-13 hours
- 5-10 yrs – 10-11 hours
- 11-17 yrs – 8.5-9.5 hours
- 18+ yrs – 7-9 hours
Are you in sleep debt?
Picture this. A busy week at work, paired with a hectic social schedule. When life pulls us in every direction, sleep just seems like a necessary evil. You go to bed later than normal, and get about 5-6 hours per night, only to awaken groggy and foggy-headed for that 7am alarm. Losing out on just one hour of sleep every night for a week adds up. Cumulatively, you’ll have lost 7 hours over the week, the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter!
I was pretty shocked to find that about a third of the UK relies upon 5-6 hours of sleep or less per night. Speaking matter of fact, a third of us are technically classified as sleep deprived, or worse, exhausted! Sleep specialists refer to this as a state of sleep debt, and for many this occurs more often than we may think. As with financial debt, sleep debt should be repaid by making sleep repayments as soon as possible. There’s an overdraft limit, and pushing yourself deep into the red is never advisable.
Budgeting your bedtime balance
If you want to keep a check on your balance, try using a sleep app such as Sleep As Android and Sleep Cycle, or smart activity level trackers such as the BellaBeat or FitBit to measure the amount of sleep you get in one night. Or, if you’d prefer to keep it old school, simply make a note on the calendar or in your diary.
If you have an event coming up, or know you’re likely to be burning the midnight oil to a greater extent, listen to your body’s needs and make a decision to sleep smart. Try and squeeze in a post-work nap to cull fatigue after a long day. If the night before is leaving you feeling drained, opt to move tonight’s bedtime to an earlier time to catch up on shut-eye.
Sickness, illness recovery and sporting events push your recommended sleep hours higher. If you feel tired, chances are your body is trying to tell you something, and extra rest could end up saving you a day’s sick leave. When I consider the prevalence of stress, anxiety and work-induced depression amongst the general population, it’s easy to see how sleeplessness and the 24/7 lifestyle correlate. In fact, just under half of the UK adult population identify anxiety as the main cause of sleep disturbance. Worryingly, this rises to 53% in young adults and teenagers. All this said, how can we help ourselves get the best night’s sleep possible?
How many of us have been here? Lying in bed, making a mental list of things we have to do the next day. Planning, scheming, reflecting on the day and preparing for the day ahead. Worrying about this bill, stressing about that friend. Why is it that as soon as the body decides to rest, your mind decides otherwise? An over-active thought pattern can stimulate higher frequency brain waves, and result in your brain’s activity going into overdrive. STOP. Switch OFF.
One of the helpful things I’ve learnt studying mindfulness and anxiety prevention, is the power of clear thinking. Sounds simple. It’s really not. You can tell yourself until you’re blue in the face to stop thinking, but that simply won’t cut it. I’ve learnt that making physical lists before you go to bed is very cleansing and helps to prevent excessive concern. Make a note of any thoughts, to-dos, reflections and anything that stimulates your mind.
The most common way to unwind before bed? Watching TV of course. Even I am guilty of this, catching up on a good sit-com before turning out the light, there’s no doubt that I feel relaxed and calm. However, I always ensure to use a colour filter on my laptop and phone after sunset. Mad? No. More ingenious, I think you’ll find!
See, during the day we are exposed to blue light from screens, lights and from the world around us, signalling to our body that we are awake and it is daytime. Before technological advances, the sunset would act as an indicator to our biological clock, indicating the need for us to wind down and rest.
Our excessive use of technology can mean we are overstimulating our light-sensing neurons past their bedtimes! By using a blue light filter called flux on my laptop, and night mode on my phone, I am able to reduce my exposure. Ideally, you should aim to distance yourself from technology for around an hour before bed.
Time for bed
Experts in sleep will argue that the time you decide to go to sleep (providing you hit between 7-9 hours) is not as important as keeping this bedtime regular. Our bodies become accustomed to falling asleep and waking up at certain times of the day. If you’ve ever woken up 5 minutes before your regular alarm, this is why! Keeping to a regular schedule of waking and sleeping will help your body achieve optimum energy levels throughout the day.
A common mistake we all make is assuming our brains distinguish between lying on the bed studying/working and lying on the bed sleeping. Sadly, this is not the case! We are conditioned to associate our beds with intimacy and sleep, so why not keep it this way? By using your bed just for sleeping it helps to ensure the response to lying on the bed is relaxation, not stressing over an email or work Whatsapp!
The temperature of the bedroom should also be kept cooler, as body temperature naturally drops when we sleep. It also needs to be free from light, and as sound-proof as possible. If noise outside or next door is common, try using a white-noise machine (many apps are also available).