How are you feeling today? Did you sleep ok? If the answers to these are ‘tired’ and ‘no’ then you can at least take small consolation in the fact that you are not alone. We are currently in the middle of a sleep deprivation epidemic. For over 3 million years, human beings slept as nature intended but since the 1940s this largely unchanged rhythm has suffered . Seventy years ago we slept the recommended average of 8 hours a night, that has now dropped signifigantly to 6.8 (1). This is a huge change considering this 8 hour average didn’t really shift one way or another for so long, and sadly, insomnia is only partially the cause. It’s not just that we have suddenly become unable to sleep, although many aspects of modern life do interfere with it, the sad truth is that we are generally not getting enough sleep because we simply do not prioritise it enough. And the effects on an individual and global level are profound.
In his excellent thesis, called ‘Why We Sleep’ Matthew Walker(2) lists off the numerous benefits of a good night’s sleep and whilst some are obvious and easily explained, others are frankly remarkable.
Firstly, one of the major benefits to a consistant good night’s sleep is better brain function. Your memory, motor skills, concentration, and learning ability are all massively affected by sleep. The reason for this is because sleep, particularly non-REM sleep (the deep sleep in which dreams are absent) serves as a kind of computer hard drive. Anything you’ve done, learned or practised during the day gets shifted from the short term to long term memory. As an example of this, think of the last time you were stuck on a problem that maybe you were working on late into the evening but no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t seem to crack it. You then return to the problem after a good night’s sleep and the solution is obvious. I can’t even count the amount of times this has happened to me: from studying for my GCSE’s to writer’s block on these very blogs! A good night’s sleep has almost always shown me a light in the fog of confusion. So for anyone thinking of chopping their sleep because of work projects (especially if creativity is involved) you are actually working against yourself. Einstein famously slept for ten hours a night, perhaps there’s something in that!
Secondly, numerous studies have linked weight gain and sleep deprivation. There are many reasons for this but the main one seems to be linked to two hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is released into the brain as we eat to tell us we are full, ghrelin the opposite – it is gradually released as we get hungrier sending signals to the brain to eat. Sleep deprivation, even for a single night has been shown to disrupt both these hormones – stunting leptin production whilst stimulating ghrelin production. Interestingly, studies on obese individuals have shown that these two hormones are constantly imbalanced with less leptin being produced and more ghrelin. So, unlike when a normal – weight individual eats and the light is switched off on their hunger, with obese people it is more like that hunger is constantly kept on a dimmer switch due to this hormonal inbalance because leptin levels never reach optimum and ghrelin is being over-produced. A good night’s sleep helps to ensure a good balance between these hunger dictators. Imagine, you’re sleep deprived with decision – making abilities impaired, AND your hunger hormones are nipping at you all day long – not difficult to see how sleep and weight management are linked.
As if that wasn’t enough; other hormones start to play up too, namely cortisol and insulin and, unfortunately, both these hormones have a major role to play in the development of diabetes. Cortisol is oten called the ‘stress hormone’ and a build up of it can cause fat gain, especially around the waist, which is one of the major risk factors for developing the disease. Insulin is released in released in response to sugar entering the bloodstream: in a healthy individual, this sugar is mopped up and shuttled into cells in the liver and muscles to be used as energy. With sleep deprivation, this process is much more likely to misfire; instead of the sugar being mopped up in this manner, the cells form a kind of barrier to block it out leaving it with nowhere to go other than hang around and cause problems! As your cells become more and more insulin resistant, your risk of developing diabetes sky rockets. Combine this with the fact that a sleep – deprived individual is far more likely to be snacking on high sugar products, leading to more and more insulin needing to be released, then you have a very dangerous environment in the body.
So from an individual, physical perspective, we can see that sleep is essential to both brain and body. And you don’t need me to tell you exactly how a lack of sleep can affect your mood too! From a wider perspective, a lack of sleep has been linked to numerous mental disorders such as schizophrenia and pyschosis and degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinsons and Alzheimers in the long term (Walker). It is also implicated in over 100,000 road deaths a year in the US and a terrifying experiment has shown that 6 hours or less of sleep per night over the course of 11 nights showed the same level of driving impairment as being legally drunk. The same is true if you have been awake for more than 19 hours (Walker.) As a society and around the world, the lack of priority we are giving to our sleep is literally killing us. Be it by totally avoidable accidents, development of dangerous or degenerative mental conditions or simply our physical health: sleep deprivation is a chief culprit in totally aviodable suffering.
If that wasn’t enough to motivate you, how about a pay rise? It is within the cutthroat corporate world where sleep is most de-prioritised in favour of long hours to earn more money, both for oneself and to meet the demands of the company. As it turns out – these numbers simply do not add up. Economists Matthew Gibson and Jeffrey Shrader examined how sleep correlated with pay and discovered that those sleeping an extra hour above the average made in the region of 4-5% more money(3). The RAND Corporation estimated the sleep deprived worker to be costing the UK economy around $40 billion a year (4).
The cost of this global lack of sleep, both in terms of our health and productivity needs to be reversed or the consequences will get ever more dire: obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, stress, hypertension, impaired learning, memory loss, Alzheimers disease, car crashes, avoidable accidents (I’ve watched enough Air Crash Investigation to know that there have been several plane crashes attributed to pilot fatigue!) , billions in lost revenue…are just the tip of the iceberg of individual and social problems that can be traced back to a lack of sleep. So many problems that need to be tackled on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to start. So, I’ll start at the top and work my way down.
Culturally, we undoubtedly need to change our attitudes. Governments and employers need to stop seeing sleep deprivation as a badge of honour and, conversely, a good night’s sleep as a sign of weakness or laziness. I have worked with so many clients convinced that they ‘only need 5 or 6 hours a night’ and then quote Margaret Thatcher’s infamous claim that she slept only 4 hours a night as a counter – argument to my insistence on prioritising sleep. Firstly, I would say that it has been shown in trial after trial, over and over again that this simply is not true and that after just one night of sleeping six hours or less your body and brain are already becoming significantly impaired. Just because you believe it’s all you need because you’re managing to function on it does not mean you aren’t already handicapping yourself mentally and physically. Being used to operating impaired is not the same as being at your best. And what’s more, I have seen the benefits that those clients experience when they start to prioritise sleep: they get stronger, feel healthier, make better food choices and then concede that they were merely getting by previously whereas now they feel like they are thriving. Ultimately, this leads to improved quality of life and better performance everywhere – including the workplace. Secondly, without wishing to be unkind,Mrs T was hardly the most even – tempered of individuals and lived with dementia punctuated by the occasional stroke for virtually the last decade of her life. More and more data is coming out in support of an opposing idealogy – that better workers are well-rested workers: they are more efficient, make more money, are more creative and generally more pleasant to be around. Seeing the stressed – out sleep deprived worker doing a 14 hour day as some kind of hero needs to change: they’re not, they are inefficient, and very likely doing so many hours because it’s taking them twice as long to do the tasks that their well-rested co-workers are doing!
But before we even get into the workplace, it would also be prudent to invest on an educational level. At school, I had lessons on the importance of good nutrition and exercise, basic as they were, but zero on the importance of sleep. And I’d be willing to bet that, regardless of the age of my reader, they would tell me the same thing. Yes, diet and exercise are vital pillars of good health but sleep is just as, if not more, important. If we teach children from a young age more about the importance of sleep, they are more likely to grow up with the same truths about the importance of sleep as so many of us did about the importance of diet and exercise. If we hope to see a cultural change in the next 20 years then the best way to do that is to educate tomorrow’s adults today.
But it’s on an individual level that we can truly make the change. It’s only via individuals that society changes attitudes and if you decide today that you are going to give greater priority to sleep then that is how the change will cascade. So, what to do to give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep?
1: Most importantly: give yourself the window to sleep. If you’re going to bed at 12 and have your alarm set for 6 then you’ve already lost the battle. Go to bed with 8 hours on the clock (7.5 is a minimum for me – sometimes I have to be at work til 8pm and back in for 630am, meaning I have to be up for 5:15. On these occasions it’s hard for me to be in bed before 9:45 but I make sure it’s no later!) Eight hours on the clock is no guarentee of eight hours slept true, but 6 hours IS a guarentee that you will not.
2: Get a bedtime routine to help you wind down. A hot bath will help to lower your body’s core temperature (more on this in point 3) reading a book for half an hour before bed will also help. Whatever you do, it should be relaxing and for the love of God put the phones and tablets away! Both of these devices emit blue light which severely interferes with the body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Literally the worst thing you can be doing before bed is scrolling through Facebook or checking your emails. Minimal light sends messages to your circadian rhythm that it is time to sleep (one reason why so many of us struggle to sleep in summer – but I’ll come to that in a minute…)
3: Turn your bedroom into a cave: cool, silent and dark. No phones, tablets or TVs. If you must have your phone for an alarm make sure it’s in a case and on silent. Set the alarm earlier in the evening so you’re not fiddling about with it late at night. Use earplugs to block out any noise (I’m quite a light sleeper so find this absolutely invaluable – if you find yourself frequently waking during the night then this could be potentially just what you need.) Use blackout blinds, especially in summer when the sun’s coming up at 4am! And, if necessary a sleep mask too. Most importantly though, keep your bedroom cool, ideally between 16-18 degrees. As stated in point one, our body’s core temperature needs to drop for us to sleep well. Heavy quilts and warm bedrooms work against this. Opening a window or using a fan might seem counter – productive to keeping the room quiet but hopefully this is where the earplugs earn their money! I’m certain that everybody reading this can remember a night that they couldn’t sleep because ‘it was just too hot’. It’s not just the mental discomfort of heat keeping you awake, excess heat is a physiological barrier too.
4: One a bit out of left – field here but I’ve found it very useful with stressed – out clients. Keep a gratitude log. Often, if we’ve had a hectic, stressful day the first chance we get to reflect is when we go to bed and inevitably our mind will turn to work or family related matters that are putting us in completely the wrong frame of mind for sleep. We need to be relaxed, not worried! Keeping a gratitude log, reminding ourselves of the positives in our lives rather than getting anxious over relatively minor worries helps to put us in a more relaxed and peaceful frame of mind. Keep it specific to you: what made you smile today? What did you achieve? Who enriched your day? Kept often enough, on those days when you really don’t feel you can write anything (because let’s face it – we all have those days!) you can re – read it instead. You could use it as part of the relaxation ritual in point 2. If you find yourself ruminating on today or fretting about tomorrow, it might just be invaluable.
5: One as yet unproven, but one I stand by nontheless. Use a magnesium supplement. Magnesium is simultaneously hugely important and hugely deficient in human beings and sleep function and quality is one of over 300 biochemical reactions that it is responsible for. The general poor soil quality of the 21st century means we simply cannot obtain the magnesium we need from our diets and every client I’ve worked with has found that their sleep length and quality has improved as a result of using it. Don’t get me wrong, points 1-4 are the most important if you are suffering from a lack of sleep but a lack of magnesium may well be the missing piece of the puzzle.
6: Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine: a few drinks once in a while won’t hurt but alcohol interferes with the body’s sleep mechanisms in myriad ways. It’s not just dehydration causing that hangover, it’s poor quality sleep. Caffeine is obvious and I personally have found that stopping drinking coffee 11 hours before bed has improved my sleep quality. Nicotine is also a stimulant and there are so many good reasons to stop smoking that I really don’t need to go into that here.
7: Don’t binge sleep. This is the term given to the habit of cutting your sleep short in the week to ‘catch up’ with lie – ins on the weekend. Our bodies don’t care if it’s Saturday or Wednesday – their circadian rhythm remains the same. Unlike most other aspects of health and fitness, which are far more dependant on behaviour over weeks and months, sleep deprivation can be detrimental over just a single night. ‘Catching up’ doesn’t help to repair the damage and will perpetuate the existing problem because if you get up at 11am on Sunday but need to be up for work for 7am on Monday, you are unlikely to feel tired enough to be in bed by 11pm on Sunday evening and thus begins another week of chasing your sleepy tail!
8: Finally, be consistant. Don’t implement a few of these points some of the time. Get into a habit so it becomes as natural to you as breathing. Nature spent 3.4 million years perfecting this remarkable function for us and we’ve managed to make a mess of it in the last 70. Get your sleep back – it’s as important as what you eat and how you move – indeed it is a dictator of these other pillars – and if you are truly concerned with being in the best of health, it is something you will proritise.
2: Walker, Matthew ‘Why We Sleep’