It’s got to be one of the most miserable feelings in the world. To have to struggle through another day of commitments, deadlines, parenting or other responsibilities on a poor night’s sleep. Maybe it’s waking at 4:30am, sleeping fitfully or not being able to get to sleep at all. If you’re sleep deprived you’ll quickly realise that sleep is the single most important aspect of your health and energy management. But just how much is enough?
Arguably more important than diet or exercise. Sleep deprivation damages the immune system, reduces cell repair and fertility and ultimately makes you more stressed.
Over a third of people in the UK do not get sufficient sleep. Britons spend around 20m a year on sleeping tablets and remedies. This is testament to the fact that just so many of us aren’t getting a full forty winks.
People vary enormously in the amount they need.
The real question to ask yourself is ‘Do I feel refreshed on waking?’
If the answer is ‘Yes’, then no problem. If not, it could be lack of quantity, or quality.
You might think that lack of quantity is just a case of scheduling – just go to bed earlier, right? It isn’t always that simple.
People get into patterns where they aren’t ready to sleep until a late hour. This can happen even if, deep down, they are truly tired. If you get home from work after 8pm, it’s unlikely you’ll be ready to drop off until 11.
Due to the time it takes to cook, eat, have a bit of an ‘evening’. It takes time to wind down enough to slip off to la-la land.
The more this pattern is reinforced, the less easy it is to go to sleep earlier.
This pattern establishes the circadian rhythm. It is influenced by light, noise, pressure to perform, food, environment and individual biochemistry.
One important hormone controlled by circadian rhythms is melatonin. It's often used by many jet-setters to help recover from jetlag. The more you produce, the sleepier you feel and the deeper your slumber can be.
If you don’t normally go to bed until 11, you probably won’t be producing enough melatonin to sleep any earlier. At least not until you can ‘shift’ your day back to the left, rather like changing time zones.
Sleep deprivation wrecks your vitality, your moods, your concentration and creativity
Not only that, but any pressure on you, self-imposed or otherwise, reduces melatonin production.
Consequently, this increases production of stress hormones - adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. They increase your alertness and readiness for action, which obviously affects whether you can sleep at all.
Not only that, they limit the depth of sleep you can reach.
As I’m sure you’ve experienced, no matter how many hours you sleep, it's the quality of your sleep that counts.
How much sleep do I need?
Sleep experts agree that it’s not about a certain number of hours.
You simply need enough to feel rested.
Judge by how refreshed you feel after you’ve been awake for about 30 minutes. This is long enough for your metabolic rate to ramp up.
Don’t confuse an afternoon ‘dip’ with lack of sleep - this is a natural low energy period. It signifies the need to have a break, put your feet up, meditate or have a short siesta. You should then be back and raring to go.
If not, then the issue may truly be lack of sleep.
The origin of the expression ‘sleep tight’ comes from a time when mattresses were suspended inside the bed frame.
On ropes that criss-crossed underneath.
Over time (and due to the weight of the sleepers) the ropes would slacken. Subsequently, they'd have to be re-tightened, so that the mattress would remain comfortable.
Lack of sleep can make you fat!
Research has shown that with sleep deprivation, we release less leptin and more ghrelin.
Leptin is a hormone that signals the state of fat stores, while ghrelin signals hunger. So without enough shut eye, we’re likely to start overeating.
To get good quality sleep, start by checking the basics. Unless you get them right, no amount of meditating or counting sheep will help you.
The first question to ask is ‘How much caffeine do I drink?”
Caffeine has the same effect on your system as stress hormones. If you’re a real tea, coffee or coke drinker, try zero caffeine for at least two weeks to test whether this improves your sleeping patterns.
If you are a major league caffeine user, try cutting caffeine by half. This will help you avoid withdrawal headaches. Then aim to go to zero a week later.
The second thing to ask is regarding alcohol consumption - it also greatly decreases the quality of your sleep.
It may well seem like after a few drinks you sleep like a baby. But the fact of the matter is alcohol disrupts normal sleep patterns and limits deep restorative sleep.
There is no requirement to become teetotal, but rather be aware of the effect alcohol can have. Make your choice accordingly.
Do you really want that third glass of wine or would you rather have some quality sleep?
Other basics you must get right for a great night’s sleep
Don’t eat within an hour of going to bed. You can’t sleep deeply if your body is digesting food.
‘Eat light at night’ is the motto to aim for, so don’t arrive home starving. Eat more during your working day when your metabolic rate is higher. You need the calories anyway at this time to maintain concentration and a happy, positive mood.
Avoid exercise within an hour of going to bed - you won’t sleep deeply if your core temperature is too high
Avoid household accounts or other administration within 30-60 minutes of trying to sleep.
If you’ve already sorted out the basics and you’re still not sleeping tight the following ideas might improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep. Try what your intuition tells you might help:
Have a wind down routine.
Create some rituals that signal to your body that you are going to sleep soon. This will help embed the correct circadian rhythm. This might include some light reading, calming yoga postures or a warm bath. The bath can't be too hot though, or your core temperature will get too high.
Listen to soft, relaxing music. Definitely use the music that you find relaxing, but music of around 60 beats per minute (such as Baroque classical) has been found to slow both heart rate and brain wave frequency.
Use low-lighting from two hours before bedtime. Avoid overhead lights and install dimmer switches for your lamps. Even brush your teeth by candlelight!
Try drinking chamomile, valerian or St John’s Wort teas – all of which are mild sedatives.
Ensure you have good ventilation in your bedroom. Better to have thicker duvet or more blankets than a less than optimum amount of oxygen
Tidy your bedroom! Clutter will keep your brain from fully relaxing. And absolutely NO WORK in the bedroom. Keep your briefcase out and no laptops in bed. This might have a good knock-on effect on your relationship with your significant other too!
Try aromatherapy. Just have fun using lavender, ylang ylang, clary sage and neroli. You don’t need an oil burner – just put a few drops in a bowl of hot water, or your bath.
Use a relaxation technique to get to sleep, and to get back to sleep if you wake in the night. You might like to try a range of CDs or techniques from books to find the right one for you.
And finally, if you wake in the night…
Don’t whatever you do turn on the light – you’ll start up your awake cycle
Don’t look at the clock. You’ll start calculating the hours left until the alarm goes off and just become more alert. Turn the clock face away from you.
Choose a specific thing to focus on. Ideas include waves lapping on a shore, a waterfall, soft clouds rolling across the sky or even a velvet-covered water-bed. Whatever helps keep you in a sleep-like state.
Don’t lie awake being angry about it – challenge your perception. Think I am resting peacefully. Insomniacs sleep for more hours than they perceive they do. The aim is to relax and rest the brain as much as possible. Worry and anger really will make you feel tired tomorrow.