Why Sleep Is Important
We spend around a third of our lives sleeping. It is critical to our health and well-being. But we don’t respect it. In our increasingly busy world, it can feel like time sleeping is just time away from work, empty space in the day that could be filled with more important things. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter, “there isn’t one facet of your mental, emotional or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep”. Sleep regulates most of our hormone production, as part of our bodies’ circadian rhythm. It helps regulate our appetite. It influences our emotions and our behaviour. It cleans our brains and rebuilds our bodies. There are very good reasons why we evolved to spend a third of our lives asleep!
Sleep deprivation literally results in less glucose reaching our brains, particularly our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain thought to be responsible for our rational thinking and decision-making processes. When we lose out on sleep, we set ourselves up to lose the willpower battle — not only do we crave more sugar because our brain isn’t getting what it needs, we’re giving less resources to the part of our brain that regulates our behaviour! A study published in The Lancet suggested that physicians who were sleep deprived took 14% longer to complete tasks and made 20% more mistakes.
And yet, we’re getting worse at it; we’re sleeping on average 1.5–2 hours less per night than we were a century ago. So what can you do to reclaim the power of shut-eye?
It might seem counter-intuitive to start tips on sleeping by talking about waking up but sleep isn’t a stand-alone part of our day. It’s a fundamental part of our circadian rhythm and intrinsically linked to the rest of our day so let’s start at the start of the day!
Time to get up. Getting up early is the opposite side of the coin to going to bed at the right time (see below). Human beings are designed to be active during the day; all our senses are optimised to work in the daytime. Getting up early honours our natural hormonal clock, even if you think of yourself as a night owl. Ideally, you want to be getting up around 6.30am. This will move a little during the seasons — it’s definitely harder to get up early in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when it’s still dark — but we should be aiming for this most days, even weekends. You can gradually move towards this time in 15-minute increments; if you’re currently setting the alarm for 8am, try 7:45am for a few days, then 7:30am and so on. Ideally, you want to set your alarm for 7.5 hours after you to sleep as our sleep cycles are around 90 minutes long and we can feel really groggy if the alarm drags out in the middle of a sleep cycle.
Stop Snoozing. So you’ve set the alarm for 6.30am. But how do you resist the snooze button? Firstly, I swear by a daylight alarm clock (I swear by my Lumie), which wakes you up gradually — I’ve ditched the alarm clock completely now. If you need an alarm clock, put it on the other side of the room so you have to get out of bed to switch it off! Once you’re out of bed, think of one thing you’re looking forward to that day to start to get you energised then dive into…
Have a Morning Ritual. I’m a huge fan of the morning ritual. There’s so much I could say about this so let me keep this brief: make your bed, meditate (or sit quietly for a minute or two before you check your phone), have a glass of water, move your body (one press-up, some yoga, a HIIT workout — it doesn’t need to be a lot), journal. Now you’re getting up at 6:30am, you’ve got loads of time! This ritual takes me about half an hour (if I’m not going for a run) but it could take as little as 10 minutes. No excuses and it will set your day up beautifully.
During the Day
Get More Sunlight. I’m writing this on a very grey day in London so I appreciate this is easier said than done, especially in a British winter! Yet, exposure to sunlight, especially in the morning triggers your body to produce optimal levels of the daytime hormones and neurotransmitters that make us alert and active. Too little light exposure during the day — and too much artificial light at night — confuses our biological clock and negatively impacts our ability to sleep. Our bodies are particularly responsive to natural light first thing in the morning (6:00am — 8:30am) so getting outside in the morning is a great way to keep your biological clock on the right time. Even five minutes at lunch time is beneficial — and even a little break outdoors (away from technology!) will help counteract the post-lunch slump!.
Coffee Curfew. Apparently, consuming caffeine (even tea — sniff!) SIX hours before bed has a measurable objective loss of one hour of sleep! Caffeine affects our nervous and endocrine systems, stimulating the production of adrenaline and cortisol — hormones that make us alert and active. Sounds great! Unfortunately, caffeine causes a spike in these hormones followed by a crash, often leaving us worse off than when we started. Caffeine also has a half-life of 5–8 hours, meaning up to half the caffeine you consume is still active in your body up to 8 hours later. This means you really need to limit your caffeine intake after about 2pm. Now, I’m not a coffee drinker but I do consume ridiculous quantities of tea so I will be switching to non-caffeinated teas after learning this.
Diet and Exercise. Our diet and exercise habits have a close and inter-dependent relationship with sleep. Poor diet and no exercise (or too much vigorous exercise close to bedtime) negatively impacts our sleep; poor sleep and not enough sleep makes us want to eat high carb foods (because less glucose is reaching the brain), is detrimental to athletic performance, and makes us want to exercise less. There’s so much to say about diet and exercise — far too much to say here — so the basics are eat real food, mostly plants, not too much and move your body (thanks, Michael Pollan) every day in way you enjoy.
No Screens Before Bed. Yep, this one. I know how hard this is; I really struggle with switching off my phone in particular before I go to bed. But it does make a difference. Not only does the blue light disturb melatonin production, using devices before bed keeps stimulating dopamine, our pleasure-seeking reward. Checking email or scrolling through social media keeps our brains whirring at full speed at the very time we want to be winding down and quietening our thoughts before bed. Besides, no screens for an hour before you go to bed suddenly gives you a whole hour to do other lovely things….
Evening Rituals. Use all that free time you now have to create a lovely evening ritual. Human beings are creatures of habit; our brains are always looking for patterns so they can automate our behaviour and save energy. Start using the time before bed to read a book (a proper paper one), do some yoga, meditate, talk to your partner — all those things we never quite have enough time for!
Sleep Sanctuary. We’re creatures of both habit andhabitat. Having a space reserved for sleeping and relaxing helps cue our brains that it’s time to go to sleep. Your room should be cool and fresh, clear of laptops, and with low lighting. Make it a space you want to curl up and relax in. Maybe that’s a plant or a cosy blanket. Just leave the screens at the door!
Bedtime. I know a lot of people find it hard to go to bed on time. To be clear, on time means around 10pm; that might feel ridiculously early to you but our most beneficial hormonal secretions and recovery time is between 10pm and 2am. Plus, if you want to get up at 06:30, you need to be in bed in time to get your 7–8 hours in! One of the reasons it can be hard to go to bed on time is that our our internal metabolic energy actually increases around 10pm; if you’re still up, you experience this as a second wind meaning you can feel wide awake. Good sleep isn’t just about the number of hours but when those hours happen too. Set an alarm at 9pm to remind yourself to switch off those screens, start your evening ritual, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be sleepy come 10pm (especially if you got up at 06:30am!).
Be Cool. Our sleep rhythms are influenced by something called thermoregulation. Like our hormones, our mood and our performance, our body temperature follows a clear cycle throughout the day. Keeping the bedroom cool at night helps tap into these rhythms and optimise sleep — we all know how hard it can be to sleep on a hot, stuffy night in the summer. If you feel the cold, wearing some loose socks and/or pyjamas can help. It sounds counter-intuitive but a warm bath or shower also helps with sleep. It causes internal body temperature to rise and then fall below its norm, helping us sleep.
Embrace the Dark. I did not know this before researching this piece but apparently our skin has receptors that can pick up light! These same receptors are the same ones that respond to sunlight during the day and so it’s important that we sleep in total darkness. Eliminating light coming from outside and inside the room (hello annoying alarm clock!) is essential to good quality sleep. Keeping the ambient light in your bedroom low also helps prepare you for sleep. Blackout blinds anyone?
Putting It All Into Practice
Now, none of this is rocket science. I’ve probably not even told you anything you hadn’t heard before. So the challenge to you is putting this into action. And that goes for me too. I’m going to be following Shawn Stevenson’s 14 Day Sleep Plan. If you’d like to join me, you can download my sleep journal template here (in exchange for an email address, you’ll receive the password to The Practical Balance resource library). I think I sleep pretty well already so I’m going to be really interested to see if I can sleep even better and how that affects the rest of my life. I’ll let you know how I get on and please share your sleep stories and tips in the comments!