Sleep is one of those things that you don’t really appreciate until you don’t have it – or until you don’t get enough of it. Surely it must be a universal part of the human condition to have a period in life where you don’t get enough sleep, whether caused by stress, illness, jet lag, work, the demands of a new baby or simply the pull of a binge-worthy series on Netflix. We’ve all been there. Over the last tumultuous year, as you might expect, many people have found their sleep patterns have shifted. Half of the participants in a recent Canadian study, showed signs of serious sleep problems as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is no surprise to hear that sleep is incredibly important for both mental and physical health. So, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on sleep and what you can do to get enough.
1. Sleep is strange.
When you really think about it, sleep is downright weird. Every night, almost everyone across the world (according to their time zone) gets into their special sleeping clothes, lies down in a special sleeping place and then does apparently nothing for the next approximately 8 hours. In fact, we spend around a third of our lives sleeping! Sleep is the only time you really have to “fake it to make it”: in order to get to sleep, you lie down and close your eyes – effectively pretending to be asleep, until you finally actually DO fall asleep.
So what are we doing when we sleep? Technically, sleep is a temporary period of altered consciousness during which movement and response to our environment is inhibited. But sleep is by no means a passive state. Our brains are actually very active during sleep, cycling between different states of lighter and deeper sleep as well as the phase known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) which is when we dream. Scientists are still learning exactly why these different sleep states are so important.
2. Sleep is essential for mental health.
It’s probably not surprising to learn that sleep and mental health are closely connected. Most of us likely know that a bad night’s sleep makes it harder to navigate the challenges of the day, and likewise if we are worried, anxious or stressed about something sleep can be elusive. The charity Mind explains that in fact it can be a vicious cycle, with feelings of worry or stress contributing to a lack of sleep which can in turn lead to tiredness, difficulty coping with daily life and low self-esteem. Sleep not only has a direct impact on your mental state, but, according to Harvard Medical School, people with mental health problems are more likely to suffer from insomnia and sleep disorders. In some cases, treating the sleep disorder may have a positive effect on symptoms of mental health issues. Either way, it’s clear that getting enough sleep is important for our mental wellbeing.
3. Sleep is important for learning and memory.
Getting enough sleep is particularly important for our memory, and therefore plays an important role in learning. The processes involved are quite complicated but, in a nutshell getting a goodnight sleep after you’ve learned a new skill will help you to remember it and perform it again in the future. The same goes for memories of events and even facts! According to Harvard Medical School, this boils down to two key points, firstly, someone who is sleep deprived will probably struggle to focus and therefore will find it hard to learn and secondly, different stages of sleep play a role in the consolidation of memory– which is crucial in the process of learning. Research is ongoing to understand exactly how and why sleep plays such an important role but one thing’s for sure, if you want to learn effectively and remember what you are earning – get a good night’s sleep!
4. Sleep is essential for physical health.
Sleep is an important time for our bodies to rest and repair. We all instinctively know this. If you’re tired it can feel like you’re moving through treacle and in fact, your body does react more slowly, which is one reason why you might be more likely to have an accident if you are tired! In fact, sleep affects almost every part of our bodies – from hormones to appetite, the immune system, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Research suggests that having more or less sleep the night before a vaccination even can make it more, or less, effective (a study showed that people who had more sleep developed stronger protection against flu when they had the jab!). In fact, sleep has a huge variety of physical benefits across the board. One long term study of around10,000 civil servants found that people who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer per night were nearly twice as likely to die from all causes, particularly when it came to cardiovascular disease. That, surely, is enough to persuade almost anyone to put down the remote control and switch off the light
5. How to sleep.
Well, first we need to ask, how much sleep should we get? The answer is that it depends, but according to the NHS, most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep every night. It might be helpful when assessing your own sleep needs to keep a sleep diary which may help you to pinpoint whether you need to make changes to your daily routine and lifestyle choices. “Sleep hygiene” is the term used to describe preparing yourself and your environment for sleep, this could include not using a screen just before bed, ensuring your bedroom is clean and tidy, and reserving your bedroom for sleeping not working. We’ve included 10 sleep hygiene tips from The World Sleep Society below to give you something to start with. There are, however, some unusual methods that may be worth trying. Many people swear by ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, it’s not easy to explain but it’s a response to visual and auditory stimuli which causes people to feel a tingling and to relax. There are many, many ASMR videos on the internet if you would like to give it a try. Other sleep tricks include, using a weighted blanket, practicing yoga, doing a body scan (where you start at the top of your head and gradually think about each part of your body in turn, noticing any tension or stress and consciously relaxing as you go), wearing socks to bed and even trying actively to stay awake! IF you are having real rouble with your sleep then, of course, the best thing to do is to speak to your GP.
The WorldSleep Society recommends the following 10 steps to achieve healthy sleep
1. Fix a bedtime and an awakening time.
2. If you are in the habit of taking a nap, do not exceed 45 minutes of daytime sleep.
3. Avoid excessive alcohol ingestion 4 hours before bedtime and do not smoke.
4. Avoid caffeine 6 hours before bedtime. This includes coffee, tea and many soft drinks, as well as chocolate.
5. Avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods 4 hours before bedtime. A light snack before bed is acceptable.
6. Exercise regularly, but not right before bed.
7. Use comfortable bedding.
8. Find a comfortable temperature setting for sleeping and keep the room well ventilated.
9. Block out all distracting noise and eliminate as much light as possible.
10. Reserve the bed for sleep and sex. Don’t use the bed as an office, workroom or recreation room.
How to get to sleep - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
10 tips to beat insomnia - NHS (www.nhs.uk)