I haven’t always had such an understanding of how critical sleep is to your health and well-being. It’s hard to overstate just how important sleep is for a person’s overall wellbeing, but many of us do not get the rest we need.
I had terrible sleeping habits for 8 years of my life; working in nightclubs in my late teens, then as a stockbroker for 4 years – which meant entertaining client’s multiple times a week, whilst making it in to work by 7 every day. Like so many, I used to commute to get to the office, and would often only get 2 – 3 hours sleep before my 5 AM alarm rang. I always intended to make up for lost time over the weekends, but of course, I would invariably be out partying all weekend.
After a few years of this I started to feel terrible; slowly but surely I stopped going out so much and got back into a healthy lifestyle. I now understand that sleep is THE most important factor in our health and well-being, even before diet and exercise. People think they can cheat sleep. Even if you are eating well and exercising, lack of sleep will eventually catch up with you and negate the positive choices you made during the day.
Studies suggest that lack of sleep can cause depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Not only that, when you are tired you are going to crave high energy foods like sugar. Tiredness can also increase levels of cortisol, the stress hormone which has been shown to raise the likelihood of your body to store fat. If you are spending loads of time and effort improving your exercise regime and diet, don’t ruin it all by not focusing on getting into good sleeping habits.
Understanding Sleep Cycles
Towards the end of my time working in the City, I discovered a sleep tracking app called “Sleep Cycle” which allowed me to create a log of my sleeping habits. I was curious about the patterns I saw, and dived into the literature to deepen my understanding. Harnessing what I learned made a huge difference to the quality of my sleep and my overall wellbeing.
As many of you may know, the average person needs to go through 5 sleep cycles a night, each cycle lasts roughly 90 minutes and is made up of 4 stages:
- Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Stage 1: You have just turned the lights out and you are beginning to drift in and out of consciousness, you may experience a falling or jerking sensation from time to time. People tend to be easily disturbed by noises in this stage.
- NREM Stage 2: Your heart rate slows and your body temperature drops. You can still be easily woken in this stage, and this is where most of your sleep time is spent.
- NREM Stage 3 – Deep Sleep: This is where most of the benefits of sleep come from. You will be very difficult to wake up and will experience “sleep inertia” – that confused, groggy, irritable feeling you get after being woken up by something – when your slumber is broken.
- REM Sleep: “REM” stands for Rapid Eye Movement. In this stage your heart rate and breathing quickens, this is also where dreaming occurs. Throughout this stage your body is paralysed and your brain is highly active.
After completing a full cycle, you fall back into Stage 1 sleep and will keep cycling through the stages until woken. Each stage is just as important as the next; you need to spend adequate time in each one to get a good night’s sleep. It’s important to note that alcohol supresses the deep sleep cycle, you may fall asleep easier, but it will be a light sleep – leaving you feeling tired the next day. It’s best to wake during the lightest sleep phases (stages 1 or 2) if you want to feel refreshed and ready for the day. It’s important to remember that you will experience sleep inertia if you wake up outside of first stages, which is particularly bad for those us who like to hit snooze, as you will generally fall straight into stage 3. One of the most powerful insights I gleaned from my research is that more sleep doesn’t necessarily mean better sleep: the quality and efficiency of your rest is more important.
Understanding your Circadian Rhythm (Body Clock)
A circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle in the physiological processes of living beings, including plants, animals, and fungi. Circadian rhythms are important in determining the sleeping and feeding patterns of all animals, including human beings. They are the product of millions of years of evolution and should be understood and respected by everyone.
The body clock is controlled by an area of the brain that responds to light, which is why humans are most alert while the sun is shining and are ready to sleep when it’s dark outside. Everyone’s rhythm is unique, this is why some people are “night owls” or “morning larks”. Fighting your natural urges to sleep messes with your circadian rhythm, and will ultimately diminish the quality of your sleep.
The single most important factor in keeping your circadian rhythm in balance is routine; going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time is incredibly important.
How the modern lifestyle affects our Circadian Rhythm
Smart phones, tablets, tv screens and even electric lights are a very new phenomenon in the history of the human species. For thousands of years our daily habits and routines were determined by the sun. As the sun goes down the light changes, becoming more and more orange. The dimming of the light initiates melatonin secretion (the sleep hormone) in the brain, this was the que for early Man to eat whatever had been caught that day and start preparing for sleep. The only light source after sunset was the amber glow of the fire.
This pattern is disrupted by modern life; the blue light that comes off screens mimics the light of full daylight, messing with the secretion of melatonin and ultimately affecting your sleep patterns. Not only this, sugar caffeine and nicotine can all degrade the quality of our sleep.
Smart phones are particularly detrimental to your natural rhythm; not only do they give off blue light, but also keep you mentally stimulated through your interactions with others. Studies have shown that checking your social media feeds right before bed can be a source of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, which disrupts your patterns by making you worry and stress as you are trying to get to sleep.
How to Optimise your sleep
- Pick a constant waking time: This is rule number one; your circadian rhythm is governed by routine. You need to be waking up at the same time every single morning, including weekends! Consistency optimises the quality and efficiency of your sleep. Factor in any early morning activities you may have; if you wake up at 6.30am to go to the gym once or twice per week, but wake up at 7.30am every other day, aim to make 6.30am your waking time.
- Pick a constant bed time: Once you have chosen your waking time, work back in cycles to work out when you need to go to bed. This ensures that you will be in the lightest sleep phase when you wake up, meaning you will start the day feeling refreshed. Remember one cycle lasts 90 minutes and the average person needs 5 cycles per night, so you should be aiming for roughly 7 hours and 30 minutes sleep. For instance, if your waking time is 6.30am your bed time should be 11pm.
- Develop a pre and post bedtime routine: The hour before and after sleeping is just as important as sleep itself . Having a decent bedtime routine will wind your body down and ease you into sleep, so that as soon as you get into bed and turn the lights off you will fall asleep and get your 5 quality cycles. Equally, having a decent post sleep routine is going to set you up for the day and keep you in sync with your circadian rhythms.
- Optimise your sleeping environment:
- In an ideal world your bedroom should be a place dedicated to rest and relaxation. This means that your brain will automatically start to switch off whenever you step through the door.
- Empty your room; TV’s and other gadgets are sources of mental stimulation and distraction, they make it much harder to wind down in the evening.
- Black out blinds are essential; you don’t want your melatonin schedule to be affected by fluorescent lights outside. An eye mask is a viable alternative if this isn’t an option for you.
- Your bedroom should be cooler than the rest of the house, with circulating fresh air. Studies suggest that the ideal bedroom temperature is 18-20C.
- Use earplugs, I swear by them
- Supplements – These are not sleeping pills, they are natural supplements that can assist in regulating sleep hormones. Always seek advice from a doctor before trying anything new.
- Magnesium with L-threonate: Studies suggest that the L-threonate increases magnesium aborbsion. I have been using this for a few months now and have found it quite effective. I am naturally more of an early riser and tend to be a light sleeper; this product has helped reduce the number of times I wake up during the night.
- Valerian: Most experts recommended this herb to reduce the amount of time it takes to nod off.
- 5HTP: This molecule acts as a precursor to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter essential for a good night’s sleep.
- Melatonin: This hormone can be used in supplement form as an occasional sleep aid, and is especially effective against jet lag