Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. Lets talk about Sleep
It’s an old trope now – the profile of the very successful business person who claims somewhere in their interview that they need as little as 4-5 hours of sleep a night, because they’re just too busy doing important things to spend any more time in bed.
Although some people do seem to manage on so little, this is still a worrying (not to mention frustrating) narrative. One that happens to make plenty of us lesser mortals feel a bit shit for not being in the gym by 5am every day with a breakfast smoothie in hand. More troublingly, it also feeds into a pattern of equating an adequate amount of sleep with sloth - as though somehow it’s lazy to give your brain and body all the time required to recharge and develop.
In fact, this hardline emphasis on non-stop productivity is increasingly dangerous: both in terms of individual wellbeing, and also in what we, as a society, are taught to value most. And when it specifically comes to sleep, in recent years plenty of scientists have been raising some very noisy alarm bells about the damage lack of shut-eye has been wreaking on our mental and emotional health, affecting our general wellbeing (especially when one in two of us is trying to survive on less than six hours’ sleep a night).1
See, sleep is the great restorer. It’s responsible for everything from growth to how you process memory to maintenance of hormones responsible for your levels of hunger.2 It affects your mood, your attention span, your ability to learn, and how you make decisions. As Matt Walker from the University of California, Berkeley says in this interview with New Scientist, “There is no tissue within the body and no process within the brain that is not enhanced by sleep, or demonstrably impaired when you don’t get enough.”3
And sadly, plenty of us aren’t getting enough. Our understanding of the effects of chronic sleep deprivation is shifting all the time, with studies showing all sorts of worrisome effects from a lowered immune system4 through to astrocyte cells pruning away synapses at an enhanced rate (even if publications tend to go with scary ‘brain eating itself’ style headlines, the worrisome part here is the potential long-term consequences when it comes to things like Alzheimer’s disease).5
Given all that though, it’s still hard to navigate this simple need for shut-eye when faced with a huge industry devoted to making money out of people anxious about their sleep habits. An industry worth billions, stretching from reputable researchers through to businesses keen to hawk expensive mattresses. Where to begin, in amongst those clashing messages?
Well, there are all the usual cornerstones – the exercise and the balanced diet and the curbing of caffeine and alcohol etc etc etc. Other points may seem basic (not napping during the day if you struggle to nod off at night, buying some good quality earplugs), while others are just very practical (if you can’t shut off your mind, maybe write down and itemize what’s going on in order to help break down what’s keeping you awake). This Guardian article also has some specific techniques for relaxation.6
There’s also plenty of research forging links between bad sleep and the amount of time spent looking at screens.7 One simple step is to get an actual alarm clock, and charge your phone outside your room. Another is to get into the habit of reading or doing something else tangible that isn’t scrolling through Twitter/ endlessly procrastinating on Youtube/ falling down a weird Wikipedia hole before bed.
Of course, none of this is very helpful if you’ve instilled a strict routine, cut down on the coffee, avoided screens before bed, burnt the damn candles, read a soothing book, and turned off the light before 10pm, only to still be lying awake hours later seething at your brain’s inability to switch off. If so, and your bouts of insomnia happen regularly enough to impact on your day to day functioning, it’s probably time to talk with your doctor about your options.8
Of course, there are a hundred and one apps and other suggested solutions out there too. Much of this may come down to trial and error – given that what works for one individual is entirely unhelpful for another – but it’s worth starting off by reading Emma Hughes’ compelling article the Evening Standard about the impact of the app Sleepio on her years of insomnia.9
Whichever way, trying to edge closer to eight hours of sleep a night (or thereabouts) is a pretty significant thing to prioritise. Happy dreaming.