We know from our interview with neuroscientist Geoff Bird that sleep is one of the keys to high performance. He discusses the effect on work and personal life that are guaranteed to disturb those lawyers who pride themselves on working into the small hours. Talks on sleep, however, are a sign that the legal sector, notorious for long and unsocial hours, is facing up to questions of mental wellbeing.
In 2013 The Sleep Council surveyed over 5000 adults in the UK and found that 70% sleep for less than seven hours a night with more than a quarter experiencing poor quality sleep on a regular basis. By 2017, The Sleep Council found that those figures had increased further, with more than a third now reporting poor quality sleep on a regular basis.
So, whether you are sleeping poorly on a regular or occasional basis, we could all stand to increase the amount and quality of sleep to increase performance.
Here are some practical tips:
Treat the issue not the symptoms
The first thing to look at, says Dr Lindsay Browning, sleep expert at Trouble Sleeping, is whether your issues stem from a medical problem. This may be undiagnosed, so it is important to consider whether lack of sleep is the problem or the symptom.
There is diagnostic criteria for insomnia (such as regularly over a period of several months being awake for more than 30 minutes, taking longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep or being awake more than 30 minutes before you would usually get up). While the NHS says that better sleeping habits will improve most cases, it is still worth considering whether insomnia is being caused by a medical issue such as depression, sleep apnoea (where you stop breathing which wakes you up), a bad back or perhaps stress or trauma.
It may also be worth considering requesting a blood test, as insomnia can be a symptom of magnesium deficiency.
Can you help your natural cycles?
To sleep, we need to be relaxed and calm. The hormones serotonin, oxytocin and melatonin are essential to our daily cycle, or circadian rhythm (our internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle that repeats roughly every 24 hours).
We sleep in cycles and wake between them and have to learn to link the cycles. Most people will be unaware of the waking between the cycles as we only remember them once we’ve been awake for two minutes or more.
Melatonin (the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle) is like a starter pistol, Dr Browning says. A surge of melatonin will tell your body that it is ready to go to sleep. Our bodies are designed such that the surge will come around 8/10 hours after we’ve received the max dose of sunshine. Most people produce all the melatonin they need, so unless you are jetlagged taking additional melatonin will not help.
Our best sleeping conditions are when it is dark and not too hot. 16-18C is ideal. Body temperature peaks in the evening and drops as we sleep. Professor Geoff Bird told us that most people’s bedrooms are too light and too warm for good sleep.
Try the following and see whether it helps:
- Get outside at lunchtime. If we are in an office all day we need to stop our bodies from getting out of sync.
- If you can’t get outside, try a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lightbox – but only use it between 11am-1pm.
- Make your bedroom darker and colder.
- Encourage your body temperature to rise and then drop with a warm bath.
- Dr Browning suggests ensuring you are not hungry before bed, recommending oat biscuits, porridge or warm milk. Milk and milk products have the added benefit that they contain the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan.
Is something or someone else keeping you awake?
For some, sleep is elusive. For others, part of the issue is either things keeping us awake, or waking us up during the night. Is there anything you can do to reduce the impact of the following?
Smartphones, TV, computer games; they are all designed to be addictive and absorbing, excellent at keeping the mind awake, reducing the amount of time we sleep or preventing us from dropping off at all.
Ariana Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post and author of the book The Sleep Revolution: transforming your life one night at a time suggests no electronic devices starting 30 minutes before bedtime and even advocates relocating your charging station to another room.
“I started setting ground rules, such as turning off my devices,” says Huffington on how she turned around her sleep habits.
Caring responsibilities – children & elderly relatives
Is there anything you can do about children that are waking you up at night? Young babies and children, of course, do just wake up but things to consider if you have school-aged children include:
- The amount of sleep a school-aged child needs peaks at 9/10 years old. 6-13-year-olds need 9-11 hours, 3-5-year-olds need 10-13. Teenagers are of course a different matter entirely.
- Based on the amount of sleep they need, consider current bedtimes and rising times. Do you need to update them?
- Look at bed habits e.g. stopping TV before sleeping, milk, routines, etc.
As we get older, we need less sleep and it is normal to wake up between cycles as the gaps get longer. We may need to accept that elderly relatives will sleep more during the day, less at night and think about ensuring we have respite time away to catch up on sleep if at all possible.
Hormone cycles and the menopause
The rising and falling levels of the hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle (estrogen and progesterone) can affect the ability to fall and stay asleep, and, annoyingly influence the quality of sleep.
Rising estrogen levels in days 1-14 can give you an energy boost but also mean worse sleep, then rising progesterone after ovulation in days 14 onwards can make you very tired. A few days before your period starts, around days 26ish of a 28-day-cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels drop rapidly and many women report trouble sleeping.
By tracking your cycle, you should be able to predict when you need to do less and spend more time resting, which can help combat these issues.
The menopause brings hot flushes which disturb the sleep. If you are used to sleeping well the sudden problems with sleeping can be concerning. The more you worry and try to sleep, the more anxiety hormones rises which leads to more difficulty falling asleep. “Sleep is the only thing you can’t succeed at by trying harder,” says Dr Browning, which can make it very frustrating.
Other practical tips to try
- Get rid of your fitbit and stop analysing data
- Swap your Smartphone for an alarm clock, preferably one where you can switch off the lighted time, so you can’t lie there and watch the minutes tick past
- See if you can change how you feel about sleep
Scientifically Dr Browning says how we feel when we wake up is only related to where in the sleep cycle we woke. After around 20 minutes, no matter how we felt when we woke, we should feel ok. However, if you tell yourself you had a bad (or good) night’s sleep, this can affect how your mind thinks you slept.
- Drink water
Contrary to some advice, being well hydrated actually helps us sleep, says Dr Browning. Some people recommend not drinking after 3pm but Dr Browning says that “typically the need to [pass urine] won’t wake you up but when you wake up the body automatically scans the body and you realise you need the loo. It is actually usually something else that wakes you up”.
- Reduce caffeine/alcohol in the afternoon and evening.
Caffeine has a six-hour half-life (which means half of the caffeine you consumed will still be in your body six hours later). Caffeine stops the body from being able to tell how tired it is. Alcohol is a sedative so sleep comes but is disrupted.
- Lavender in the bath, or sprayed on your pillow
- Meditate or journal to reduce stress/ worries which wake up the brain when you lie down to try and sleep.
- Read or listen to calming music or whale/ocean sounds
- Try the Sleep with Me podcast for bedtime stories for adults
- Use the Twilight App for any essential bedtime phone use
- Change the bed and have clean sheets and ironed pillow-cases.
Lastly, if you really cannot sleep, get up and do something useful. Do not spend hours actively trying to sleep as this is counter-productive and you will end up associating your bed with a place of stress and anxiety, perpetuating the cycle.
Do you have any other tips to share?
Note: Dr Lindsay Browning is a chartered psychologist and neuroscientist with a doctorate from the University of Oxford where she investigated the relationship between worry and insomnia. She is an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, a member of the British Sleep Society and a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.