Why counting sheep can only get me so far—some common myths around sleep and how to challenge them!
Edgar Allan Poe once wrote ‘Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.’. Well, Mr Poe, I can only assume you’ve never been sleep deprived. They say that 30% of the adult population is affected by sleep problems at any one time. For me, it started over the Christmas period; some late nights out, my friend’s two day-long wedding chaos (sorry James!) and one long-haul flight is what brought on my sleep problems – oh yes, together with this constant feeling of extreme tiredness, grumpiness, lack of productivity at work and continuous mental fog. Each night, I am managing 4 hours sleep, 2 DVDs (that I don’t even remember the next day) and 10+ cans of caffeinated drinks to keep awake in the office. Where am I going wrong? I do need to re-visit my knowledge on sleep matters.
Sleep information and facts
- Each night we go through approximately 4 to 5 sleep cycles, each one lasting between 90 and 110 minutes (each complete cycle is one of the peaks and troughs on the diagram below).
- During our sleep, we experience REM (rapid eye movement – shown in black on the graph below) and non-REM sleep phases.
- During REM, our brains are very active. We dream and our eyes move around quickly. REM makes up only about a one fifth of our total sleep time.
- Non-REM sleep occurs in 4 stages. Stages 1 and 2 are lighter stages where we can be easily woken. Stages 3 and 4 are deeper levels of sleep, which tend to occur during the first half of the night. During these deeper, restorative stages of sleep, our bodies release hormones and transmitters that help to repair wear and tear from the day.
Sure, but how much sleep do we need?
It’s a common misconception that we need at least 8 hours sleep every night. This is a myth. There is no “right” amount of sleep as this varies between people, their lifestyle and age. For instance, the adult average is 6 to 8 hours per night (children require more sleep and older adults much less). But this also depends on the level of our daily activities; when we are lucky enough to be retired from work, we may be less active and therefore require less sleep. Or, if we are constantly on the go (e.g. full time job, doing regular exercise, looking after a newborn), we require more sleep.
What causes sleep problems?
Stress, anxiety, low mood or worry can impact negatively on sleep. For instance, if we worry about something, we may find it hard to fall sleep; instead, we might be lying wide awake thinking of all the things we need to do the next day and staring at the clock next to our bed. Environmental and lifestyle factors can also interfere with our sleep as for example, a bedroom that is too hot or too cold, a bed that is too hard or too soft, a room that is too noisy or too light can all make a big difference to how well we sleep. Too much alcohol, nicotine and caffeine as well as a rich in fat diet and lack of exercise can also disturb the quality of our sleep significantly. A disrupted sleep routine can also mess up our biological clock. For instance, people who work on shifts or people travelling abroad might find it hard to adjust to new sleep routines. Sleep has also pretty important role to play in our mental health.
Common misconceptions around sleep
- Our judgements cannot always be accurate. For instance, we feel ‘half asleep’ for up to 30 minutes after waking (Sleep Inertia). However, this is often the time when we reflect on whether or not we have slept well. Because we feel confused, we may conclude we haven’t slept well. It is also difficult to measure when exactly we start to sleep – hence, we might think we were awake when we are were actually asleep (e.g. findings in sleep clinics). And yes, of course worry. We are lying in bed, worrying that we won’t be sleeping enough, how this will ruin our next day, how terrible we will look, etc. In these situations, 30 minutes of trying to get to sleep can feel much longer. By acknowledging our tendency to misjudge, we can worry less and sleep better.
- Deep restorative sleep (stages 3 and 4) takes place at the beginning of the night. If we have not slept well the night before, our bodies automatically catches up the next night by entering these stages more quickly. So, no need to panic.
- Periods of waking are normal during the night (as shown by the two highest peaks on the diagram) but we rarely remember these. However, we are more likely to remember waking if we worry or we are stressed about something.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Don’t drop off to sleep (nap) during the day – napping disturbs our natural rhythm of our sleep (if you absolutely must, do it before 3 pm and for no longer than 1 hour).
- Limit caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, cola) and nicotine intake up to 4 hours before bedtime - they affect how easily you can fall asleep and how much time you spend in deep sleep.
- Limit alcohol. Although alcohol may help you fall asleep, it reduces sleep quality and you are likely to wake up early.
- Avoid refined sugars as they can stress the organs in charge of hormone regulation – causing you to wake in the night as our levels fluctuate. Instead, opt for dairy products (e.g. milk, yoghourt), bananas and eggs as they contain tryptophan, an amino acid essential for producing serotonin, which in turn, makes melatonin – our sleep-inducing hormone.
- Light and regular exercise helps us to fall asleep quicker and improves sleep quality. Avoid intense exercise close to bedtime as this can keep us awake.
- Adopt a regular sleep routine so that our body knows the time to start relaxing (e.g. going to bed at 11 pm every night). This is better than trying to catch up on lost sleep by going to bed early or napping during the day – which often means lying awake at night for hours.
- Invest in some good quality earplugs if you have a partner who snores or noisy neighbours.
- Improve your bedroom environment. Keep it dark (darkness triggers sleepiness) and on the cooler side as the body cools naturally as we fall asleep. Finally, a clean bedroom environment improves breathing and sleep. Air the bedroom and linen regularly. A comfortable mattress can also add up to 30 minutes to our sleep time compared to a bed that is uncomfortable.
- Do not hit snooze - as we “tell” our body to prepare for a new sleep cycle that we wont have time to finish, resulting in tiredness during our day. These extra 5 minutes of sleep would be of low quality anyway.
- Do not use your laptop or smartphone before bed as they tend to “wake you up”. Also, these devices emit blue light, which might delay the production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex – do not read, watch TV, talk on your phone or eat in bed.
- Get in bed only when you feel sleepy. Otherwise, you are just winding yourself up lying in bed wide awake. If you can’t fall asleep within 20 mins, get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again.
- Avoid clock-watching when lying in bed.
- Develop a sleep routine 60-90 minutes before you go to bed - such as, having a bath, drinking a cup of warm milk, reading a relaxing book or preparing the bed for a comfortable sleep (soft and light linen, cool air temperature etc.)
So here it is; these are all I need to do to regain some control over my nights.
1. Stress free – app
2. Eat right, sleep tight – bbcgoodfood.com
3. Does what I eat or drink affect my sleep? – drfranklipman.com
4. Alcohol and sleep – drinkaware.co.uk
5. Healthy sleep tips – sleepfoundation.org
6. Myths and facts about sleep – sleepfoundation.org
7. Sleep hygiene – umm.edu