Sleep, health, and behaviour change
“The Swiss army knife of health and wellness” - Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep
I’ll start off by saying that I love sleep. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t feel better waking up after a full night of shut-eye. Research (and personal experience) suggests that good sleep improves your outlook on life, helps you function better both physically and mentally, and even helps to stave off cognitive decline (e.g., dementia).
Some sleepy facts:
What’s a good sleep?
So what does good sleep look like, and how do you know that you’ve had enough?
Generally, it is recommended that we get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Ideally, this is unbroken sleep (not always easy with young kids, I know). It is really individual. But less than 6 hours a night and you’re likely to be sleep deprived.
A rule of thumb is that if you had a sufficient sleep, you should feel awake and ready to take on the day within an hour of physically waking up. Some people I know like to use that full hour and others are up and about within a few minutes. For me, I’m usually good to go after 30 minutes.
It’s pretty tragic that the ability to function on very little sleep is worn by many people as a badge of honour. It’s true that there is a genetic condition that means that some people can function well on 4 hours of sleep a night. But these ‘short sleepers’ are extremely rare, making up just 1% of the global population. So, although many people think that they fall into this category, the chances are that they are just pushing through chronic sleep deprivation, and likely suffering as a result. As a side note, both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher described themselves as short sleepers, and both had dementia. Donald Trump has stated that he sleeps for 3 or 4 hours a night. Make of that what you will!
For those really keen to know more about the deep science of sleep, Matthew Walker has done a fantastic job of translating a lot of the research (https://www.sleepdiplomat.com/). In fact, his book ‘Why We Sleep’ was the reason I became interested in the importance of sleep in the first place.
Sleep and behaviour change
When we try to change our behaviour, it really pays to address your sleep habits early on. Habits are a big part of behaviour change. A lack of sleep can really impact on your ability to make changes, in several ways.
First, sleep replenishes our physical energy stores. If we are trying to be more physically active, of course this is made even more difficult if we are literally running on empty. A lack of sleep also equals a lack of mental energy. in the early days of changing behaviour, we need to think about things. We might need to solve problems, come up with plans, make decisions. Sleep is to replenishes our cognitive resources. If we lack sleep, and therefore lack these resources, we resort to default mode. That is, we fall back into old habits, and do so very quickly.
Then, there’s the idea of the ‘willpower muscle’.
This is linked to mental energy, although it’s not quite the same. The theory is that self-control is another limited resource. The more times during the day that we have to actively make ourselves do something that isn’t yet a habit (e.g., resisting that chocolate cake or forcing ourselves to go for a walk at lunchtime), the more this ‘muscle’ gets depleted. This is one of the reasons that when changing behaviour we should be careful about making all of the changes at once. Save your willpower for the realistic changes that matter most. . Research shows that good quality sleep restores this willpower muscle - people who sleep better have more willpower in resisting temptations or achieving daily physical activity goals (Hagger, 2009).
Just as a side note, a lack of sleep is associated with weight gain. This is at least partly because you simply eat more when you’re tired - it increases the hormone that signals hunger, and suppresses the hormone that signals that you’re full. Something to consider if your health goals include weight management.
Beware false prophets: Enemies of good sleep
Most people know this one.
Arguably more so than the discovery of fire, the lightbulb has really messed up our circadian rhythms. A near-endless supply of electricity and light means that rather than being dictated by our natural daily rhythms, we can now dictate when it’s time to wind down. And, judging by what we’ve seen so far, we’re not very good at doing that.
Electronic devices such as phones and tablets are a later addition, and perhaps an even bigger enemy of sleep. Regardless of screen filters available, staring into a screen just before bed is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. It slows down the release of melatonin, the sleep neurotransmitter that tells our brain and body that it’s time to get our head down. In our evolutionary past, this happened when it got dark. Now, it never has to get dark, but we still need to sleep. We would do well to get back as close to our older natural rhythms as possible.
Sleeping pills and alcohol
In my undergraduate days, I was prescribed Diazepam as a sleeping aid over the exam period. I would be knocked out within 30 minutes of taking it, and wake up 10 hours later feeling groggy and dehydrated, like I had been drinking heavily. Clearly, this doesn’t indicate a good night’s sleep. But many people still rely on sleeping pills to get some shut-eye. Research has now shown that while sleeping pills can get us to sleep, this isn’t real restorative sleep. It’s superficial. Add to that the addictive properties of pills, and they are certainly not the cure to poor sleep we (including many medical professionals) first thought they were. In fact, they give false hope. No sleeping pill has been developed that truly replicates the nourishment that comes with a solid natural sleep.
Likewise, alcohol has long had a reputation as something that is capable of sending people to sleep. The famous ‘nightcap’ - one for the road that will help you get your head down. While it’s true that alcohol sedates and relaxes you, anything more than moderation in drink has a big impact on the quality of sleep you get. In fact, it knocks out the important aspects of sleep that help with laying down new memories (Singleton & Wolfson, 2009). So if you’ve got plenty of thinking and learning to do, try to stick to just the one glass of wine, if any at all.
Lots of these tips are individual. I haven’t even gone into the broken sleep patterns of new parents, those who travel a lot, or shift workers. These bring their own challenges. But try to take the time to experiment and work out what’s best for you. If you’re constantly feeling tired in the morning and it takes three strong coffees to cut through that, perhaps it’s something that needs to be addressed.
I also realise that this is a bit of a catch-22, as changing sleep habits is really a behaviour change in itself. But small changes can make a big difference, and these will cascade down to all other aspects of your life.
Tips for getting a nourishing sleep
Even self-diagnosed insomniacs might want to try these tips out before resigning themselves to a life of sleep deprivation.
Keep your room at a good temperature. Did you know that the ideal temperature for sleeping is 18 degrees (celsius)? This might be a bit actually a bit colder than you thought. I’m sure there are regional and individual variations with this, too.
Be physically active. This is obviously a circular thing. Physical activity helps with good sleep, and good sleep helps with sticking to physical activity. These effects are independent of each other. Just avoid any overly vigorous activity 2 hours before bed, this is likely to disrupt your sleep.
Take a break from your phone. You don’t need to divorce from it completely, just put it on charge in the lounge so you don’t get tempted by social media in the middle of the night. Invest in an old school alarm clock, or use your watch.
Have a regular bedtime (even at weekends). Easier said than done, but consistency is key to getting good sleep, as well as for general health behaviour change. Related to this, it is a myth that you can ‘make up’ a lack of sleep at the weekend. Maybe you’ll sleep more, but the quality is not the same. Plus, it won’t do the consistency any favours.
Create a pre-sleep ritual. I discussed habit stacking in another Mensana Movement article. Stacking habits that help good sleep before bed are the same. Most people clean their teeth before bed, so maybe use that as the first behaviour in the routine. Other behaviours might include putting the phone on charge in the lounge, some stretching or light yoga, dimming the lights in the bedroom, reading a book chapter (in a physical book or Kindle, not on the iPad!) and maybe a small pre-sleep meditation.
Find your own rhythm, and respect it. If you have the luxury, experiment by not setting an alarm. How many hours did you naturally sleep for? Note - this needs to be an alcohol-free experiment for it to be valid. Maybe also keep your curtains open or leave a crack in them so that natural light can stream through in the morning. This helps you get aligned with natural daily changes in light.
Use sleeping apps and natural noises. This has been my go-to for a while. Noises that are repetitive, natural, focus your attention on your breath, or are just very boring (check out the Game of Drones episodes on the Sleep with Me podcast!). Too interesting, and you’ll be listening rather than sleeping. My Noise (https://mynoise.net/) has lots of natural sounds like rain and forest noises. This may seem like a contradiction to the ‘no technology’ suggestion. But, having it set up a couple of hours before bed so you just need to hit ‘play’ means that at least you’re not staring at a blue-lit screen for a prolonged amount of time.
So, ask yourself, is your sleep serving you? And what can you do to address it? If sleep really is a persistent issue for you, be sure to make an appointment to see a local sleep specialist or check out https://www.sleepfoundation.org/ for some more tips and info.
Why We Sleep (Matthew Walker)
Hagger, M. (2009). Sleep, Self-Regulation, Self-Control and Health. Stress and Health.
Singleton, R. A., & Wolfson, A. R. (2009). Alcohol consumption, sleep, and academic performance among college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.