The UK as a whole is a nation filled with bad sleepers. According to a sleep survey from last year, the average person living in the UK sleeps for between 5.78 and 6.83 hours, which compared with the 6.9 hours average amount of sleep achieved worldwide by adults over the age of 25, means Brits get around 34.5 minutes less sleep a night than those in other countries. This adds up 210.2 hours a year (or an incredible 8.76 days)!
So how do we get the perfect night’s sleep? And is eight hours still the holy grail in terms of optimal kip? To get the answers to these and other burning questions on this vital topic, we spoke to a serious expert in Dr. Nicola Barclay, departmental lecturer in sleep medicine at the University of Oxford and Mammoth sleep ambassador to find out.
How bad are we as a nation in terms of sleep?
‘Sleep is the price we pay for wakefulness’ but as a nation we are trying to stay awake more and more in the 24/7 lifestyle that we seem to have developed. We are forgoing our sleep in an effort to be more productive, working longer and longer hours and partying until dawn. Yet this comes at a price.
How much does a poor nights sleep impact on us?
Even one night of poor sleep has its consequences. We experience changes in our metabolism, cardiovascular system, and immunity when we don’t get enough sleep, but more noticeably we see changes in our ability to maintain attention, our concentration and ability to regulate our emotions. This means that we are more likely to be irritable and emotionally reactive when we haven’t had the sleep we require.
Are there things we can do throughout our day to ensure a better night’s sleep?
Sleep is controlled by two processes: a homeostatic process in which sleep ‘pressure’ builds up throughout the day, also called a ‘sleep drive’, and this pressure then dissipates when we sleep. We also have a circadian process which dictates the timing of a host of physiological processes, including when it is time to sleep and when it is time to be awake.
We can ensure a better night sleep by being in tune with these 2 processes. Certain substances and activities interfere with these processes. Knowledge of these factors can help us get a good nights sleep.
- Reduce caffeine intake: Caffeine keeps us alert and awake by influencing neurochemicals which interfere with the homeostatic sleep drive. Having too much caffeine reduces your sleep drive, making it difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep. Caffeine has a long half-life, meaning that the time it takes for your body to metabolise it is around 5 hours. This means that if you have a double espresso around 5pm, you are likely to still have as much caffeine in your system at 10pm as having a single shot of espresso. Would you really have an espresso before going to bed?! I thought not.
- Reduce your alcohol intake: Alcohol also interferes with our sleep. Whilst a nightcap can help us get off to sleep, the sleep during the second half of the night is seriously disrupted. It becomes more fragmented, we are more likely to awaken to use the bathroom, and the amount of Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) we obtain is reduced. This sleep stage helps us regulate our emotions, so we are likely to not only feel tired after a night on the booze, but also more emotionally reactive the following day.
- Eat healthily: certain foods such as bananas, egg, poultry, tart cherries, contain or help our body’s to secrete melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Eating such foods in the hours leading up to bedtime could help you regulate your circadian rhythm and get to sleep at your optimum time.
- Reduce screen time: Melatonin, the hormone we just mentioned which can help you get off to sleep, is inhibited by light, particularly blue light. Electronic devices such as phones, tablets and computers emit a lot of blue light, and so evening screen time can seriously disrupt our circadian rhythm, pushing it later and later. Limit your screen time a couple of hours before bed, or use a screen filter or ‘night mode’ if you really must use these devices in the twilight hours.
- Exercise, but at the right time: exercise during the day has been shown to boost slow wave sleep (SWS), the sleep stages that help you feel restored and replenished. Get outside to expose yourself to natural daylight to synchronise your circadian rhythm with the light-dark cycle and get some exercise to boost those slow waves. Though exercise in the couple of hours before bed may raise your body temperature to such an extent that it is difficult to get to sleep. Our body needs to be cool to get to sleep, so exercise earlier in the day.
- Have a hot bath before bed: This may sound counterintuitive given that our body needs to be cool in order to get to sleep, but having a hot bath means that when you hit the cold air when you get out of the bath stimulates your bodies natural cooling, and so your core body temperature reduces faster aiding your transition to slumber.
Do you advocate naps in the day?
Naps reduce your homeostatic sleep pressure, making it harder to sleep at night. Though if you are particularly in need of a nap, make sure they occur earlier in the day. Also, limit naps to either 20 minutes or 1.5 hours. We go through various cycles of sleep stages, that each take a predictable amount of time.
Napping for 20 or 90 minutes means that we avoid waking up out of SWS – a sleep stage which can be difficult to arouse from making us feel groggy when we wake up.
What are your thoughts on sleep gadgets?
Devices that purport to track our sleep have their benefits and limitations. They are good for getting an insight into how long you are spending in bed, but many of these devices or apps are not very good at accurately tracking your sleep time, let alone your sleep stages.
Many people can become obsessed with getting the golden ‘8 hours’ of sleep, feeling defeated when their sleep tracker tells them otherwise, but actually fixating too much on our sleep can make it even trickier to actually get to sleep. Some individuals who don’t have a problem with their sleep may start to become obsessed with this perfect number of 8 hours of slumber that they develop ‘orthosomnia’ – the fixation on perfect sleep.
Given that these devices and apps are poor at accurately tracking our sleep can make it more problematic. One study from our lab showed that fake feedback on how much sleep an individual obtained on one night influenced how they felt the next day – even though they had slept well, being told they hadn’t got enough sleep influenced how tired they felt. This was based completely on false information like that from sleep trackers.
What’s the best environment for a good night’s sleep?
- A cool bedroom around 16-18oC
- A dark bedroom – use blackout blinds to reduce bright light
- A quiet bedroom
- Cotton sheets to keep you cool
- A comfortable mattress that is neither too soft nor too hard
- A supportive pillow
How much do our devices like phones and laptops affect us when trying to get a good sleep?
As I mentioned before, the problem with these devices primarily is the emission of blue light. Blue light inhibits the production and secretion of melatonin, the hormone of darkness, which helps us get to sleep. Inhibiting melatonin pushes our circadian rhythm later and later, making it harder to get to sleep.
In addition, if we are playing games, socialising, or working on these devices in the run up to bedtime can be stimulating for our mind, making it hard for us to switch off our thoughts when we want to get to sleep.
Why do so many of us suffer from insomnia?
Around 30% of adults experience at least some symptoms of insomnia, and around 10% experience symptoms warranting diagnosis of insomnia disorder. So insomnia is rather common. There are both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to insomnia, so some of us are genetically predisposed, who are then at particular risk for insomnia if they don’t adhere to good sleep hygiene.
Insomnia is often ‘triggered’ by something in the environment, like a life stressor or a change of routine. It is common after the birth of a new child, the death of a loved one, change of job, or any other stressors. Managing stress can be a good step to overcoming insomnia.
Many individuals benefit from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia, which helps to encourage good sleep routines, methods for dealing with sleeplessness, and changing thoughts and behaviours around sleep.
Is 8 hours still the optimal figure to look for?
The amount of sleep we all need is very individual. Some of us need only 4 hours sleep to function at our optimum, whilst others need much longer. 8 hours is the average for the normal population. Therefore, we shouldn’t become fixated on this golden number of 8 hours, as it might not be optimal for everyone.
Our sleep duration appears to be genetically controlled. You can work out your optimum sleep duration by trial and error, changing your sleep opportunity using an alarm and seeing how you feel. When you have slept your required amount, you should wake feeling refreshed.
Is it good to have a pre-bed routine?
Absolutely. A change in our routine can make it difficult to get to sleep, so stick with a regular routine on a nightly basis. Go to bed and rise from the bed at the same times every day, and minimise disruption in the 2 hours prior to bed time. In the 2 hours before bed, reduce work and exposure to bright light, keep cool and relax.
How important is having a good mattress?
Given that we spend a third of our lives asleep, having a comfortable mattress is essential. An uncomfortable mattress can contribute to aches and pains, and make it difficult to maintain sleep. Some mattresses can also make us too hot, so finding a mattress that can help dispel our body temperature and keep us cool is optimum.
Can you give us some top tips for relaxation before bed?
Deep breathing techniques can help to lower heart rate and keep us calm before bed. Counting breaths and practicing mindfulness mediations can be helpful in getting off to sleep. And don’t try to get to sleep. The more we try, the more evasive sleep becomes. Distract your mind with calming thoughts or count your breaths slowly as you inhale and exhale.
Progressive muscle relaxation can also help to relax us ready for sleep. Tensing and relaxing our muscles progressively throughout the body can dispel tension and lead to a blissful slumber.
For a great night’s sleep why not try one of Mammoth’s excellent all-new Wake® collection, currently available exclusively at Argos and designed with healthcare in mind, to relieve pressure and ease aches and pains. Beautifully simple – every Wake® mattress contains Mammoth’s naturally cooling Medical Grade™ foam – scientifically tested and shown to improve sleep, so it won’t overheat and neither will you. Partnered with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Mammoth’s leading sleep and comfort technologies are recommended by health professionals.
To find out more about Wake® visit: www.argos.co.uk/brands/mammoth
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