Lisa Artis is Deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity, a UK-based charity that aims to empower us to sleep better. As one of the world’s leading independent expert voices on sleep issues it provides courses and help for individuals and families — as well as specialist information to support employer health and wellbeing strategies, including training for workplace ‘sleep ambassadors’.
Let’s talk about…sleep
We all know how it feels to not be able to get to sleep or to wake in the night unable to drop off again. But what happens when poor sleep becomes a persistent problem — and how can we prime ourselves to sleep better?
Sleep is an essential pillar of health and lack of it impacts on all areas of our lives, from physical, mental and emotional health to professional performance and even our weight. It’s estimated that sleep deprivation costs the economy big; in the UK, it represents £40.2bn in lost productivity annually, while in America the figure rockets to $411bn and in Japan $138bn.
And this despite a pervasive idea that less sleep equates to more dynamism in business — a recent study  of leaders across the world found that 42 percent average six hours of sleep or less and the stories of leaders who apparently thrive on small amounts of sleep are legion: from Marissa Mayer and Richard Branson, known to sleep less than five hours a night, to sleepless icon Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister who famously clocked up four hours a night. But how true is the corollary?
According to a growing number of new sleep advocates — not very. Ariana Huffington has gone from being a high-profile sleep refusenik, averaging three hours a night, to writing a whole book — The Sleep Revolution — on the power of good rest to improve business performance and personal happiness, while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos insists that he makes getting eight hours of sleep a priority.
‘I am, without question, a better leader, because I can look ahead with more clarity,’ notes a newly rested Huffington.
And research continues to show that getting enough sleep — for most people somewhere between six and eight hours — is essential for optimum productivity, creativity, concentration, memory and alertness, replenishing glucose, the molecule that fuels the brain, and clearing the build-up of harmful proteins that research increasingly indicates can disrupt cognitive activity. By contrast, skipping sleep leads to poor judgment, lack of self-control and impaired creativity and less ability to engage, inspire and motivate.
‘One of the things we’re trying to do [at The Sleep Charity] is tackle the culture around sleep deprivation and the fact that people still feel almost ashamed that they haven’t slept well,’ says Artis. ‘We never dare to ring the boss and say, “I’ve had a really bad night’s sleep, can I take today off?” because it doesn’t seem like a genuine problem, but actually, sleep deprivation is awful.’
A healthy sleeper will go through four or five cycles of sleep a night; each approximately 90 minutes, and, within that, experience four stages of sleep, three non-REM and one deep REM stage, which variously prepare the body for sleep by lowering blood pressure and body temperature, acts as a restorative period, and allow us to process emotions.
Going through all stages of sleep is incredibly important, which is why broken or interrupted sleep is as bad as just getting four hours sleep a night. Artis notes that it’s not unusual to have one or two bad nights’ sleep a month, which can generally be ascribed to something — perhaps worry around a day ahead — with sleep usually rectified the following night. Other longer-term factors that can affect sleep include hormonal and physical changes such as puberty, pregnancy and peri- and full menopause.
If someone has been suffering three nights a week or more for longer than three months, though, that is classed as insomnia — although the term actually also includes other elements. A healthy sleeper falls asleep in 10 to 15 minutes, so anything longer than half an hour is classed as a sign of insomnia. The term is also applied to those who regularly go to sleep quickly but then wake in the night and are unable to fall back asleep, or conversely waking too early.
In all cases, though, there are hacks and tweaks to your routine that can help restore sleep hygiene — and knowing how to optimise your rest may be the best skill you learn this year…
How to improve your sleep…the expert’s view
People should judge how they’re sleeping by how well they’re feeling the next day. ‘We all feel groggy when we wake up, but generally after a shower and a cup of tea, most people feel fine. There is a general consensus that a healthy adult needs around seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but there is really no one-size-fits-all solution. Some people function really well on six-and-a-half, and others need more. If you are getting six-and-a-half hours’ sleep and feel sharp and well the next day, with no tiredness, then don’t worry or push yourself to try and sleep another hour, because you probably don’t need it.’
Regular hours are key to good sleep. ‘Going to bed and getting up at the same time as much as possible is key to regulating our internal body clock. Our body thrives on the routine of knowing when we need to feel sleepy and when to feel alert, and keeping regular hours allows it to do that. If your bedtime is 10pm on a weekday then avoid a 1am bedtime at the weekend if you can, and the same with your wake-up time. On weekends if you can get up within an hour of your normal waking time, even if you’re just resting in bed it really does strengthen that internal body clock.’
Stress and worry are the main reasons why people don’t sleep. ‘The hour before bedtime should be used to do things that are relaxing to you — not answering emails or scrolling on your phone. I read in bed, for example, every night and I will start dropping off quickly when I open the book — it really works for me. It’s so important to have a regular wind-down routine, whatever that is for you, because it sends subconscious cues to your brain and your body that it’s time for sleep.’
Repetitive behaviour will help you to sleep better. ‘Don’t expect to see an immediate effect overnight when you change your pre-sleep routine. Many people give up on night three because they don’t feel that what they are doing is working, but it can actually take up to two weeks to change a habit. Success is about altering that ‘instant fix’ approach in your thinking and persisting. Be consistent in doing the same thing and give your body and brain time to readjust.’
People don’t really understand the importance of light and dark when it comes to sleep. ‘In the morning, you need natural light exposure to suppress your levels of melatonin, which is the sleepy hormone, so open the curtains wide and promptly. Conversely, you need a dimmed environment at night to increase melatonin production and help you feel sleepy. Bright screens suppress the melatonin levels at night and can keep you awake, so turn them all off at least half an hour before bedtime to prep yourself physically and mentally for rest.’
Take a nap if you need one. Short naps in the day can improve alertness, mood, and memory if you need them, and in many cultures this little sleep boost has long been appreciated. In Japan, inemuri, or ‘napping at work to improve performance’, is not uncommon, while afternoon siestas have long been part of Spain’s work-life balance. If you are in a position where you can nap though, then make sure you do it before 3pm and for no more than around ten to 30 minutes, both of which will stop you from reaching deep sleep, which can interfere with your night-time sleep routine.
Quick performance boosts
- Consider your bedroom environment. The ideal temperature is around 16–18°C in a bedroom, and ensure you have a decent mattress and curtains or blinds that can make the room properly dark.
- Don’t work from your bed just because you’ve got a laptop when homeworking — you need to separate your work from your sleep environment to fully rest the mind.
- Sleep is about what you do during the day, not just before bedtime. Regular exercise is important; if you’re sensitive to caffeine stop drinking it around 2pm and avoid alcohol late at night. It can help you fall asleep, but that sleep will be fragmented and fragile, not restorative.
- Don’t check your phone ‘one last time’ before bed. You’ll reverse all the good foundations that you’ve laid to prepare for sleep by looking directly at the bright phone light.
- Don’t get fixated by your sleep tracker. The term ‘orthosomnia’ was coined for people who become fixated on their sleep trackers, and perversely get insomnia due to stress. Use them as a guide, but don’t get hung up on them.
- If you can’t get to sleep, try relaxation or breathing techniques and keep a notepad and pen by the bed so you can ‘brain dump’ worries and ‘must-remembers’ there until morning.
- Don’t lie in bed worrying if you can’t sleep, or you will start to associate your bed with a place of anxiety. If you’re not asleep within 30 minutes, get up and do something relaxing in another dimly-lit room until you feel sleepy again. Repeat if necessary.
- If anxiety causes you to wake in the night, think of ‘lying there’ as a period of relaxation. Enjoy the fact that it’s quiet, warm and dark and try not to think about sleep itself. You’ll still get some restorative effect from lying down, so challenge the thought process from ‘I can’t sleep’ to ‘I’m just relaxing’.
For more information visit www.thesleepcharity.org.uk.