Sleep. Remember that? When you would slide between the sheets around 11pm and wake up refreshed at seven the next morning?
No, me neither.
In fact I’m not sure I ever did that. Maybe when I was a teenager at boarding school. In my twenties it was all late nights and early mornings, working shifts for a newspaper. The police shift was a real killer - 5am start but then it ended at 12.30pm and I was soon cycling down to Bondi. Did I tell you I was in Australia? It helped. In fact I think I did snooze on the beach in the afternoon. This is one thing neuroscientist Matthew Walker, who penned the bestselling book Why We Sleep, totally favours. He says those who indulge in a siesta virtually live forever. Shame that the relentless pace of the 21st century has all but wiped out that little indulgence, except for octogenarians in mountainous corners of Greece. The downside to Walker’s advice is you also have to add that mini nap to a full eight hours sleep at night.
And who the hell gets that?
Well, my husband for one - so annoying. Also luckily for us, the cofounder of Soda Says does too. The rest of my fifty something friends end up staring at the ceiling at 4am, live streaming their worries as dawn creeps through the shutters.
I’m trying to recall when a good night’s sleep became such a rare event. It certainly wasn’t in abundance in my 30s when I hit the executive life at full throttle doing 14 hour days on a daily newspaper once back in London. I recall coming home to my tiny flat in Bayswater at 10pm one night, throwing myself on the orange Conran sofa and literally weeping with exhaustion. Somehow I found time to get married and produce three children, by which stage I’d almost certainly given up on eight hours of sleep. Thankfully I’d also given up trying to be a full-time executive and full time mother too, and would shove the children into bed by 7.30pm. For the next ten years, one or other of them would stumble into our room after midnight with some spurious excuse to snuggle up with us. My favourite was “the bed doesn’t work”.
So what effect do this lack of sleep have on our health? Walker pulls no punches.
“Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.” He goes on to write that inadequate sleep – even moderate reductions for just one week – disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Sleep disruption further contributes to all the major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Walker believes the decimation of our sleep is having a “catastrophic” impact on our health, life expectancy, productivity and the education of our children.
It is also making us fat.
“Too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you feel hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction. Despite being full, you still want to eat more.” He presents research that proves lack of sleep increases our cravings for sweets, heavy-hitting carbohydrate-rich foods and salty snacks. These all rocketed by 30 to 40 percent when sleep was reduced by just a few hours each night.
If that doesn’t make you think again about getting an early night, how about this fact - lack of sleep makes you less attractive. In one study, groups of individuals who were given eight hours of sleep the night before were rated as more attractive compared to another group of individuals who were only given five hours of sleep the night before.
And let’s not forget the health benefits. He cites a Dr. Michael Irwin at the University of California, Los Angeles, who performed a landmark study revealing how just one sleepless night can affect your cancer-fighting immune cells. Examining healthy young men, Irwin demonstrated that going to bed at three a.m. and waking up at seven a.m. swept away 70 percent of the natural killer cells circulating in the immune system, relative to a full eight-hour night of sleep. Imagine the state of those poor cancer-fighting cells after a week of short sleep, “let alone months or even years” he writes.
Walker’s book is also packed with the science of why the body sleeps. Apparently two processes determine when we feel sleepy – a 24-hour circadian rhythm where the body is naturally awake for 12-16 hours and a chemical called adenosine that slowly builds up starting from the moment we wake and continues to build until it makes us feel tired at night. Everyone has a different circadian rhythm, determined by genetics - for some their peak of wakefulness is from dawn, while sleep arrives way before midnight. These “morning types” make up about 40% of the population. The night owls account for around 30% of the population, who prefer to go to bed late and wake up late. (The remaining 30% of the population is somewhere in between).
By the end of this 340 page fact-filled book, Walker is adamant that it is now time to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, “without embarrassment of the damaging stigma of laziness”. In doing so he says we can then “remember what is feels like to be truly awake during the day, infused with the very deepest plenitude of being”.
On the final pages Walker shares twelve tips for a healthy sleep - many will find it tough to follow all twelve. OK, let’s be real - I’d say unless you are a Buddhist monk, you will find it absolutely impossible to follow all twelve. Here they are anyway. Maybe just reading them every night will induce slumber.
Worth a try.
Twelve tips for healthy sleep
- If you do just ONE thing to improve your sleep make it this: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, aiming for at least eight hours. Set an alarm for bedtime right now and do not deviate.
- Aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day but do not work up a sweat two to three hours before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine - caffeine can take up to eight hours to wear off while nicotine is also a stimulant that induces “light” sleep.
- Avoid alcohol before bed (*wails*). It robs you of lovely, deep, dreamy REM sleep, imprisoning you in the lighter stages of sleep.
- Ditto large heavy meals late at night. Causes indigestion. Eat earlier and have a light snack before bed if you are ravenous.
- Avoid medications that delay or disrupt your sleep - many commonly prescribed medications contain caffeine. Investigate and try taking earlier in the day.
- Do not take naps after 3 pm. Late afternoon naps = harder to fall asleep.
- Relax before bed. Reading or listening to music is perfect. (No heavy metal, obvs).
- Take a hot bath before bed.It is super relaxing and the drop in body temperature after getting out may help you feel sleepy.
- Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, gadget-free bedroom.
- Get at least thirty minutes of preferably morning sunlight each day and dim the lights before bedtime.
- Don’t endlessly lie in bed awake.If you are still awake after 20 minutes, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. (The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.)