Cornerstone 2: A whole night's sleep
Melatonin and sleep superpower
A whole night’s sleep is our human superpower, under-rated and seriously underutilised. I think my favourite fact about sleep is this: the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin not only helps us to fall into a glorious slumber, it also is one of the most potent antioxidants we have access to. So, when we snooze, we are actually allowing our bodies to do a “deep clean”. Mopping up free radicals, our immune systems spring into action too, we repair and restore our DNA and fix the daily cellular damage accrued from the metabolism of life. Sleep is also important for the laying down of memory and the ordering of mental and physical skills and information. This is really worth putting into practice the next time you have an important talk or workshop to deliver: staying up late and skimping on sleep for extra prep or getting a full dose of memory-forming and anxiety-reducing sleep? Give it a try. No wonder sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to have a car accident than those over the legal alcohol limit, and night-shift workers have 50% more risk than the average population of almost all types of cancer. Chronic sleep deprivation is also a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and excess weight gain. The list goes on and on…
We wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honour in the Western world: it has even made it into our language: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” and “you snooze, you lose”. These misguided cultural habits first stem from the mechanisation of the industrial age. We esteemed the machine and its productivity and even now, in the tech industry we want pieces of tech that need less and less time in power down, ie less time out of productivity. We are addicted to productivity. Here’s the rub, we all know it – a good night’s sleep leaves you more focused, more productive and more creative. It leaves you more able to access your natural problem-solving skills and retain more new learning. It will also allow us to be kinder, more compassionate individuals as we are less emotionally reactive when well slept. So – if we get all these benefits from a good night’s sleep why are we not managing to do so? A few simple changes to our daily lives can make the world of difference to our night of sleep.
Make sleep sacrosanct. Once you prioritise sleep, you will start to make the changes to your day which will make sleep easy to access. Here are the four most important things that will change your sleep from restless to restful.
Keep your sleep times roughly similar every day: a good sleep routine will help your body to release melatonin at the right time to help you fall asleep easily. It’s worth being honest with yourself here about your natural body clock: are you a night owl or a morning bird? If your work-life allows, it is worth going as close as possible to your natural sleep/wake cycle and starting there to build your routine.
Try a task: Work out when you would most naturally waken, when you don’t set an alarm. Are you always up and ready to go at 6 am or would you struggle to get up and out of bed for a 9 am start at work? Be honest and work with your natural rhythm. With so many of us now working from home, take advantage of this for a good night’s sleep. Once you have your waking time, work back eight hours to find the time you should be aiming to fall asleep.
Remove all blue light from your surroundings two to four hours before going to bed. Blue light inhibits the release of melatonin and makes it almost impossible to fall asleep. But most effectively the screens must go off in the evening, around four hours before you go to bed. Dim the lighting in the house; we use standard lamps with orange light bulbs in the evening. I heard recently that Dr Chatterjee puts his phone to “bed” quite literally in a small device bed: his children love it too! The blue light is switched off and the world in our phones is laid to rest too, to give our minds a chance to unwind before we attempt to sleep. If it is absolutely necessary to be on a screen in the hours before bed, it is possible to switch screens to orange night mode, and also to purchase orange-tinted glasses for night wearing. Keep your room in complete darkness or try an eye mask. The more light you can cut out the more melatonin you make and the better sleep you create.
Consider the temperature of your bedroom. As we fall asleep our bodies release heat and our body temperature falls slightly. We cannot do this if the room temperature around us and lots of cosy duvets are stopping us from dropping our temperature. Consider reducing the bedroom thermostat by 1 degree at a time, or open the bedroom window an hour before bed until you find an optimal temperature for a comfortable falling asleep.
Caffeine and alcohol
Let’s be honest about caffeine and alcohol. Even if you are not drinking lots of either of these much-loved vices, the timings of your consumptions may be having a really detrimental effect on your quality of sleep. With both substances you may argue that you aren’t affected by them, but caffeine and alcohol can take up to 7 hours to metabolise from the body and be excreted. Both of these substances stop us from moving through all the sleep cycles necessary for a full night’s sleep, like stopping your dishwasher halfway through the cycle and finding dirty dishes in the morning. This is what our half-finished sleep is doing to our bodies. If you’re like me and you really don’t want to give up that vice, then it’s about taking charge of it, rather than letting it rule you. Try experimenting with your daily coffee or tea: try swapping it for a caffeine-free beverage earlier in the day and see what the effects are. Try having your wine with your evening meal and then changing to alcohol-free or half-strength wine/beer. I sometimes dilute a glass of wine in the evening with sparkling water: it’s still a special drink but reducing the alcohol content by half. I also don’t routinely drink alcohol after 9 pm, knowing that this will not affect my sleep too much. If you enjoy alchol choose one or two evenings per week to savour a nice beer or glass of wine: your liver will thank you for the chance to detox after processing that alcohol.
Experiment with your habits and see what affects your sleep most, but above all preserve sleep. Remember it is your very own free magic bullet.