I often write on here about my endless goal to achieve a good work/life balance and how it’s intrinsically linked to health and well being, because I want to feel my best, for myself and my kids.
The 21st Century is a busy one – especially for women, so many of us juggling careers with parenting and an endless to-do list, not to mention trying to invest in your relationships and friendships and have some much needed me-time. I’m exhausted just writing this.
I might have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyonce but if only I had the 100 strong entourage to go with it!
One thing I need more of, don’t we all, is sleep.
As our lives get busier, I know I, like many others, sacrifice sleep in order to fit more into my day- I work late and while the kids sleep, promising myself to switch the laptop by 9 then checking the clock to see it’s 11pm!
While there is no official figure on how much sleep is needed each night, a general guideline is between 6-8 hours, a number I wish I got close to every night.
In a study from the WBAresearch sleep foundation, the average Brit said that they needed 7 hours 20 minutes of sleep. However, 51% of Brits are not getting that much on a work night, with the average time in dreamland reported as 6 hours 49.
The majority of British sleepers are missing an average of 31 minutes of sleep per night. But what does that mean in practical terms? And how can we get more?
The science behind sleeping
Sleep happens in recurring cycles in 90-110 minute chunks. These are split into non-REM sleep and REM sleep.
Non-REM sleep takes place in three stages which break down like this:
- Stage One: Light Sleep: This stage is when you’re just falling asleep. This is a half-aware state where you’re prone to being easily awoken.
- Stage Two: True Sleep: After 10 minutes of stage one you enter ‘true sleep’ which lasts for about 20 minutes. Your breathing and heart rate slow down. This portion of sleep accounts for the largest part of our nightly sleep.
- Stage Three: Deep Sleep or Slow-wave sleep: The brain begins to pump out delta waves, reducing the heart rate and breathing to their lowest levels. This is the stage most parasomnias
REM sleep stands for rapid eye movement. This is the stage you enter about 60-70 minutes after we fall asleep and occurs three to five times per night. The brain is extremely active here and this is the stage most dreams occur. REM sleep is the final stage of the cycle.
Not allowing your brain to follow these cycles can be disastrous to your health. Staying awake for just 17 hours leads to a performance decrease equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. That’s the same as driving drunk!
From this understanding, it’s easy to see how the 31 minutes Brits lose can have a big impact. Interrupting deep sleep causes sleep inertia, where you’re groggy and unfocused for 30 minutes. Often, an alarm jolting you awake in the morning can cause that effect.
So what can we do about it? Here are my tips for getting more sleep
Experiment with light: Sleep is heavily affected by melatonin, which is in turn affected by light levels. Through the day, make sure you get plenty of exposure to light through windows, time outside and perhaps even a light therapy box. Then when night comes, lower your light levels.
Turn off your television and computer for an hour or more if you can, before bed, giving your brain time to wind down and also helping your melatonin levels increase. Try not to use a smartphone before bed (we’re all guilty of this right?), or at the very least download a red light filter to get rid of dangerous red light that messes up melatonin levels.
Cut down on caffeine: As part of a busy lifestyle, lots of Brits consume caffeine. Tea, coffee and energy drinks can have serious effects on your ability to sleep. Cut your intake by switching to decaff coffee or tea with less caffeine (green, white and herbal in descending order.)
Ditch the alarm: This is a tough one for workers, but can be accomplished with a bit of effort. Alarms can mess up sleep cycles and leave you seriously impaired. Instead, try going to bed earlier and seeing what time you wake naturally. Apps can be bought for iPhones and Android devices that analyses your sleep and wakes you up during light sleep.
Get plenty of exercise (but not close to bedtime): Exercise releases serotonin, which makes your mood better and helps you relax. This in turn makes falling asleep easier. However, if you exercise too close to bedtime you can suffer a spike of restlessness.
Stick to a schedule: Plan your sleep in advance. Don’t deviate from the pattern. This is hard for busy people, where unexpected things can always pop up. However, the more you can stick to a regular pattern the easier it is for your brain to relax and slip into sleep.
Nap: A tough one for 9-5 workers, but a nap of over two hours can improve memory and brain concentration. However, be careful not to nap too close to bedtime or you’ll have difficulty falling asleep.
How your sleep compares to others
Thinking it’s time to get more sleep? Or are you more of the “I can’t fit any more sleep in, I’m fine the way I am” persuasion?
What if we told you that some of the most successful people of all time had strict sleeping habits?
- Famed composer Beethoven, Novelist Thomas Mann and singer Jennifer Lopez planned their days to make sure they got eight hours of sleep a night. This is the higher end of recommended sleeping time, but ensures plenty of rest and gives the brain time to work through multiple cycles.
- Mariah Carey takes this to an extreme. The singer has been known to sleep for 15 hours a day in a humidified room to preserve her voice.
- Thomas Edison slept only four to five hours a night, but made up for this with naps throughout the day. The famed inventor remarked that sleep was ‘a waste of time.’
- Animals have a huge gulf in their sleep schedules compared to humans. Some animals like Pythons need 18 hours a day. Others, like Giraffes, Elephants and sheep can get by on less than three.
Go sleep more!
So if you want to be performing at your best without grogginess, you need to try to find an extra 31 minutes of sleep. As a worker or a parent this can be extremely difficult. If it means sacrificing a bit of time in front of the T.V or a smartphone, surely it’s worth it for a better quality of life?
So will you try any of my top tips? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments!