Posted by Adam Meads, Apr 27, 2020


We all know sleep is a hot topic. From how many hours you get to what time and when you go to bed, we’ve gone from taking a stab in the dark (aiming for between 6 and 8 hours per night) to monitoring our every minute in bed to ensure we’re getting the most out of our downtime.

“Over the past ten years there’s been lots of discussion around diet and exercise and people have become much more focused on moving their bodies and healthy eating but until around five years ago sleep has been a neglected stepsister in the health conversation,” admits Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, sleep expert and author of Why We Sleep. “Right now, sleep is having its moment in the spotlight that it hasn’t before and we’ve had an explosion of science telling us all about the incredible benefits of sleep when we get it and the remarkable detriment to our brain and body health when we don’t get enough.”

Our new need to know attitude towards sleep is also as a result of the astonishing amount of people seem to be suffering with sleep disorders. Whether its stress, emotions, young children interrupting or hormonal fluctuations, getting to sleep and staying asleep just doesn’t seem to be as plain sailing anymore. “If we look at the numbers, somewhere between 10-15% of the population do have insomnia or would classify for clinical grade insomnia so it is a non-trivial portion of the population,” explains Matt. “Only a couple of months ago I had a period where I was struggling with sleep because of stresses with work.”

Gee, if the sleep doctor is struggling, what hope is there for the rest of us? Well lots actually. When Matt is restless, he turns to meditation apps. "My preferences are Headspace and Ten Percent Happier. When I was writing my book, I was looking at evidence that suggested meditation can help people with insomnia fall asleep faster and stay asleep, and the evidence was quite strong. I was quite sceptical because as a hard-nosed scientist, meditation sounded a little woo-woo but I started trying it and I found they really helped me.”

That was four years ago and he’s still going strong, meditating every day in the morning or after a workout and then again at night if he’s feeling restless. His advice? Use the apps to teach you how to do it and learn the techniques and then go it alone so you can leave your phone and all technology out of the bedroom – a must in Matt’s eyes.

Talking of technology, our newfound obsession with sleep is causing people to track, monitor and analyse what should be a natural process. With some reports showing that sleep trackers can actually cause more anxiety and tossing and turning as users aim to get a ‘perfect night’s sleep’, should we ditch them altogether? “Everything in moderation,” says Matt. “It’s not good to become so obsessional with exercise that it degrades other aspects of your life and the same is true over diet and also sleep. I think overall people get a lot of benefit from thinking about their sleep and being mindful of it but there are a select few that for who it becomes detrimental as it reinforces their difficulty with sleep.”

Are power naps the answer?

We’ve talked about apps, now what about naps. It might not be a luxury everyone can afford (unless you have a flexible boss!) but could grabbing a few winks mid-afternoon be the answer to a smooth and seamless night’s sleep? According to Matt, they’re a double-edged sword. “We’ve certainly found that naps have benefits for the brain in terms of learning, memory and helping balance our moods and emotions and they can also help your cardiovascular system but if you struggle with sleep the advice would be not to nap.” Ready for the science bit?

“From the moment you wake up there’s a chemical that builds up in your brain called adenosine– it’s the sleepiness chemical and it’s what we call sleep pressure. The more it builds up, the sleepier you feel. So, after about 16 hours of being awake you should have enough ‘sleep pressure’ weighing down on you to help you fall asleep quickly, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed. and we wake up feeling awake. The danger with naps is that if you have a nap in the afternoon it’s almost like a pressure valve on a steam cooker as you release some of that healthy sleep pressure so when it’s time to fall asleep at your natural bedtime you don’t feel as sleepy anymore because you’ve released some of that healthy sleepiness you’ve been building up,” he explains. So basically, if you can close your eyes at any given moment and fall asleep and still drift off into dreamland without a care or concern, nap away. If you’re more of a caged lion, pacing round the room, counting sheep to help you sleep, naps are a no-go.

How to break down the sleep cycle

How to break the broken sleep cycle

Hurrah, you’ve gone to bed and got to sleep but what’s this? It’s 2am and you’re wide awake, mind buzzing and feeling anything but relaxed. It’s tortuous and you feel like you’ve tried everything, but have you stepped outside your bedroom? If not, go walkabout. “Your brain is an incredibly associative device and if you lie in bed for long periods of time (usually 20-25 minutes) and you haven’t fallen asleep or fallen back to sleep, get out of bed,” explains Matt. “If you don’t your brain starts to learn that your bed is a place of being awake not asleep so every time you get into bed night after night your brain starts to think – ‘oh that’s the place I’m supposed to be awake’ not the place I’m supposed to be asleep.” The answer comes in breaking that association by going to a different place and returning to bed only when you feel sleepy. Unfortunately, there’s no time limit on that – it could be minutes or hours (which is why Matt suggests removing all clocks as it’s like a ball and chain round your neck), but then and only then should your head hit the pillow. The idea is that your brain will re-learn the association that your bed is the place of good, consistent sleep. “You would never sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry so why would you lie in bed awake waiting to get sleepy? The answer is you shouldn’t,” he continues.

What to do while you’re waiting for your brain and body to play ball? Read a magazine or book or meditate. Lights must be dim (or try lighting a relaxing candle like our Scent to Sleep) and never ever pick up your phone, open your computer or turn on the TV, that’s an absolute must.

Talking of scents and essential oils, pillow mists can also help in the retraining of your brain as over time it will associate it with relaxation and sleep but only use them when you’re in a routine, otherwise it could have the opposite effect, just like lying in bed wide awake.


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