Sleep well to perform better
We spend about a third of our lives asleep – or, at least, we should. The recommended quota is between seven and eight hours a night for adults, but around 36% of people in the UK and 30% people in the US struggle to achieve that. And I’m sorry to say that if you’re in India, Singapore or Japan, you’re getting less sleep than the rest of the world by up to 45 minutes a night.
There are times in our lives when we find it difficult to get good-quality sleep, from short-term demanding life events to feeling under pressure at work. For some, disorders such as sleep apnoea or insomnia can also be extremely stressful.
Many of us struggle to get to sleep because of an overactive mind. Have you ever lain awake with your mind preoccupied, like a squirrel frantically gnawing a nut, with some small detail of the day? The mind also loves the dark, lonely hours between 2am and 4am, when your inner critic is giving you commentary about your past mistakes or looking for future events to worry about.
A lack of sleep can have deleterious effects on your waking life, too. If you’ve had a restless night or two you’ll probably feel lethargic, lacking your usual vigour. Your attention span will shorten and you’ll struggle to focus and remember things. Your energy levels will wane, and you’ll become less productive and more frustrated because everything is taking far longer than it normally would.
Let’s turn to how sleep can benefit us, and then explore ways in which you might be able to get more of this precious treasure.
Rhythm of the night
It’s been known since the 1700s that plants have an internal clock: flowers open and close their petals and lift and lower their leaves to the daily rising and setting sun. But it’s only since the 1950s that scientists have explored this phenomenon in humans and animals.
Every single cell in your body has its own circadian rhythm – a 24-hour cycle during which it is programmed to do specific activities. During the final six hours of your day, the body begins to cool down. Your digestive system begins to slow down, too, so that it becomes harder to digest food late at night, while the brain naturally increases the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Far from resting, there’s an awful lot of activity taking place while you sleep. There’s an increase in growth hormone, and the body begins to make repairs to your gut lining and your skin, and to detoxify.
The brain is also extremely busy, consolidating memories and making new neural connections. Think of it like the period between leaving the office one evening and returning the next day to find it has been cleaned.
So how do we get a good night’s sleep? Light and food seem to be the most powerful factors.
The power of light
According to the experts, in order to sleep better at night you need to focus on your daily habits. When your brain registers light in the morning it is programmed to be alert, so, when you wake, try to get as much light as possible through your eyes to your brain. By contrast, it’s important to begin to dim the lights as evening draws in.
No more midnight snacks
Consider that your body stops digesting while you sleep and activates the detoxifying systems. Now consider that delicious takeaway you ate at 10pm last night. I’m not wanting to ruin your fun, but you are likely to sleep better if you’ve not eaten or drunk anything (other than water) for at least three hours before you go to bed.
The research tells us that the longer the period between your last meal and the following breakfast, the more chance the body has to reach its natural fasting mode, where it likes to burn fat – an added advantage to your gut health that can also benefit those who’d like to lose weight.
If you’ve experienced problematic sleep, you might have an avoidant relationship with your bedroom, or even the idea of sleep itself. You could try to make changes to your bedroom so that it’s a haven of loveliness that relaxes you. Little things can have a huge impact.
When you wake in the middle of the night, try a technique I call ‘presencing’. Slowly breathe in and out while noticing the texture and warmth of the sheet beneath your hands. Then pay full attention to the weight of the cover on your body before drawing your attention to the sensations in your feet. As your mind wanders, gently bring it back to this moment and this breath.
Get a medical check-up. There are many causes of sleep-related issues, from hormone imbalance to physical conditions. Sometimes just knowing what is causing the problem can help you to sleep better.
Turn up lights in the morning and dim them in the evening. Switch to night mode on devices a few hours before going to bed.
Leave at least three hours between your last meal and going to bed to allow the body to digest before you sleep.
Think about upgrading your pillows or mattress for extra comfort. Treat yourself to bed linen that you look forward to using each night. If there’s external noise, consider ear plugs; make sure they fit well. If there’s too much light, try wearing an eye mask.
Author: Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach
This article was first published in the September 2021 edition of Accounting and Business magazine
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