Most of us have acquired knowledge or the importance of a good night’s sleep. We have our own experience of sleeping well or badly and understand how this can affect our mood and performance. Many of us have also been fortunate enough to have been on the receiving end of (sometimes unsolicited!) advice from friends or relatives, often parents, regarding how cranky we can be if we are short of sleep. The fact that sleep deprivation is used as a means of torture proves beyond any doubt that we can become broken without the restorative effect of sleep.
A few important matters for discussion arise with regard to sleep:
- How much sleep is needed?
- When is a good time to sleep?
- How can sleep quality be improved?
- What would lead to bad sleep?
- Are there any ways of cheating?
Doctor Michael Breus, also known as “The Sleep Doctor” explains that the different levels of sleep come in blocks of about 90 minutes and that 5 of these blocks per night can be an ideal number to aim for. This equates to about 7 hours 30 minutes sleep per night.
When to sleep?
Humans are, broadly speaking, designed to sleep when the sun is down and to be awake and more active when the sun is up. Changing levels of light mostly determine when we are predisposed to sleep and when we are predisposed to be up and active.
How to safeguard, improve or wreck sleep quality?
Routine is key. It has been shown to be beneficial to sleep patterns to have a routine that involves enough sleep and does not change significantly from day to day. If we work Monday to Friday and then change our sleep pattern completely on Friday and Saturday night because of other interests, priorities and commitments then this is likely to affect the quality of our sleep for a few days when we try to return to our work week schedule. Where possible it is better to keep non-working sleep patterns as close as possible to working sleep patterns. Keeping a sense of balance amongst our various interests and commitments is also important, so never having a late night and late start might be a little too stringent to keep us happy!
Unsociable and changing shift patterns are probably the hardest work schedules to deal with in terms of sleep quality. A rotating shift (eg mornings one week, middles the next and lates the next) is the worst in that it does not allow for any routine to actually become routine at all. Best attempts to deal with difficult work patterns can involve exposure to light management and products including black-out curtains, sleeping masks over your eyelids, special sunglasses to reduce intensity of light possibly whilst returning from work during the early morning with the intention of immediate sleep and even melatonin. This is available through your GP and could be part of a short-term solution for some.
Alcohol can help or hinder our sleep according to how much we drink in the period of time before we go to or are put to bed. One or two alcoholic drinks during the evening can help us to get to sleep and are not likely to be detrimental to the quality of sleep. On the other hand, many of us know from our own experience that a big night involving a lot of alcohol will, almost certainly, lead to falling into what seems like a deep sleep. Unfortunately, we tend to wake feeling atrociously awful. This is partly due to the dehydrating effect of the alcohol and partly due to the fact that the volume of alcohol may prevent us from entering into all of the levels of sleep necessary for a quality night’s rest.
Exercise tends to improve sleep quality for most, although exercise too soon before sleep can be problematic. Some of us might find it harder to relax if we train immediately before sleep whilst for others the opposite can be the case. Sticking with what works for you as an individual is the answer.
Can we cheat?
Cheating sleep is an interesting idea. Common sense probably tells us that this might only work in the short term.
There may well be times in life when we want to do this or are even forced to do this by a variety of circumstances, such as young family, work commitments and social priorities. The message from Doctor Breus is clear; cheating at sleep is only advisable in the short term.
As a short piece of anecdotal evidence in support of Doctor Breus’s contention I once attended a presentation from a busy CEO who said that during his most stressful time at work he put into practice the idea of an 8th day every week. He called this day “Fruesday” and achieved it by going home from work on Thursday afternoon at 2pm and going to bed immediately. He would rise at 8pm on Thursday evening and return to work and stay there until 2am on Friday morning before returning home and then going in to the office at around 9am on Friday morning for a normal day’s work. This worked beautifully for several weeks before he lost all connection with his family and friends, fell asleep at the wheel of his car, crashed, was badly injured and finally realised that his Mum had been right all along. You can’t burn the candle at both ends!
Sleep is there for a reason. Get the best you can.