Why We Believe in Sleep

This is a topic that I have mentioned many times in the past, to pupils in assemblies and Wellbeing lessons, to staff in briefings and training sessions and to parents in briefings and in these Blogs. It is a topic I will continue to bring up frequently with pupils, staff and parents as it is one I believe, and science supports this belief, that has a strong correlation to personal wellbeing. A correlation we will be investigating further next year with our Researcher in Residence who is completing her Masters in Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

In seeking to bring out the best in our pupils (and our staff) we often view the greatest barrier to seeing them truly flourish is lack of sleep. More specifically lack of the nourishment that sleep provides in terms of our physical health, mental health, memory and influence on others. Poor concentration, a negative impact on short and long term memory and reduced immunity are the three features that are identified and which resonate, particularly at this time. We are all being required to concentrate in a different way, we need to maintain optimum brain function in these times of social, economic and educational strain and a healthy immune system has never been more valued than now in the midst of a global pandemic. We aim to give all our pupils and our staff (and our parents) good guidance on getting into a positive sleeping routine every night. The indicators of a disrupted night sleep are easy to see in terms of physical appearance and easy to hear, in terms of irritability and/or disengagement. 

 

When our boarders are living in House, establishing a ‘sleep friendly’ routine is relatively straightforward as we can set up a suitable schedule (as provided by Mr Calverd in a previous Blog). This includes lights out at regular (and suitable) times, removing electronic devices, encouraging reading or some relaxation before lights out, getting exercise (but not too late at night), eating at suitable times and establishing a routine which conditions our body to prepare for sleep. A sound sleep that will refresh memory, boost the immune system, repair our bodies in preparation for the challenges of the next day and help us to feel good about life. It is believed that every known process in the human body benefits from sleep. Following on from this, sleep loss is related to the following conditions:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes & Weight Gain
  • Heart Disease
  • Poor fertility
  • Weakened immune system
  • DNA damage

 

Up until relatively recently sleep was generally regarded as an inconvenience which gets in the way of work and play. Hours of wasted time when we could have been doing so much and doing it so much more efficiently. This held true for the world of work, for military exercises and for academic study (I now see the folly of the caffeine fuelled ‘all nighter’ to prepare for an exam but at university this was/is so common). Studies were carried out in the effects of sleep deprivation to see if people could productively work 24/7. Some of the results were both fascinating and tragic; illustrating that sleep is essential and deprivation will kill. Many high profile individuals prided themselves in not needing more than 4 hours sleep (in the West, notably Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan although these examples may betray my age). Both succumbed to ailments now associated with poor sleep habits. Bill Clinton prided himself on having little sleep, until a heart attack led him to reconsider whether this was in the best interests of his long term health. Donald Trump also believes that sleeping less than four hours of sleep a night has helped make him the man he is today. Food for thought, although research suggests that only a very small percentage of the population can fully function with significantly less than the ‘standard’ adult dose of 7-9 hours.

The effect of sleep outside the recommended limits is fascinating and is now widely recognised as being linked to all aspects of physical and mental wellbeing.

Since it takes up about one third of your life, it is little wonder that sleep has always fascinated mankind.

There are many wonderful quotes on sleep (click to expand)

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

 

“Sleep is the best meditation.” — Dalai Lama

 

“There is no sunrise so beautiful that it is worth waking me up to see it.”

― Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

 

“If you sleep, Desire grows in you Like a vine in the forest. Like a monkey in the forest You jump from tree to tree, Never finding the fruit – From life to life, Never finding peace. If you are filled with desire Your sorrows swell Like the grass after the rain. But if you subdue desire Your sorrows shall fall from you Like drops of water from a lotus flower.”

― Gautama Buddha

 

“A well spent day brings happy sleep.” — Leonardo da Vinci

 

“Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.” — Heraclitus

 

“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

― John Steinbeck

 

“Go to bed you’ll feel better tomorrow” is the human version of “Did you try turning it off and on again?”

― Unknown

 

“When I wake up, I am reborn.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

 

“And if tonight my soul may find her peace

in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,

and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower

then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.”

― D.H. Lawrence

 

“Discover the great ideas that lie inside you by discovering the power of sleep.” ― Arianna Huffington

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” — Benjamin Franklin

 “Sleep is an investment in the energy you need to be effective tomorrow.” ― Tom Roth

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” — E. Joseph Cossman

“Sleep – the most beautiful experience in life – except drink.”

― W. C. Fields

 

And two to finish off; the penultimate is from the Scottish play and one of the many William Shakespeare quotes referring to sleep:

“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

 

Finally, keeping it simple and summarising it so well:

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” — Irish proverb

Does make you question, if we know so much about sleep, and have done so for so long, then why are we, in general, getting worse at it?

It is also interesting to see how many websites and books have been published to provide guidance on this fascinating topic. Website wise, we have:

Website referenceWhat you will find here
The sleep foundation.org Guidance in a host of different languages, on topics such as Revised sleep times for all ages; Insomnia; Sleep & Disease; Children, teens & sleep;  sleep problems; sleep & travel; sleep deprivation
Sleep education.org. Comprehensive guidance on healthy sleeping habits (the list below is taken from this site); sleeping disorders; treatments and a very large video archive
Get the sleep you need. Detailed summary on the sleep needs of all ages with an explanation of how this affects mental and physical health.
Healthline 17 tips to sleep better at night with a warning on the negative effects of poor sleep on physical performance, brain function, hormones and overall health
Healthguide.org More ‘simple’ tips on how to get a good night sleep on a regular basis and wake up feeling more energetic, healthy and productive.

 

The last word in sleep, however, has got to be with neuroscientist Matthew Walker, the author of Why We Sleep. This is a wonderful, enlightening and alarming book that I have promoted to my family, friends, staff, pupils and parents. There are so many fascinating scientific studies reported in this book that it kept me riveted throughout. Our pupils’ synapses in the brain are constantly strengthening, or widening, during the day to accommodate the flow of traffic as the brain soaks up experiences and knowledge. Matthew Walker talks about the brain’s ability to shrink during sleep by roughly 20 percent to allow these memories to be stored and the synapses to be pruned and cleaned for another day of learning. These incredible findings (Cirelli, C. 2013) further promote the reasons why we prioritise sleep routines from an early age. The simple medicine of sleep renormalises our synapses for another day of learning. The function of sleep on memory, the stages of sleep and the types of memory is remarkable. Studies showing how much memory improved after sleep suggests this should be an essential lesson for all examination revision, although the healthy sleeping habits should have been established long before any final examination so that long term memory was optimised. During the current pandemic we have had a break from examinations but not from stress and strain. Just as sleep will help us cope with examinations, so it will help you through the current stresses and strains.

 

Here is a summary of the 12 tips for a good night sleep from Matthew Walker:

1. Stick to a sleep schedule

We should aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. People generally have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Unfortunately sleeping late on weekends doesn’t make up for poor sleep during the week. If necessary, set an alarm for bedtime.

2. Don’t exercise too late in the day

Exercise is great, and we should try to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days. But try to time it no later than 2-3 hours before bed.

3. Avoid caffeine & nicotine

Colas, coffee, teas (that aren’t herbal) and chocolate contain caffeine, which is a stimulant. Even consuming these in the afternoon can have an affect on your sleep. Nicotine is also a mild stimulant, and smokers will often wake up earlier than they would otherwise, due to nicotine withdrawal.

4. Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed

The presence of alcohol in the body can reduce your REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep.

5. Avoid large meals and beverages late at night

A lights snack before bed is okay, but a heavy meal can cause digestive issues, which interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.

6. Avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep (where possible)

Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure or asthma medications, as well as some over the counter and herbal medicines for coughs, colds or allergies can disrupt sleep patterns. If you have trouble sleeping, it may be worth speaking to your doctor or pharmacist to see if any of the drugs you’re taking may be contributing to this. It may be possible to take them earlier in the day.

7. Don’t nap after 3pm

Naps are great, but taking them too late in the day can make it hard to fall asleep at night.

8. Make sure to leave time to relax before bed

It’s important to have time before bed to unwind. Try to schedule your days so that there is time to relax before bed.

9. Take a hot bath before bed

The drop in body temperature after a bath may help you to feel sleepy, and the bath can help you to slow down and relax before bed.

10. Have a dark, cool (in temperature), gadget free bedroom

We sleep better at night if the temperature in the room is kept on the cool side. Gadgets such as mobile phones and computers can be a distraction. Additionally the light they emit, especially the blue light, suppresses the secretion of melatonin. Melatonin being a hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycles – with it increasing in the evening to induce sleep. There are things we can do to reduce the blue light at night, including:

  • Using blue light filters on our phones & tablets. iOS 9.3 or later (iPhone 5S & iPad 2 onwards) has this built in – called Night Shift. On Android there are apps for this, a popular one being Twilight
  • Using blue light filters on our computers. For MacOS & Windows f.lux
    is a popular solution. Windows 10 also has a built in “Night Light” function that offers similar functionality.
  • Using blue light filters on our home lighting system. A popular solution to this are Philips Hue< bulbs, which connect wirelessly to your router, and can be programmed to reduce blue light during certain times of day. So for example, if your bedtime is 11pm, you can set the bulbs to reduce blue light from 10pm onwards… which will increase your melatonin level, preparing you for sleep.

A comfortable mattress and pillow can set you up for a good sleep. Those with insomnia will often watch the clock, turn it away from view so you don’t have to worry about the time while trying to sleep. Use these tips to optimize your sleeping space.

11. Get the right sunlight exposure

Sun exposure during the day helps us to regulate sleeping patterns. Try to get outside in the natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes per day.

12. Don’t stay in bed if you (really) can’t sleep

If you find yourself still in bed for more than 20 minutes, or you’re starting to get anxious in bed, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy. Anxiety whilst trying to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep. 

 

There is a lot of reading in this Blog and I hope you find it engaging and informative. If you do not, then it would be some consolation to know that it helped send you to sleep, knowing that a good sleep is essential if we are to flourish.

 

Stock photograph showing Wellbeing meditation activity in the Senior School, Lent term. 

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