The environment we live and work in, the people we interact with, societal and cultural values and norms can really shape our behaviour.
One thing I see as underrated in our culture is sleep.
We prioritise busyness, productivity and “doing” over resting and recovering. With the recent COVID 19 pandemic, many people have really struggled with sleep due to altered routines, increased stresses and anxiety and limitations on travel and access to usual social and recreational pastimes.
Lack of sleep can inhibit training effects, impact on recovery, increase risk of injury and make you more susceptible to an array of medical conditions from diabetes to chronic pain. Our ever-busy lives mean sleep is often viewed as an inconvenience that interrupts us doing stuff and is not prioritised for health.
My own interest in sleep came after a particularly stressful period of life which led to an 18-month bout of insomnia, it affected virtually every aspect of my life. I started to research the issue and found that a significant proportion of the population is sleep-deprived and many of my clients too. I successfully improved my sleep, my relationship with sleep with self-management and lifestyle changes and whilst sleep occasionally eludes me due to worries, this is quite normal and manageable.
For an activity we spend on average 1/3 of our lives doing, most of us have very little understanding of what sleep is and why we need it.
Sleep is a state characterised by changes in brain wave activity, breathing, heart rate, body temperature and other physiological functions, where we are less responsive to external stimuli, but able to rouse easily unlike other states of reduced consciousness.
Many physiological functions reduce during sleep but others are increased such as the release of growth hormone and cell repair, in fact, some genes associated with repair are only activated at night suggesting that this is an important function of
The brain remains active throughout sleep and can be more active than when you are awake during certain phases, which scientists believe may be related to memory formation, but this is not fully understood. 2 internal biological mechanisms control sleep, your circadian rhythms and sleep-wake homeostasis. Circadian Rhythms direct a variety of functions from wakefulness, variation in body temperature, and metabolism and they control the timing of sleep along with our natural Cortisol cycle and melatonin production (and other mechanisms). They are controlled by your biological clock and synchronise with your environment but do continue in their absence which is why jetlag is so horrible! Your Sleep-Wake homeostasis internally tracks the need for sleep increasing deeper, longer sleep after a period of sleep deprivation.
There are 5 stages of sleep shown in the graphic below, which repeat x4-5 per night on average. Slow-wave sleep or deep sleep is most important for recovery which is why sleep quality matters.
Sleep requirements vary by age and individuals, some people need more or less than others. Teenagers are amongst some of the most sleep-deprived with many only getting 5-6 hours per night. Statistics from 2013 show that 40% of people sleep less than 6 hours per night which can be detrimental to health and wellbeing.
A few nights of reduced sleep due to life events or an acute period of stress will do no harm, but with insomnia estimated to affect 1/3 of the UK population, longer-term effects of sleep deprivation should be taken seriously.
If you don’t sleep well, don’t panic! The good news is there is plenty you can do to improve your sleep.
If you regularly struggle to sleep and it is affecting your quality of life, then speak to your GP as well as trying the measures above, to ensure there is no underlying medical problem.
And finally a thought from Thomas Dekker, an Elizabethan writer who clearly knew a thing or two...