No matter what you do, your quality of sleep is likely to have an impact on your performance and well-being. When I was a student, I often experienced fatigue during the day and I attributed part of that to my sleep. I was sleeping anywhere from 4-6 hours on most weekdays, nightowling, and I’d sleep in on the weekends to make up for the deprivation. It was during this point in my life I decided to become more interested in sleep. I wanted to learn more about sleep so I could function better.
Having woken up early one day to study, I remember seeing Nick Littlehales (a self-styled ‘elite sports sleep coach’) on the TV in the morning talking about sleep. His interview seemed to reveal nothing I didn’t already know and he finished by promoting his new book.
Oh I see how it is, I thought to myself. I threw the remote away feeling frustrated because I had waited a good half an hour to listen to the interview, and got on with my day.
A few days later I found myself looking for books on sleep online and came across ‘Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind’ by Nick Littlehales. Despite the interview, I decided to buy it.
Skipping over some obvious information that is within the book and product promotions, I can say I learned some new things about sleep. Here’s what I’ve learned having read the book and performed some extra independent research:
1. Blue light keeps you awake and alert and daylight has a lot of it
A lot of people talk about how blue light from our phones or computers is ruining our sleep. That’s true to some extent; they’re bad during the night because they reduce melatonin production (which is supposed to help us sleep). Blue light is fine during the day, as is daylight. Daylight suppresses melatonin and so getting a lot of daylight helps to throw off the grogginess from waking. It’s a bit obvious when you think about it, but I personally didn’t appreciate the importance of opening my curtains and bathing in the daylight or actually going outside. Daylight is better than checking your phone in the morning too, as the first few minutes from waking are similar to drunkenness – I’d rather not be texting anyone in that state…
2. It’s more about when you wake up rather than when you sleep
It’s important to have a consistent wake up time, even on weekends. This helps to keep a consistent body-clock (which is naturally aligned with the rise and fall of the sun, among other factors). Sleeping at a consistent time is beneficial but not as important providing one makes up for any sleep lost in the week. This is good news for the night owl. Sleeping any later than around 2.30 am is a losing battle however, because our peak urge to sleep dips after this point.
3. Do not become a caffeine addict
Caffeine (especially coffee) was historically used by many cultures as an enhancer for intense spiritual study. In the modern world, caffeinated drinks are often used just to keep us awake. Tolerance develops with constant use and caffeine has a half-life in adults of 4-6 hours which could impact your sleep. Using caffeine infrequently as a performance enhancer is a better way to approach it. The UK Food Standards Agency suggests no more than 400mg of caffeine should be consumed daily for adults.
4. Sleep is in 90 Minute cycles…
Sleep is in 90 minute cycles. The typical cycle is as such:
non-REM stages (about 80%): We start with the interim between sleep and being conscious, then we move into light sleep where information is consolidated (the longest part of the non-REM stage) and then deep sleep, where a lot of physical restoration occurs.
REM (about 20%): We then have REM sleep which is when we dream.
We then momentarily wake up and the cycle repeats.
The point is therefore counting back in 90 minute cycles from the point you want to wake up to see how many cycles of sleep you want to get. 5 cycles a day is ideal, or 7 hours 30 minutes. This may not always be possible; but getting around 30-35 sleep cycles a week should be possible with a sleep schedule that adds extra sleep cycles on weekends for example by going to bed earlier, or through naps, which I’ll now come on to.
5. Consider a nap during the day
Historically, naps were a frequently observed by many societies. Other than the siesta, naps are often associated as something older people do in the modern western world. In fact, naps are a wonderful way to catch up on sleep for people of all ages and have been proven to enhance focus and memory processing.
Naps may not be possible during weekdays where a lot of people are working during the day and lunch breaks seem quite short on their own. The weekend may allow for napping however. In any case, a nap can be as short as 30 minutes or even less. Even if one does not fully fall asleep, there are still memory processing benefits (because of potential light sleep) and psychological benefits in isolating oneself from the world.
When I decide to nap, I give myself anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. It’s suggested one should nap somewhere between 1-3pm because that is when the natural urge to sleep is the strongest (it makes sense why people may feel sleepy around lunch-time). I have tried 5-7pm which is when the urge peaks again, but if this is close to your regular sleep time, limiting the nap to less than an hour is suggested. One may feel a bit groggy upon waking from a nap. It doesn’t happen much to me, but I’ve heard consuming a small amount of caffeine just before napping can deal with this.
6. Add consistency to your day and night
As our bodies like consistency, being too inconsistent with eating, drinking or exercise can hinder your body clock. Regarding food, I now never skip breakfast – even if it means eating something very light – and I try not to eat anything too heavy 2-3 hours before my sleep time. It’s also useful to eat more foods with tryptophan, such as bananas and potatoes, as they increase serotonin production, which aids melatonin production. Exercising regularly benefits ones quality of sleep, though it’s worth noting that exercising too close to your sleep time will affect your ability to sleep.
7. Circadian rhythms!
I have focused more on actions to take, but circadian rhythms are worth mentioning for those who want to research further into sleep; a lot of of it is useful in understanding the tips shared in this post. It has to do with the relationship between our internal body clock and external environment, the most notable external feature being daylight. It’s useful if you want to look into different peak times for alertness, blood pressure, urge to sleep and many other biological activities. I’d suggest the following link for a useful introduction.