If scientists told you that they had discovered a brand new treatment, which “enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. Keeps you slim and lowers food cravings, protects you from cancer and dementia and wards off colds and flu. Lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes [and] you’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious.” Would you be interested in trying it? Chances are, you absolutely would. But the revolutionary treatment Dr Matthew Walker is referring to is not an expensive new drug – it’s simply a good night’s sleep.
A growing body of research which Dr Walker explores in his seminal text Why We Sleep shows that prioritising your sleep each night could be the single greatest investment you could possibly make in your physical and mental well-being at any given stage of your life.
The grind mentality
“Hustle” or “grind” culture is something that has gained traction in recent years, but it is not altogether new. British Prime Minister Magaret Thatcher announced in the 1980s that she could survive on just four hours of sleep, which was seen as an incredible achievement. “I grew up with a similar mentality,” says GP, Dr Lewis Clarke. “I would often finish work in the early hours of the morning, get a few hours rest then rise early to go to a gym class or a run, before starting my day, and repeating this process.“ However, since having a child and realising the effect [that sleep loss] has on my mood, my appetite and my general level of functioning, I have certainly started to prioritise it more in recent years. Dr Clarke goes on to explain that some of his patients who are struggling to sleep have described themselves as being “drunk on tiredness” and have extreme symptoms such as paranoia and hallucinations.
It’s particularly true that in the corporate world, “we often underestimate the power of sleep at our own peril,” says executive and corporate coach Noona Nafousi, CEO of NEO Noor. “Ignoring it can result in subpar performance, decreased well-being, and long-term health complications. I urge professionals not to consider sleep as an expendable commodity but as a critical investment in their success and longevity,” she explains.
24/7 access culture
The grind mentality, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It’s something which has arguably snowballed in correlation with the growth of “24-hour-access culture” which has proliferated since the birth of the internet. “I often find that executives and corporate leaders are constantly plugged into their devices, with a never-ending stream of emails and messages keeping them perpetually ‘on.’ This heightened sense of responsibility and constant connectivity adversely affects their sleep quality,” explains Nafousi. “The blue light from screens can disrupt [our brain’s ability to regulate sleep], and the mental load of staying connected can prevent the mind from relaxing enough to fall asleep. Undeniably, the current work culture glorifies busyness and often equates long hours with dedication and success. This not only encroaches on the time available for sleep but also amplifies stress levels. A culture that doesn’t prioritise work-life balance invariably results in compromised sleep and, by extension, compromised executive performance.”
Dr Clarke agrees, explaining the rapid change in culture over the past 20 years is impacting our sleep health: “Our phones are encroaching on all aspects of our lives, including sleep. So often people end their day with their phones in their hands and start the day by checking their phones. Our obsession with being digitally connected is negatively impacting our social, mental and even physical wellbeing. We’ve lost the process of winding down before bed, thus impacting the quality of sleep.” Neil Postman described the overwhelming negative impact of TV on our physical and mental health in his 1985 text Amusing Ourselves To Death. What we have now, explains Dr Clarke is essentially “a TV in our hand.”
What steps can you take to correct your sleep routine?
The first step to improving your sleep routine is to “schedule your sleep,” advises Nafousi, “prioritise it as you would an important business meeting”. You should also create a pre-sleep routine, which prioritises winding down. A hot shower to help relax your muscles and lower body temperature, as well as relaxing activities such as reading or meditating can all help signal to your body that it’s time to start preparing for sleep. Your room should be like a cool dark cave too – our bodies need a lower temperature in order to get quality sleep make sure it’s “cold enough dark and quiet, says” Nafousi. Limiting caffeine intake several hours before sleep is also important. “Caffeine has an average half-life of five to seven hours. Let’s say that you have a cup of coffee after your evening dinner, around 7:30 pm This means that by 1:30 am, 50 per cent of that caffeine may still be active and circulating throughout your brain tissue. In other words, by 1:30 am., you’re only halfway to completing the job of cleansing your brain of the caffeine you drank after dinner,” explains Dr Walker. This means to get a restorative night’s sleep at 10 pm, you would need to stop drinking coffee at 2 pm, for example. Limiting blue light devices for one hour before bed and not eating for three hours before sleep are also important factors in preparing the body for sleep, adds Dr Clarke.
As a rule of thumb, the middle of the night (12 am) should be around the middle of our sleep cycle advises Dr Walker in his tome. He also explains that during different parts of the night, we go through NREM sleep and REM sleep, each of which plays a significant part in our overall health. “NREM predominates early in the night, is to do the work of weeding out and removing unnecessary neural connections. In contrast, the dreaming stage of REM sleep, which prevails later in the night, plays a role in strengthening those connections,” he explains. Importantly, this also means that if we go to bed late, we lose NREM sleep that we cannot replace by having a lie-in, in the morning. Equally, going to bed early and getting up before we’ve had enough sleep means that we lose out on vital REM sleep. Dr Walker also suggests that some people are naturally “night owls” or “morning larks” and something we should take seriously when planning our sleep routine. Which we should take into account when planning our individual sleep routines. The amount of sleep we need varies too, depending on our age. “Newborn babies can sleep up to 17 hours a day”, explains Dr Clarke, with the amount lessening as we age, with most mature adults needing around eight hours of sleep.
A holistic approach to sleep
Perhaps one of the biggest myths about sleep is that it is something that happens at night and is separate from our day-to-day waking activities. Actions throughout the day impact the quality of sleep we will have the following night. As Dr Walker explains “The internal twenty-four-hour clock within your brain communicates its daily circadian rhythm signal to every other region of your brain and every organ in your body. Your twenty-four-hour tempo helps to determine when you want to be awake and when you want to be asleep.” One of the most effective things we can do when we wake, he continues, is getting sunlight to trigger our body into recognising the start of a new day through sunlight on our skin.
Sometimes improving our sleep can come in the simplest of forms, adds Dr Clarke. “One of the things we look at when improving sleep is prescribing nature. This is a concept whereby a healthcare professional recommends a patient spend time in nature to benefit their health. Nature-based activities can include walking or running in parks, gardening, or going to a beach. This can assist with social connections and connection to the environment. I personally recommend looking at joining a local running group, many of which are free of charge. There are usually options available to people of all fitness levels, and often meet on a weekly basis.”
“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker is available via sleepdiplomat.com