Sleep for Mind, Body, Soul – Part 1

MY PRESCRIPTION OF CHOICE… By Nicky Morgan

I was so excited when I discovered that scientists had discovered a ground-breaking elixir that:

  1. Makes you live longer.
  2. Enhances your memory.
  3. Makes you more creative.
  4. Makes you look more attractive.
  5. Helps to keep weight under control and reduces food cravings.
  6. Protects you from cancer and dementia.
  7. Lowers your risk of heart attacks, stroke and diabetes.
  8. Helps you process your emotions and makes you feel less anxious and / or depressed.
  9. Decreases your chance of catching a cold by 4.5 times.
  10. Makes you happier.

More than that, it’s free, 100% natural and comes with no harmful side effects!

Sound like something you may want a regular dose of too? This “elixir” is in fact, sleep. In recent years, scientific studies relating to sleep have exploded into the mainstream highlighting all of the benefits – and absolutely nothing but benefits – of regularly getting a good night’s sleep.

I have always had quite the obsession with sleep – you see, I’m rather good at it. I have a remarkable knack of being able to fall asleep anywhere, at any time, on demand. Sleep for me is something I love, embrace and nurture. Dreams I find utterly fascinating. And I hail from generations gone by of very good sleepers.

I also know how lucky I am to be a good sleeper – (my “sweet (sleep) spot” is 9 hours) – and in my role as a wellbeing coach understand fully the debilitating effects that not being a good sleeper can bring.

So how do we know if we’re sleeping well? And how can we help ourselves to get more good quality sleep?

If you’re interested in learning more about the sleepy subject – a great place to start is Matthew Walker’s International Best Seller “Why We Sleep”. Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and is Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory. He’s published over 100 scientific research studies during a 20 year career. Safe to say – he’s an authority on sleep.

Sleeping well

Sleep experts like Walker say that if you want to figure out how much sleep you actually need, you should spend about a week letting yourself fall asleep when you are tired and then waking up naturally, without an alarm.

Most of us will need between 7 – 9 hours sleep a night. There is a rare genetic mutation that some people have which means they can thrive on less than 6 hours sleep. But if you’re reading this thinking that’s you, it’s probably not. The percentage of the population who have the gene when rounded up to the nearest whole number is 0.

So how do you know if you’re sleeping well?

  1. Do you rely on an alarm to wake you up in the morning?
  2. Do you need caffeine before midday to keep you going?
  3. Could you fall back to sleep within a couple of hours of waking up?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” – it is likely you’re not getting enough sleep… or enough good quality sleep.

But please don’t think you’re alone if you are not achieving the recommended 7 – 9 hours sleep every night – the World Health Organisation has now declared a sleep loss epidemic through industrialised nations due to the numbers of people regularly sleeping less than 6 or 7 hours a night.

Trouble is, for a lot of years, in many cultures and industries, a lack of sleep has been seen as a badge of honour. Speaking from my own experience of working within the events industry for 15 years – there were many times I would only snatch a couple of hours sleep a night – and felt slightly heroic (albeit absolutely knackered) as a result.

I know now, with my need for a giant 9 hours of sleep, that even cutting that short by 2 hours a night – to a seemingly very reasonable 7 hours – my mind and my body would be suffering as a consequence.

Hero’ing sleep

So how do we go about making sleep the hero and prioritising it in order to gain all of the benefits listed up front?

My top tips for sleep having read the books, gone to the workshops, spoken with the experts (and sporting sleep amongst my favourite hobbies) are:

  1. Keep it regular – Identify a sleeping pattern that works for you in order to achieve a regular 7 – 9 hours sleep a night (or day if you are a shift worker) and stick to it.
  2. Fuel for sleep – Avoid caffeine, alcohol and heavy meals before bed. Without going into the details, these will all undoubtedly impact the quality of your sleep. If you know you’re going to do any of the above perhaps factor in a lie-in the following day when you can. And wherever possible, try and ensure at least 8 hours between your last caffeinated drink and the time you want to go to sleep.
  3. Create a sleep routine – Settling down children at night through a sleep routine is instinctive. They are often bathed, read a book, given a warm milky drink, soothed by soft lighting and relaxing music and end their day with the care and support of a loved one. Why do we stop this routine as adults? Allow yourself at least 30 mins without any screen time as you prepare to go to sleep. And think about what helps you relax. Baths, warm milky drinks, books, soft lighting, relaxing music and connections with loved ones all still feel very relevant even to us evolved adult humans don’t you think?
  4. Just let go – This is an easy one for me to say, being a decent sleeper. But sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows uses a great analogy of a “tug of war” to represent those who struggle with insomnia. As you lay in bed fighting to go back to sleep, try imagining your struggle with sleep as a tug of war – and simply let go of the rope. Know that by surrendering and lying peacefully in your bed – your body and your mind will still benefit from the time of stillness and relaxation. And you may find, without even trying, you simply drift off into sleep.

What I have learned through an understanding of my own instinctive needs, as well as through being an avid student of sleep, is we cannot afford to not prioritise sleep. Where I used to  be embarrassed about admitting to needing 9 hours sleep a night – I now celebrate it. And where I come across people who struggle with sleep, I encourage them to see how they can increase their sleep quality as a fundamental pillar of their overall wellbeing.

Sleep is our time to restore, rejuvenate, process, repair, grow and maintain our bodies and our minds – and brings with it so many life-affirming side-effects. What’s more – it is a free resource that is there, readily available for us to use, if only we would just close our eyes and let it…

Footnote:

I don’t take for granted how fortunate I am that I am a good sleeper. I suffer with an over-thinking, anxious mind – and yet my body’s way of dealing with this is often (but not always) to prescribe me with a decent dose of sleep. I am grateful I am wired this way, but I know not everyone is. If you’re looking for any further information or advice on sleep you may want to check out this website.