This blog will interest you if you have sleep difficulty, Type 2 diabetes, low-mood, stress, heart, fertility problems or are over-weight. I'd recommend it if you want to improve your work/sport performance and to increase your knowledge about the importance of sleep. The information has been gathered predominantly from Performance Sleep Coach Nick Littlehales' book "Sleep..", NHS Choices and various respected websites. Sources and products are listed at the end.
As a hypnotherapist I offer treatment for poor sleep because hypnosis works with the same automatic part of the brain that controls sleep and our other body functions such as circulation. Most often clients seek help during stressful times or because their work patterns are disruptive to a good night's sleep. Occasionally it is a more unusual sleep disorder. Research shows that long-term sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems so I thought it worth giving a general review of what seems the best current advice. It makes particular sense not to overlook your sleep pattern if you are monitoring other aspects of your health.
What role does sleep have in boosting good physical and mental well-being?
An occasional sleepless night will not do us harm but after several nights our brain can fog, it becomes harder to concentrate and remember and we become more accident prone. On the other hand, good sleep habits help boost our immune system helping us fight infection, help maintain good mental well-being, lift our libido, and make us look better. Importantly sleep helps prevent Type 2 diabetes by changing the way the body processes fuel gained from high-energy carbohydrate. Short sleep duration is associated with a higher body mass index (BMI) as sleep is significant in the production of our appetite hormones, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin suppresses hunger while ghrelin initiates meal intake. More sleep increases the levels of the former and reduces the latter. That said, apparently obesity sufferers have been found to be leptin-resistant and these hormones' role in the regulation of food intake is complex. Sleep reduces certain inflammation-causing chemicals that cause heart disease and a lack of sleep is associated with high blood pressure as is fertility because fewer reproductive hormones are produced.
Sleep - maximising minimum gains for improved health and performance
In the last decade the benefits of sleep have been embraced by sports people; so much so, the Premier League and Olympic athletes often employ sleep consultants. It is a wave that was started by Sir Alex Ferguson when he was approached by Nick Littlehales to work on sleep with the Manchester United team in 2004. Although many people cannot work to the strict standards of premier athletes, there is a concept of maximising minimal gains which can be applied to people with different lifestyles. To start with we need to look at what happens in sleep and what is the ideal.
Our natural body clock - circadian rhythms
We have a natural rhythm that is synced with the rising and setting of the sun. Light plays a crucial part in producing serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps with the body’s healing processes and gives a feel-good mood boost. It is also the substance from which melatonin is derived - that change is triggered when light turns to dark. The production and release of the hormone melatonin occurs with a clear circadian rhythm and peaks at night. It is an essential for good restorative sleep. Our natural “circadian rhythms” are 90 minute long continuous cycles. Whilst not all of us work during the day or have consistent wake-up and bed times, being in tune with day and night, light and dark is exceptionally important for promoting health.
How much sleep do we need?
The figure of 8 hours a night is commonly bandied about. This is, however, only an average. Apparently Usain Bolt and Roger Federer like 10 hours per night whereas Margaret Thatcher was renowned for 4-5 hours and additional 20 minute naps. Information on the NHS Choices website suggests that routinely getting less than 5 hours of sleep increases our risk of diabetes; less than 6 hours gives a greater risk of depression and anxiety and less than 7 hours increases our risk of obesity. And parents, before you moan at your teenagers, they - like young children - need more than adults; teenagers are programmed to rise later as restorative sleep helps with their growth-spurt!
Although waking and sleepiness are tied to daylight and darkness, our bodies have a natural dip between 1- 3pm and 5 - 7pm when we are inclined to feel the urge to nap. Littlehales suggests making use of these siesta times with a proper nap rather than falling asleep in front of the TV after work.
Littlehales’ sleep programme, R90, uses these natural cycles as opposed to counting the number of hours sleep each night. He does not favour lie-ins, preferring the rise time to be consistent but adds naps or power naps (including meditation) to catch up on lost cycles. He considers these rhythms so important that, rather than disrupt them, he would prefer you to skip to the next 90 minute period before beginning your night’s sleep routine. Thinking in cycles rather than hours is helpful… if late to bed one night it will not be detrimental but if this happens several times during the week the answer is to take control by finding extra naps or schedule an early night later in the week. It is common sense really but being disciplined and monitoring your sleep habits prioritises it. This allows you to be in control, keep a positive attitude and promotes your good health.
As an example of Littlehales' programme, by nature I have a late-bed time and like 5 cycles each night. So, my midnight bed-time until the 7.30 alarm spans 5 circadian cycles x 7 days = a 35 cycles per week target. If I go out or work late then I might go to bed at 1.30am or very occasionally 3am - then I have 1 or 2 cycles to catch up on using sleep naps and meditation.
Littlehales also pays close attention to early risers (“larks”) and late-bedders (“owls") knowing that people perform at their best at different times of the day. Indeed, he recommends that an owl is chosen to take the penalty shoot-out in an evening game!
What steps can we take to help maximise gains from sleep?
First, get up at the same time each day (even at weekends), open the curtains, and get into the daylight. If you need extra sleep, go to bed early or take day-time naps.
Include a long unstimulating cool-down before bedtime and a wake-up routine
Littlehales emphasises that the 90 minute cycle pre- and post-bed is an essential part of a good routine. In this time he recommends a bit of fresh air and a physical stretch as well as the usual getting dressed/undressed, breakfast/bedtime snack and, of course, a trip to the loo. The rest of the 90 minutes can be used for mundane tasks such as admin e.g. filing and compiling tomorrow's to-do list, housework, ironing, unexciting reading and so on as you cool down/warm up. It is a perfect time to include self-hypnosis or other (see later). Exciting/enthralling TV/reading/computer games/work emails are to be avoided before bed. Littlehales advises hot-water showering/bathing in the morning unless you like a quick tepid shower at night to cool you down. He also says to avoid hard physical exertion before bed and in the early part of the evening when our blood pressure is at its highest. And in case you are wondering, Littlehales is accepting of sex as part of this routine!
Deliberately switch from Day to Dark to Day
Day-light lamps are recommended to get an owl going in the morning if their work depends on early performance or to help sync them with an early-rising lark partner. Larks are encouraged to arrange the important work for the morning, owls for later on.
Dim the house lights during the pre-bed cycle to help the body transition to sleep mode - use a dim beside lamp and if necessary avoid the bright bathroom light in favour of candle light. Also ensure your bedroom is dark at night as it is considered exceptionally important for your body’s mechanisms. You may need to invest in black-out curtains or blinds particularly if you are a shift worker. Littlehales even recommends use of a “Valkee” therapy head-set (like ear-phones) which targets light-sensitive areas of the brain. These and daylight lamps could play a part for night-workers, those changing time-zones and Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers.
Ban TV/technology and bright lights (no matter how small) from the bedroom
The common consent is to keep the TV out of the bedroom along with any “blue light” technology. More and more of us seem to be taking our mobiles/laptops into the bedroom to charge/check late emails. All light is detrimental to quality sleep but blue is particularly so. The message is simple - leave these elsewhere and buy an un-illuminated alarm clock!
Facilitate a cool bedroom
A cool bedroom of 16 - 19oC induces sleep. However, one list of recommendations listed a hot water bottle as being acceptable because the bottle cools the body as it loses its heat.
Buy a comfortable and large bed
Perhaps the most obvious….Littlehales advises a Super King-size for couples but this may not be practical. He also gives tips on how to choose a bed.
Make your bedroom into your neutral “recovery room” or sanctuary
Littlehales refers to the bedroom as a “recovery” room to emphasis the importance for sleep and the role it plays in an athlete/high performer’s life. He prefers an unadorned room with neutral colour scheme but the National Sleep Foundation recommends turning your bedroom into your sanctuary - colours of your choice, comfortable furnishings and so on along with lavender as a pleasant smell that might help. In any event, keep it tidy and inviting!
Use relaxation techniques before bed
Examples are following your breathing as in yoga, self-hypnosis, meditation, and tensing/releasing muscle groups deliberately to bring about relaxation. Note that I can teach you about self-hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness in one or two sessions .…do use the Contact page to get in touch!
Consider that what you eat/drink before bed may help or hinder
Alcohol in small amounts is a stimulant so avoid a night-cap. Along with this are caffeine and taurine (Red Bull). Recent research recommends no more than 400mg of caffeine a day and Littlehales says to use it as a legal stimulant when you need to be on the ball! It is apparently a naturally occurring psychoactive substance. The amount of caffeine in home-made and different high street brands' coffees varies enormously. It is found in many foods too e.g. chocolate. It is worth taking note of your own typical caffeine intake so see the link below to what seems a useful American site, caffeineinformer.com. It lists products and the possible health benefits/negatives. My own choice, a Costa Primo (small) Short Flat White, has 277mg. For my weight seemingly I can safely drink 7.6 smallish cups of tea a day though. Phew!
Whilst I am not a nutritionist, the advice seems to be eat your evening meal 4 hours before bed and some say to avoid snacking before bedtime. The Sleep Foundation, however, says the best bedtime snack is one that contains both a carbohydrate and protein such as cereal with milk or peanut butter on toast. Protein is the building block of tryptophan which induces sleepiness and carbohydrates make it more readily available to the brain. This is why carbohydrate-heavy meals can make you drowsy. Slow release carbohydrates such as sweet potato and rice are recommended for inducing drowsiness if eaten 4 hours before bedtime. Others say that cherries are a good source of melatonin but supplements are not considered useful. Bananas and sweet potato contain the muscle relaxant potassium.
And finally, The National Sleep Foundation says that motivation to get a good night’s sleep increases sleep by half an hour a night, so start to take things in hand today! Most of us take good health for granted and it seems to me the benefits of a good sleep pattern are under-recognised.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this please “like” and share it with other friends who may benefit. :) Do not hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a question or would like hypnotherapy/NLP support. Thank you.
References, products and links:
NHS Choices (2015) Why lack of sleep is bad for your health
Littlehales N (2016) Sleep: The Myth of 8 hours, the Power of Naps .. and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind Penguin
If not supporting your local bookshop, Kindle purchases of Nick Littlehales' book, Amazon:
Appetite hormone/weight management research
American Sleep Association
The National Sleep Foundation (USA)
Headphones - taking light to the brain via the ears
Suction black-out blinds
Food and drink
J Clin Sleep Med. 2011 Dec 15; 7(6): 659–664 doi: 10.5664/jcsm.1476 Relationship between food intake and sleep pattern in healthy individuals