Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, obesity – it seems not getting enough sleep has a lot to answer for. David Annand, who is pretty sure his nightly, six (interrupted) hours isn’t healthy, finds out how much we actually need and, more importantly, how to make sure we get it
“I slept like a baby,” said the woman in front of me on the bus the other day. By which I assume she didn’t mean she woke up periodically howling in existential torment, wet herself twice and was up for the day at 4.45am. Looking at her well rested young face, I was pretty sure she meant she slept soundly, which was enough to have me seething silently with jealousy. Because, in the last few years – like the population at large – a good night’s sleep has gone from something I took for granted to something I obsess over, something I lust after, something I’m willing to pay serious money to get more of. (In our house, the sleep crisis has been triggered by the arrival of two blonde-haired, angel-faced night terrorists, anti-slumber militants, fifth columnists from the land of the woke.)
In this, it transpires I’m hardly alone. The last 70 years have seen a radical reduction in the amount we sleep. Almost half of Britons are now thought to get six hours or less sleep a night, up from less than ten per cent back in the 1940s.
Besides affecting our productivity and mood, an epidemic of sleep deprivation has disastrous consequences, thought to be linked to Alzheimer’s, diabetes, obesity and even cancer. Such is the effect on our health that neuroscientist Professor Russell Foster of Oxford University argues that sleep deprivation is “as bad as smoking”.
As a result, a burgeoning global “sleep market” has sprung up, estimated to be worth in the region of $40billion in 2017, according to management consultants McKinsey. And its scope is astonishing: apps, thermostats, courses, consultations, 2,800 sleep labs in the US alone.
And attitudes are changing. The macho culture of the 1980s (when Thatcher famously ran the country on just four hours’ sleep) is being replaced as the millennial generation wakes up to the importance of getting its head down – according to a study by the American Bureau of Labor Statistics people in their twenties and thirties get on average a crucial 25 minutes more sleep than older age groups.
Still, the challenges are considerable. We now drink 95 million cups of coffee a day, up by 25 million in ten years. And the siren call of the screen is ever-more seductive: box sets, Instagram addiction, all-night, multi-stream WhatsApp chats. My own personal all-night-not-at-all-a-disco-party has proved to us that sleep is not, as it turns out, just like riding a bike. It seems you can unlearn how to do it, which my partner and I have.
But if you can unlearn how to do it, does that mean you can learn it again? Like many others, we’re tempted to try anything that might work: pillow sprays, wristbands, mattresses that come with a mortgage. In desperation I turn to Nick Littlehales, a sports sleep coach to talk me through the usefulness of some of the most popular sleep aids. With 22 years of experience tutoring elite athletes in how to recover, he is surely the man to help us sleep like a baby, despite the baby.
What sleep smells like
The secret to getting yourself to sleep is about creating calm. As such, any scents that you find pleasant or comforting are potentially useful. In Littlehale’s world of elite sports where he creates recovery programmes for travelling athletes, he puts great emphasis on creating a familiar environment, an approach that all of us could adopt when we’re on the move. As he says, “Smells are a key part of familiarisation. If you’ve been brought up near a field and where there were fresh grass smells all the time and that reminds you of your childhood, then a scent like that might work for you. It’s all about finding something that stimulates a feeling of calm.” There are, however, scent-makers out there who take a more scientific approach than the standard aromatherapy oils. “The company This Works actually tests smells and has found that certain combinations of smells trigger parts of the brain that are related to calmness,” he says. This Works Pillow Sprays, from £18.
What sleep sounds like
“As we go through our formative years, depending on where we’re brought up, we face a different set of challenges when it comes to temperature, light and sound. We have a particularly strong relationship with sound, which can create calm,” says Littlehales. This doesn’t have to be running water or whale song; it might well be AC/DC. Littlehales acknowledges that “research has shown that binaural beats [two different sound waves within a certain frequency, played one through each ear] can re-process the brain to dissipate anxiety and stress.” But often the DIY approach is best. “I have athletes from Barcelona whom I got to record the noise of the city on their phones, the sounds they would have heard when they were kids. And they listen to it in their hotel rooms in Tokyo or Manchester.” Other athletes record themselves reading their kids a bedtime story. “Listening to it and their kids’ reaction, as they themselves fall asleep allows them to shift away from where they are to somewhere more important.”
What we wish sleep didn't sound like
“Snoring develops from not knowing the ideal sleeping position to adopt, which is in the foetal position on your non-dominant side. Children naturally adopt it.” It turns out that as adults we often end up sleeping on our fronts or backs to distribute our weight as we tend to sleep on mattresses that are too hard. This blocks off the air canal and makes us snore. “If you’re on the right surface you don’t need an anti-snoring pillow. It’s all about your mattress. Adopt the foetal position, arms gently folded, knees bent. You want a nice postural line through your nose, through your chin, through your chest and out through your pelvic bone. If you do it on the floor, you’ll have a gap between your cheek and the carpet. Do it on your memory foam mattress and if it’s the right one for you there won’t be a gap. Sleep on that mattress in that position and it should stop you snoring.” More serious cases might benefit from a nasal opener such as Turbine by Rhinomed. Turbine three pack, £12.99.
The right light for night
We used to sleep outside, but since electrification changed the game our relationship with light has altered phenomenally. “You have an amount of light that you should be exposed to every day and if you overexpose yourself, it will be harder to recover properly,” says Littlehales. He stresses it’s not simply a case of minimising the blue tech light in the later parts of the evening. “You think you can do whatever you do throughout the day and then put it right at the end? It doesn’t work like that.” We need to re-educate ourselves when it comes to light and our circadian rhythm. “You need a dark routine, little moments through the day when you’ve not so exposed to light. Be aware of how much light as a human you would have actually been exposed before light was invented. This empowers you to grab short distracting breaks every 60 or 90 minutes throughout the day, to move out of (a shaded area), or away from bright light internally or externally. Also manage bright light exposure after sunset. As an example, in 24 hours your average natural daylight exposure is 12 hours, sleep in darkness 7.5 hours, leaving 4.5 hours being active but in or with diminished light. Amber, red and yellow are active chill out lights; blue light is full-on active.”