A Primer on Sleep
August 22nd, 2019
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey
‘A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.’
The Impact of Sleep
I’ve been fortunate to interview consistently successful people across an array of specialisms: organisational leaders, scientists, teachers, sports men and women, soldiers, actors and musicians. A practical characteristic they almost all shared was a focus on getting a good night’s sleep.
This finding is increasingly being backed up by scientific research. While there are some well publicised examples of high achievers claiming to need only four or five hours sleep per night, research suggests that the vast majority of us need seven to eight hours of quality sleep.
In her book, The Source, Dr Tara Swart states that:
- A disturbed night’s sleep can reduce your IQ by 5-8 points the next day
While such a reduction is not enough to inhibit your ability to function, it’s unlikely to lead to your best work.
More starkly, Swart highlights research indicating:
- An entire night’s disturbed sleep (e.g. taking an overnight flight) can reduce your IQ to a level akin to being drunk the next day
In addition to IQ, Swart stresses the replenishing/cleaning impact of sleep and its importance in reducing the risk of dementia. A video summarising Tara’s work can be viewed by clicking here.
“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”
David Benioff, Writer and Director
A lack of sleep can also lower your body’s immune system and start to impact on your mood/what you focus on. An interesting piece of research highlighting the latter, involved a memory test where participants were asked to remember sets of emotionally positive neutral and negative words. Participants who had a poor night’s sleep were able to remember 40% fewer words relative to those who weren’t sleep deprived, but they remembered far more negative words than positive ones. (1)
For me, the result suggests the evolutionary importance of sleep. A lack of it poses a risk to survival and puts our brains on alert for danger, hence the focus on the negative, rather than the positive.
“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Thomas Dekker, Actor
For all these reasons, sleep is increasingly being prioritised by those wanting to stay resilient and particularly those with management and leadership responsibilities.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, Author
For many, there is no great secret that needs to be discovered in order to get a good night’s sleep. The key is not so much gaining a new understanding to the practice of sleep, but strictly practicing your existing understanding.
Consequently, adhering to the following rules is often enough to get a good night’s sleep:
Significant events e.g. having a child, going through a divorce, facing a bereavement, or a particularly stressful period at work can lead to sleep problems; even if you strictly adhere to the above ‘rules’. Generally though, when such events pass, or become manageable, good sleep returns. For an unlucky few though, sleep can remain elusive, even when the above are followed and no major events are being faced. If this is the case, there are four steps I’d suggest taking:
(i) Seek expert medical advice to rule out potential medical conditions
You may have a medical condition e.g. vitamin deficiency or sleep apnoea that is causing your sleep problems.
(ii) Explore whether your mind has become ‘wired’ for a lack of sleep
I’ve known people who have gone through such a long and sustained period of stress, that sleeplessness has become a habit and they have convinced themselves that they are a ‘bad sleeper’. In addition to the above ‘rules’, such people have often found that relaxation exercises, mindfulness or neurolinguistics programming (NLP) techniques have also been required. In severe cases, where trauma has occurred, exploring therapy and counselling options has also been required to bring about change.
An increasingly common issue I see in my coaching and mentoring work is that the gap between one particularly stressful period at work and the next is becoming shorter and shorter, until work is consistently very stressful. Unless the person’s perspective to stress can change, the harsh reality is often that either the workload needs to change, or the person needs to change jobs.
(iii) Investigate whether your body needs realigned
Sometimes, there’s a physical explanation for poor sleep. For example, if your pelvis, back, shoulder or neck is slightly out of alignment, then lying for long periods can readily become uncomfortable, no matter how good your mattress. Such discomfort leads to you waking up, without always being consciously aware of the discomfort and thus able to connect it with your sleep problems. An initial consultation with an osteopath should identify whether such an issue exists and subsequent treatment can readily realign your body so no discomfort arises during sleep.
Many who solve their sleep problems at this point can often trace back the beginning of their sleep problems to an accident or injury (e.g. a car crash, sport injury). However, this is not always the case.
(iv) You may be part of a special minority
If none of the above apply to you and you are not suffering from having less than six hours sleep a night on a consistent basis, then you could be one of the small minority of people who don’t require as much as everyone else. In which case, don’t worry about and use your extra time wisely!
“If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there and worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the loss of sleep.”
Dale Carnegie, Writer and Consultant
A Note on Gender, Aging and Sleep
The menopause for women and an ever increasing prostate in men can lead to sleep problems as both genders age. Although medication exists to tackle some of the symptoms of both conditions, efficacy can be mixed and these areas would appear under-researched.
Further Reading and Viewing
In addition to exploring Tara Swart’s video and book which is listed above, the following research may be of interest:
The Work of Satchidananda Panda and The Salk Institute
The Work of Michael Breus
The above links give heavy reference to circadian rhythms, which is the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. Panda’s work looks at the interplay between sleep, diet and exercise, while Breus’ research is an update on the view that some of us are ‘larks’ i.e. morning people, while others are ‘owls’ i.e. are most active in the evening. Respecting the circadian rhythm, recognising our specific preferences and adjusting our routine accordingly (when you can), often proves another important step in improving our relationship with sleep.
(1) Walker, The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156, 2009