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PROFESSOR ALICE GREGORY JOINS US TO TALK ABOUT SLEEP

Many of us will spend roughly 7 years of our lives just trying to sleep. But why do we find it so hard and what can we do to help ourselves get a good kip?

Last week, Alice Gregory – Professor of Psychology at Goldsmith’s University and author of Nodding Off: The Science Behind Sleep from Cradle to Grave – joined ENGINE Transformation’s CEO, Emma Robertson, to talk about how sleep affects us throughout the different stages of our life and what we can do to improve its quality. Read on* for our highlights from the day.  

*Spoiler alert: nightcaps, caffeine and screens continue to be the enemies of a good night’s sleep.

IT’S ALL ABOUT ROUTINE

The number one tip for getting a ‘good’ night’s sleep was simple; find a routine that works for you and stick to it. But who wants to wake-up at 6:30 every Saturday? In reality, our daily routine often changes at the weekend. We hope for a lie-in. We enjoy a late night.

The problem is, changing our sleep pattern for 2 days of the week prevents our body from settling into a proper routine and can negatively impact our ability to sleep well. Not only that, for many, lockdown has extended the sleep window. No commute and a later alarm could see someone who usually enjoys 7 hours of sleep lying in bed for 9 hours – even though their body doesn’t need it. Ultimately, this leads to poorer quality of sleep and can leave people feeling less refreshed. Long sleep doesn’t always equal good sleep.

LOCKDOWN - WHICH TRIBE ARE YOU IN?

The current situation has left many of our normal routines in disarray. Although it’s still too early to back-up any anecdotal evidence with data, Professor Gregory and a number of her colleagues believe they’re seeing patterns developing, which can be grouped into the following sleep tribes:

  • Nappers. People who have more opportunity to structure their own day are choosing to nap. Naps have proven beneficial to well-being and can improve alertness as well as performance at work. However, they don’t work for everyone; those who struggle to sleep at night should avoid daytime napping.
  • Vivid dreamers. We usually dream as a way of processing emotional events from our day. Some believe that dreams are a virtual reality model of the world. Obviously, we need to wake to remember dreams, so if the start of your day is slower than usual – no commute, later alarm – you have more opportunity to recall the dream.
  • Worriers. This tribe is made up of people who are struggling to sleep because of concerns over health, finances, the economy and the demands of lockdown life. We know anxiety can significantly disrupt our sleep so, unfortunately, it’s no surprise to see more people struggling.

ADOLESCENTS AREN’T GRUMPY, THEY’RE SOCIALLY JET LAGGED

Adolescent-weekend sleep-patterns vary enormously to the classic school-day routine. When Monday comes around it can be a bit like having jet lag. In fact, it’s often referred to as social jet lag. What we have historically thought of as ‘the Kevin effect’  might actually be a physical reaction to a sleep pattern that’s out of kilter with biological needs.

A campaign to push back school start times for this age group has been underway for some time. But with a whole system geared towards a 9am start (buses, parental working days, mealtimes), a short-term solution could be to deliver lessons such as P.E.,  with fresh air and exposure to light, in the mornings instead of afternoons.  

During lockdown we’ve heard anecdotally that teenage sleep patterns are now more in line with natural rhythms. Expect the return to school to be particularly challenging for this age group. And their parents.

IT’S IN THE BANK. OR IS IT?

Several people asked if it was possible to catch up on sleep. But if you’re banking on playing catch-up you may be disappointed. In an ideal world, we’d have a routine at the weekend that mirrored our weekday schedule. But we all know that for most of us that’s simply not going to happen. Instead, try shifting your sleep window a little during the week to gain a few more zzzs, but don’t rely on stocking up when the weekend rolls around.

In 1963, Randy Gardner went without sleep for more than 11 days – losing approximately 88 hours – but when he finally went to bed, he only slept for 14 hours and then returned to his normal pattern. Even with that level of sleep deprivation he didn’t come close to regaining the sleep he lost.

Professor Gregory’s advice – get as much sleep as you need, when you can.

8 HOURS A NIGHT IS A MYTH

Adults need, on average, 7-9 hours sleep a night, but that’s completely dependent on the individual. Imagine you’re getting 7 hours a night and sleeping brilliantly, but then you hear that you need 8 hours. You’d probably just spend the extra hour lying awake in bed worrying about not sleeping. More importantly, this could lead you to developing negative associations with bed and the start of a more significant problem.

HINTS AND TIPS FOR BETTER SLEEP

  1. Establish a good routine. Routine is quality sleep’s best friend.
  2. Avoid caffeine. Consuming caffeine, even early in the day, can affect your sleep at night. If going without caffeine sounds too hard, just don’t opt for the after-dinner espresso.
  3. No alcohol. We’re really sorry about this one. But although a drink is likely to help us fall asleep more quickly, the benefits are short lived. We’re more likely to wake up during the night and miss out on much needed REM sleep.
  4. Light vs. dark. Exposure to light during the day and a darkened room at night are natural ways to let your body know when it’s time to get up and when to sleep. Consider black out blinds and eye masks if your room is very light.
  5. Don’t nap. If you’re experiencing disturbed sleep, try not to nap during the day. It reduces the pressure your body feels to sleep at night. 
  6. Remove stresses. Whether that’s mindfulness before bed or writing lists to transfer worries from your mind to paper.
  7. Create a haven. Fresh bedding and good ventilation can help you get a good night’s sleep – an open window lets out condensation and can reduce levels of carbon dioxide.
  8. No electronics. TV, phone, tablets – the advice is to turn off screens at least an hour before bed. Removing them all together means no light emissions and less likelihood of them interrupting our sleep during the night.

IS THERE HOPE FOR THE INSOMNIACS?

If you’ve tried everything possible from the list above and still find yourself unable to sleep, it might be time to try CBTi – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia. There are a number of online resources available including Sleepio, which is linked to the NHS. Speak to your GP for more details.

We covered so much more on the day. If you missed it or would like to revisit the full recording, the conversation is below.

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