The complexity and myths of sleep
Do you ever wonder why, when you stay in a hotel room, attempting to have a restful night sleep before that early morning flight, but you wake up feeling like you haven't slept at all? You felt like you spent the whole night twisting and turning.
Well, there is a scientific explanation for this; half your brain is awake in a fight and flight mode response, while the other half is unsuccessfully trying to deep sleep. This could be a response to several environmental and psychological factors, such as the alien surroundings of your hotel room, the stress or worry of the next day or the unfamiliar travel pattern.
It is surprising to many that we can experience the fight and flight mode during sleep. It is even more prevalent in conditions such as Sleep Apnea and Restless Leg Syndrome, which activate the brain during sleep. If you suffer from Sleep Apnea you are likely to repeatedly wake up throughout the night to catch your breath, so your brain and body respond in the fight and flight mode as adrenaline surges through the body and your blood pressure and heart rate increases.
The importance of sleep is well-documented, and evidence shows that there is a direct link to sleep and our short and long-term wellbeing – both mental and physical. Sleep is the most commonly reported mental health complaint in the UK reported by the NHS, with over one-third of Brits stating they have suffered from insomnia at some point in their life. Having sleep-related issues can be a sign of other health concerns and can also spill over into all aspects of our lives.
Part of the problem is our belief and perception of sleep. It’s good to begin by demystifying the myths about sleep:
4-6 hours of sleep enough to get by?
We have all heard of the stories of the world leaders, entrepreneurs, creatives and business leaders who claim to sleep only 4 hours a night and still lead nations, manage large companies and create amazing inventions. The likes of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Madonna, and Leonardo da Vinci come to mind.
However, research shows that we need at least 7 – 9 hours sleep a night! Although sleep needs may vary from person to person, below 7 hours is not sufficient for us to function efficiently.
If you are still in two minds about sleeping at least 7 hours per night, many researchers have shown that there is a correlation between insufficient sleep across the lifespan and diseases such as obesity, dementia and Alzheimer’s. On an antidotal note; Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan went on to develop Alzheimer’s in their later years, coincidence?
Is it advisable to catch up on sleep during the day?
Firstly, we are assuming we can catch up on sleep. This is a contested area for many health professionals.
On one side, there is the belief that a power nap is a great way to relax, destress and stimulate creativity. However, if this is done too often, at the wrong time of day or for too long it can backfire and results in a poor night sleep or insomnia.
So if you are napping due to a night of poor night sleep, then the advice is to avoid napping during the day, as this will have a knock-on effect on your night sleep and can lead to a vicious cycle of disturbed and broken sleep.
Some professionals argue that napping during the day may be a sign of health problems or future health problems. A recent study in the Sleep Journal highlighted the greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s for those who suffer from day time sleepiness or choose to nap often. So what this highlights is that napping is a symptom of a problem—not necessarily a problem in itself.
So if you feel the need to nap, ask yourself why? Was this just one poor night sleep, or has this become a regular pattern?
Sleep quality vs. quantity, which do you think is more important?
When we’ve had a hard day, and you’ve been sluggish and felt sleepy throughout, our primary thought is to get to bed early. Our brain and body are fantastic at telling us what we need, but often we fail to respond accordingly.
Yes, quantity is key, as discussed above, but also quality!
A recent study published by the University of Sydney highlighted the total amount we spend in bed per night could indicate as to the complete sleep cycles we’ve achieved. However, quality of sleep should also be what we also aim for, as this restores the brain.
We typically go through four stages of sleep, stage 1-3 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and stage 4 rapid eye movement (REM). Each step serves unique functions in restoring the body. REM sleep is the last stage and occurs in cycles of about 90-120 minutes. The REM stage enables us to dream; it is also believed to help us tackle challenging tasks, challenges, and process emotions.
The stages of sleep - The Sleep Council
You’ve heard of the saying ‘Sleep on it’, which is often used when we are faced with tasks and challenges which appear to be impossible to accomplish. However, after a good night’s rest, the answers come flowing out.
So, quality and quantity go hand in hand. It’s neither one nor the other.
Various factors impact and alter our sleep. Often these are not obvious to us. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a new mum, finding out how to maximize your nightly sleep is significant to help you feel good and perform to the best of your abilities.
To better understand our sleep pattern, many tools and techniques can be deployed, such as a sleep journal, wellbeing tracking app, looking at our caffeine intake, exercise regimes, and sleep pattern analysis.
If you have questions about any of the topics discussed in this article, contact a health professional or if you are keen to understand your sleep patterns and the effects it has on your wellbeing, get in touch with me – Kemi Fadero for a personalised assessment.
Kemi Fadero is a Wellbeing Consultant and Coach based in Cambridge, UK. Kemi’s career encompassed working for multinationals in various continents. Her interest in wellbeing and coaching was a result of working in an increasingly challenging business landscape and juggling a household of three kids containing a set of twin boys. Over the years working in corporate life, she noticed the increased demands of modern life on her family, colleagues, and friends. She decided to help others feeling the strain of modern life by leveraging her background in Psychology, Counselling, and her passion for fitness and wellbeing. She now coaches individuals seeking to overcome their wellbeing challenges and works with organisations to develop wellbeing programs.