If you’re among the one in three Brits who have trouble sleeping, this one from Healthista is for you. Here, the experts set a few things straight about the sleep myths that could be keeping you awake.
- Napping makes you more tired
Truth: If napping makes you more tired, you’re not doing it right, says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a physiologist specialising in sleep and author of Tired But Wired (£12.99 Souvenir Press). “The key is to take controlled naps which can revive you,’ she explains. For example, a power nap of five to 20 minutes unloads the brain and could make up for a small sleep debt from the night before, making you feel more recharged”. Here’s what happens: during sleep, your brain produces different kinds of waves which correspond to how deeply you sleep. After 20 minutes, the brain may move into its deeper slow-wave sleep, leaving you groggy when you wake up. “If you’re only napping for 20 minutes and still feeling tried and unrefreshed afterwards, you may be chronically exhausted,” says Ramlakhan. “If you stick with it, napping only for 5-20 minutes you could eventually begin to feel better. The key is not to be tempted to sleep for longer or you will disturb your sleep in the evening.”
Solution: Set an alarm so you don’t oversleep, suggests Ramlakhan. “Don’t get too comfortable or you won’t wake up – an armchair or sofa is great – and take with you some lavender or a cushion you associate with sleep to help trigger your brain to relax.” Try and not nap after 3pm though as this is when your body’s levels of the sleep hormone melatonin begin to rise. This signals to the brain that it’s time to wind down and prepare for evening and napping after this time could interrupt your night’s sleep. If you feel tired during the day but too ‘wired’ to nap, Ramlakhan recommends yoga nidra, a guided yogic sleep done for about 25 minutes. “Even if you don’t actually fall asleep it deeply relaxes the body so you come out of it feeling relaxed but recharged.”
- Skipping an hour’s sleep each night can’t hurt you
Truth: An experiment by television medic Dr Michael Moseley looked at the effects of losing just one hour’s sleep a night and found those on an hour’s less shut eye struggled on mental agility tests the next day. Perhaps more alarmingly, after a week of this, blood tests found that processes in their bodies associated with inflammation, immune response and stress became more active and there were even increases in the activity of genes associated with cancer and diabetes risk. In those that slept an extra hour, the process was reversed. Most people who want to squeeze more activity into their days will ‘steal’ time from their sleep before midnight, says Ramlakhan. “My patients most commonly see the hours from 10pm to midnight as the ideal time to catch up on emails and social media”. But the sleep we get before midnight balances the body physically which is why people that sleep less and later may suffer with lowered immunity and higher susceptibility to colds as well as a higher risk of diseases such as diabetes, she explains.
Solution: Have an ‘electronic sundown’ of 60-90 minutes in which you switch off phones, tablets and laptops before bed and keep your pre-bed light exposure minimal. “Electronic devices such as these and energy efficient light bulbs emit blue light waves and these are exceptionally disruptive at night signalling to the brain that it’s still daytime,” says Dr Jeremy Hibberd, a consultant psychologist and co-author of new book, This Book Will make You Sleep (£7.99 Quercus). “Blue light boosts our attention which is terrible when you want to go to sleep.” When you’re watching telly pre-bed turn off the lights in the living room and if you’re reading, look for a lamp that uses a bulb with a small, low-wattage bulb.
- Catching up at the weekend is fine
Truth: A staggering 40% of us don’t get the recommended six to nine hours sleep a night, research by The Sleep Council has found. The long weekend lie-in is a tempting antidote but while it may reduce sleepiness and stress, it won’t help your ability to concentrate, research published recently in The American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology found. In fact, sleep deprived subjects in the study showed impaired concentration even after their ‘recovery sleep’ at the weekend. “Lie ins and long naps at the weekend disrupt our body clocks which could disrupt our sleep in the long term by making it harder to sleep at night during the week,” says Professor Colin Espie, a sleep specialist at the University of Oxford. “The brain’s need for sleep is due to ‘sleep pressure’ which accumulates during the day and becomes greater the longer we’re awake,” he explains. “Sleeping in for long periods confuses this process.”
Solution: If you miss some sleep one night, you can catch up the next night with little problem, says Dr Neil Stanley, a medic and independent sleep expert. “But after about two nights of not sleeping enough, you’re in sleep debt and lie ins at the weekend can’t make up for that”. If you make no other change to your sleep, he suggests waking up at the same time every day, even at the weekend. “This trains your body to use the time it has to sleep most efficiently.” Professor Espie has just launched a new website sleepio.com, a clinically proven course based on cognitive behavioural therapy to help people with sleep issues of any kind establish a set routine and overcome their sleep problems.
- Exercise close to bedtime keeps you awake
Truth: In fact, research shows that even vigorous exercise before bedtime doesn’t cause problems sleeping for many people and in some cases, it might even be beneficial. Indeed, people who exercised for at least 30 minutes 5-6 times a week – regardless of what time of day they exercised – were also the least likely to take sleep medication, found The Sleep Council research. “Some studies suggest time spent in the deeper stages of sleep increases after exercise,” says Professor Espie. A 2011 study found adults with insomnia who ran on a treadmill three times a week either in the morning or at 6pm saw their insomnia improve including taking less time to fall asleep, waking up less and feeling better in the mornings.
Solution: “As long as you wind down, exercising in the evening shouldn’t affect your sleep,” says Dr Ramlakhan. This could be anything that relaxes you such as a hot Epsom salts bath or a few downloading yoga moves. “My favourite wind down is Child’s Pose, where you kneel down and rest your chest on your thighs and your head on the floor, then legs up the wall, where you lie on the floor with your legs up against the wall and your head on a pillow and lastly, corpse, where you literally lie flat on the floor with a rolled up blanket under your knees, your head on a cushion – each held for around 1-5 minutes accompanied by deep, slow breathing is the ultimate pre-bed relaxation routine,” she suggests.
- Some people only need a few hours
Truth: Some people like Margaret Thatcher, Gandhi and Winston Churchill may have famously thrived on less sleep but they’re a rarity. In fact, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco recently discovered a gene mutation in people that predisposed them to needing about 20% less sleep than the rest of us. But they estimate those ‘short-sleepers’ only comprise around five per cent of the population. “Sleep is like height, it’s genetically determined,” says Dr Stanley. So if your mum or dad were short sleepers you may be too. But while the amount of sleep you need can vary from three to nine hours, most people need 7-8.
Solution: “The best gauge is how you feel during the day,” says Dr Ramlakhan. The signs you’re not getting enough sleep are cravings for sweets, caffeine and carbohydrates, wanting to go back to sleep as soon as you wake up and thinking about sleep during the day”. Conversely, she says if you wake up without an alarm clock at the same time everyday – whether it’s for work, at the weekend or on holiday – with only 4-5 hours sleep you could be among the lucky few genuine ‘short-sleepers’.
- If you have insomnia, go to sleep earlier
Truth: It seems we’re resigned to insomnia, with a third of us getting by on 5-6 hours’ sleep a night, kept mostly awake by worry and stress. Yet one survey found that 38% of us think the answer to insomnia is going to sleep earlier when in fact it could be just the opposite. You need to build up your ‘sleep pressure’ says Professor Espie, which is simply about being awake and active enough to make yourself tired. Experts recommend that people with insomnia go to sleep later, waiting until they are truly sleepy before getting into bed.
Solution: Go to sleep an hour later than you normally would to ensure you’re more tired than usual and actively ‘give up on sleep’. Worrying about getting back to sleep, how little you’re sleeping, how ruined you will be tomorrow is paradoxically keeping your mind in the kind of stressed, survival mode in which sleep is the last thing it wants to do. The less you care about sleep, the more likely it is to happen, says Dr Hibberd. This focusing less on sleep is part of a therapy called paradoxical intention therapy recommended by the American Society of Sleep Medicine in which you forget your preoccupation with sleep and simply go to bed when you are tired, even if that means you only get four hours sleep (eventually your body should get tired earlier and earlier and adjust). “If you wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, start to think about this as a good thing, time to chill out in your warm bed and relax,” Hibberd suggests. “Tell yourself you will fall asleep when you are ready – stop putting yourself under pressure and you will fall asleep.” Remember too that exercising during the day is proven to help you sleep at night as is eating foods that increase your levels of sleep neurotransmitters such as melatonin, serotonin and tryptophan. These include: whole grain breads, fruit (especially bananas and cherries) and protein rich foods including salmon, herring, beef, pork and turkey.