Slumber used to occupy an unsexy space in our collective consciousness – tied up in old fashioned notions of bed being somewhere that only the unambitious and work-shy spent a lot of time.
Sleep quality: why it matters
Those days are gone. (Fancy mattress-makers Emma grew their UK annual revenues by 246% in 2018, while, according to The Sleep Council, 23% of 25-34 year-olds have used a sleep tracker.)
But, while ‘You need eight hours of sleep’ has become as cliched a refrain as ‘gym then gin’, there’s something we’re still not unpicking quite enough.
Sleep quality. In a talk hosted at the inaugural Women’s Health Live, sleep scientist Dr Sophie Bostock joined leading trainer and the brains behind the Power Hour podcast, Adrienne Herbert, to chat all things snooze.
The main takeaway? Yes, how to get to sleep matters. But so too does a higher quality doze – one that’s the nutrient-dense salmon and black rice equivilant of the zeds world.
‘In terms of the number of hours of sleep, we probably haven’t changed that much over the past few years,’ says Dr Bostock.
‘What has changed is sleep quality. We are now bombarded by things that get in the way of our sleep – phones, laptops and tablets are designed to mimic the same wavelength of light that you get with the midday sun.’
Uh oh. Here’s what WH learned about how to get more bang from your dead-to-the-world hours, from the session.
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How to improve your sleep quality
Try and go to bed at a reasonable hour
‘We sleep in cycles,’ says Dr Bostock. ‘Of around 90 minutes. Stage one is a light doze, in which you’re easy to wake up.
‘Stage two is ‘true sleep,’ in which your heart rate slows down, your temperate drops, you breathe more slowly.
‘Stage three is really physically restorative – it’s when you repair your damaged cells and you hit it after around 45 mins of being asleep. Then, we cycle through REM sleep, which is when we dream, and back to one.’
Why does this matter? Well, in the first half of the night, you skew towards the deeper sleep zones, which is why you are less likely to wake up (shout out to the 3am ‘Oh my God did I leave the oven on’ crew.)
As such, if you do go to bed at 2am, you’re potentially missing out on greater sleep quality, by swerving this juicy slumber.
(That’s not to say that one sleep cycle is ‘better’ than others – they all serve super vital functions. But you want to get them all: not just largely REM.)
Put down your tech
You’re one of the few who can swipe away on your phone until it’s time to hit the hay – and conk straight so. So, what’s the issue?
‘If you’re very sleep deprived, you may well still go straight to sleep after using tech,’ explains Dr Bostock. ‘But I promise you that your sleep is a lower quality than it would have been had you stopped using it an hour before.’
Just because you can get to sleep doesn’t mean that your sleep is optimal, so retire your devices 60 minutes before you want to go to bed.
Swerve the drink
An obvious one, but, as Dr Bostock says: while a gin and tonic may chill you out, it also messes with your sleep architecture, stopping you from completing those restorative cycles as you want to.
No nightcaps, people.
Don’t hit snooze
When it comes to protecting your sleep quality, this one is a biggie. ‘When you hit snooze, you are not getting beneficial sleep,’ says Dr Bostock. Why?
By shaking yourself in and out of sleep, it’s a weird, in-between ground that’s not doing you any favours. ‘You’ll also have a groggy feeling, known as sleep inertia,’ – and this can last for your whole day.
Know that you can increase your sleep quality
‘Anyone who feels they’ve lost control of their sleep you can take it back. You are born knowing how to sleep, it’s innate,’ explains Dr Bostock.
‘But we lose track because of the environment we’re in and unhelpful thinking habits and behaviours.’
If you tackle the thoughts (for example, by using CBT techniques) and behaviours (by shutting down your tech an hour before bed and swerving booze), then good sleep is in control.
Clear your mind with a to-do list
To prevent waking up in the middle of the night with a racing mind, Herbert recommends writing it out last thing at night.
‘I write my to do list to empty my mind as my schedule changes all the time. I know I won’t forget anything,’ she says.
Experiment with exercise
‘The advice used to be to not exercise after 9pm as it heats the body up,’ says Dr Bostock. ‘But there’s a lot of natural variation.
‘Some people should be doing yoga at the most, others can go running. It’s worth experimenting with to see what works for you.’
Herbert backs this up: saying that when she used to lead nighttime runs she’d come home pumped up and unable to sleep. Nixing this and moving first thing in the morning was the tonic she needed.
A note on not stressing about it
Look. ‘One night bad’s sleep is not the end of the world,’ says Dr Bostock. In short, the worst thing that can happen is for you to get hung up on it and start worrying, thus preventing future kip.
Also, know that some of us are natural night lovers and have our circadian rhythms set to make us more alert at the end of the day, rather than the beginning. ‘You may settle into a rhythm after your twenties, but one in four of the population may stay as night owls,’ elaborates Dr Bostock.
Given that most of us need to be at work first thing, what’s to do?
‘Use light, which is the biggest driver of biological rhythm.’ Get a sunrise lamp and exposure yourself to as much natural light as possible. Having an early breakfast to wake your body up can help, too.