Sleep expert James Wilson explains why a good night's slumber is so important to our physical and mental health, and how to go about achieving it
It’s all very well knowing that good-quality sleep is essential to our wellbeing, but how can we ensure that we get the right amount each night? Read on to find out...
What are the benefits of sleep?
Sleep is part of the foundation that our health is built upon. It’s when our bodies physically recover and repair from the exertions of the day, and our brain is cleaned of the neurotoxins that can contribute to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It is when our brain consolidates memory, where we work through the emotions of the day and where our emotional resilience is built.
If you’re a poor sleeper, you’re probably most aware of missing this last factor; when you’ve had a poor night’s sleep, your ability to regulate your emotions is impacted, so you’re often left frustrated and ready to lose your temper.
Are you getting enough sleep?
So, how do we know if we’re getting the sleep that we need? Firstly, it’s about both quantity and quality. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, so rather than focusing on a number of hours, think about how you’re feeling.
A good time to focus on this is around 10-11am. This is where, in our body’s daily cycle, we should feel at our most alert. If you feel that way five days out of seven, then you’re getting enough quality sleep and shouldn’t worry about it. If this isn’t the case, then here are some things you should consider.
First, work out your sleep type – are you an owl, a lark or somewhere in the middle? A lark is someone who goes to sleep roughly between 8pm and 10pm and wakes up (naturally) somewhere between 4am and 6am. An owl is someone who goes to sleep sometime after 11pm and would wake up after 8am, if they could. It's a lucky owl who has a working day that’s compatible with their sleep type. A typical or neutral sleeper is somewhere in the middle.
Remember, this works on a spectrum, so it may be that you’re a typical sleeper with a slight preference one way or the other. Also, our sleep type changes as we go through life – in our teenage years, for example, we’re more likely to be an owl.
Second, ensure your sleep time suits your sleep type, so you’re going to bed and falling asleep within half an hour.
How to sleep better
If you’re in bed and you don’t fall asleep for more than 30 minutes, then you need to reset yourself (if you sleep next to someone else, then get up to do this). Listen to something – a podcast, spoken- word book or perhaps the radio – and let your mind wander. When you feel sleepy, go back to bed. This applies when you first go to bed and in the middle of the night, too.
Finally, in addition to a consistent bedtime, you should have a consistent wake-up time. It makes sense that, to allow your body to get sleepy at the same time, you need to wake up as close as possible to the same time every morning. Now, I am not an evil man – most people can have a lie-in of 90 minutes at the weekend and it won’t affect their sleep time – but if your usual wake-up time is 7am, don’t let yourself lie in until midday on a Sunday.
So, now you know the basics, it’s time to put this into practice. Sleep well...
About the author
Known as the Sleep Geek, James is a leading sleep behaviour expert who works with organisations and sports teams to improve their wellbeing. Find out more on his website.