So, why do we sleep?

What happens to our wellbeing if we don’t get enough sleep?

If we look across the animal world, we can see that sleep is a fundamental part of life for most animals.  In fact, for some animals it takes up most of their lives…

This koala tops the chart of heavy sleepers clocking up an impressive 18 – 22 hours in every 24 hour period.

On average, we humans only sleep between 7 and 9 hours a night but that still adds up to spending around a third of our lives asleep – that’s around 27 years!

So, what’s going on?  Why have we evolved to do something that leaves us highly vulnerable and is, on the surface, pretty non-productive?

In fact, although it seems like we’re doing nothing, certain areas of the brain actually increase their activity levels during sleep rather than shutting down.

Why we sleep…

There are of course the obvious benefits of sleep like rest, but it’s also a time for:

  • The restoration and repair of our organ systems such as the muscles, the immune system, our hormones.
  • Sleep affects us on a cellular level. At the end of each of our chromosomes are tiny hair-like filaments called telomeres which protect the genetic information. The shorter the telomeres, the shorter your life span, it’s effectively your aging process – and sleep disorders have been found to be linked to shorter telomeres.
  • It’s when our memory consolidation happens: think of your brain having millions of neural pathways, there’s lots of traffic going through them during the day as you take on board new experiences, interactions, learning, etc. At night, as you sleep the traffic dies down, making it a great time for your brain to process all that information, to determine what needs to remain available and what can be filed away.
  • It’s a time for ‘housekeeping’, when toxins that have built up during the day are removed
  • And it’s also when the important neural connections are strengthened, the less important ones are broken down. This ensures your brain continues to function effectively

So there’s a lot going on, despite outward appearances to the contrary!

And what happens when we don’t get enough sleep?

According to the HSE, fatigue has been implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads and is said to cost the UK £115 – £240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone.

But beyond the finances is the human cost –  think of all those company car drivers, machine operators, shift workers, as well as all those working on the Pandemic frontline… lack of sleep affects anyone who has to make a decision of any kind in their organisation.

When we don’t get enough sleep our bodies can take over.  Chronic lack of sleep can have consequences like micro-sleeping – short, unintended periods of loss of attention, lasting a fraction of a second up to 2 minutes. They manifest in:

  • Blank stare
  • Lack of response
  • Head snapping/dropping or sudden body jerks
  • Prolonged eye closure (which may occur when you’re trying to perform a monotonous task like driving a car or watching a computer screen)
  • Unable to remember the last 1-2 minutes
  • Slow blinking or constant blinking
  • Excessive yawning

…simply an inability to keep your eyes open!

Most of us have gone through periods when we’ve lacked sleep, whether it’s because we’re going through the new stages of parenthood – remember those 1, 2, 3 hourly wake ups for feeding, or when your child is sick and needs to be comforted? – or perhaps facing life changes that have interfered with your sleep patterns: anything from sitting exams, to going for interviews, starting a new job, moving house, or any number of other work or personal pressures.  

We might recognise that our increased stress and anxiety levels are impacting on our sleep.

In most cases the event passes and our sleep patterns re-establish themselves, but if that’s not the case for you…

You might need a little help to rediscover good sleep

The first thing to remember is sleep is good – set your mind and body up to want to go to sleep!

You can nudge it along with:

  1. Changing your thoughts, beliefs and behaviours
  • Reframe how you think about sleep
  • Prepare yourself to sleep, not to be awake
  • Good sleep starts during the day, your waking habits impact how your sleep
  1. Sleep Hygiene (and stimulus restriction)
  • Make your bedroom a ‘boredom’ zone, de-clutter
  • Make it a haven for relaxation, check the condition of your pillows and mattress
  • Keep it dark, turn off rather than ‘stand by’ devices, use blackout blinds
  • Your bed can be warm but your room should be cool 16-18oC
  • Use an alarm clock, not your phone – your brain knows it’s a box full of interesting things so will be on alert to using it!
  1. Creating routine (keying into your natural bio-rhythms)
  • Bring routine into your sleep planning
  • Follow the 90 minute rule:

Allow 90 minutes for your body to settle into sleep – dimming or turning off lights 90 minutes before you want to sleep to promote the release of melatonin (your sleepy hormone), have your last snacks/drinks so your digestive system can close down for the night, do relaxing activities that allow the mind to wind down

Allow 90 minutes for your mind and body to wake up – determine what time you need to be up and ready to leave home/work/etc and work back 90 minutes, that’s your wake up time… and sandwiched between them is your sleep time! You actually need anything between 4 – 11 hours, understand what works for you

  1. Simple relaxation techniques
  • Prepare your mind – think of a good thing that makes you feel happy, gratitude techniques (Gratitude Diary, counting your blessings), meditation
  • Pre-sleep activities – breathing techniques, body scanning, relaxation audios. They help calm the mind and body, and promote the sense of routine which means your brain is relaxed enough to allow you to drift off into sleep
  • Try self-hypnosis – visualise a scene, maybe a favourite holiday or being in your garden or out for a walk, imagine the scene, make it vivid, think about the colours, sights, sounds, smells, emotions

In our modern lives, we have pushed sleep to one side, by-passing our natural biorhythms in favour of new learned behaviours, but there is a cost – if we don’t allow the body and mind to rest, recover, renew then we’re at risk of damaging our long term health and wellbeing.

When we sleep well, we perform well, we engage better – we live life to it’s full potential.

Our thanks to Geraldine Joaquim from Quest Hynotherapy for this article.

Geraldine is one of the trusted experts we work with when we create our employee wellbeing programmes.

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