The question of how much sleep one needs is one we get all the time. The answer, as with so much, is it really depends how much YOU need! Everyone is different. Some people need more than others. As a guideline 7-9 hours is about right, but don’t panic if you are getting less for periods of time. You may not be at your absolute best but you will be fine. One of the big problems we see these days, exacerbated by sleep trackers and a sort of sleep-obsession that seems to have taken root is people agonising over how much sleep they are getting, how good the quality of their sleep is etc. This is not going to help you sleep better, generally speaking, especially if you are of an anxious disposition. Sure, some people love tracking things and that’s great, but for most people it’s not necessary.
A comfortable, dark and cool sleeping environment is important. We have lots of things on BetterSpace to improve your sleep environment, from weighted blankets to diffusers, eye masks to sunrise-mimicking alarm clocks! However, I would add that obsessing over temperatures, ambient light, noise, pillows etc can be counter-productive. People who sleep well usually don’t worry too much about these things. They just sleep. As Professor Colin Espie, the founder of Sleepio says,
‘these things that have become known as sleep hygiene are a bit superficial. After all, sleep is fundamental to every living organism. Cats and dogs, birds and butterflies don’t sleep well because they leave their smartphones in the living room or because they cut down on their Americano intake! It’s quite likely that doing those things will not be enough for you either.’
Professor Espie recently wrote about 5 principles for good sleep, which I quote here.
First principle: Value your sleep
“There are only four things that are essential for life. We need oxygen so we can breathe, we need water so we are hydrated, we need food so we are nourished, and we need sleep so we can function. Sleep plays an essential role in the renewal and repair of body tissue, in metabolism, growth and development, infection control, learning and memory, and in the regulation of our emotions.”
Sleeping is also like breathing. It’s not something you can choose to do. You can’t hold your breath – well not for very long! Likewise, you can’t switch sleep on; you have to set the scene for sleep, with the right attitudes and behaviours, and then it will happen naturally. Sleep is so important that it will happen automatically. It’s a biological thing.
Second principle: Prioritise your sleep
“This follows from a mind-set that takes sleep seriously. You should prioritise getting your sleep. In other words, not just warm thoughts and good intentions, but action. Prioritising means that you will more often put sleep first, or at least higher up the list, when it comes to making choices of what you want to do. At times this will mean letting go of things that you might actually prefer to do.”
We all prioritise things in life all the time. There are so many things we could be doing at any moment. Every day involves thousands of decisions. Our life is the result of all of these decisions (well there are external factors of course we have no control over, but anyway…)
I prioritise going to AA meetings and meditating, because without doing these things I lose a feeling of connection with my fellow humans, and myself. Sleep is up there too. Our CEO Jim likes to use the example that Netflix felt they were competing with sleep. Well, my suggestion is to go with sleep, however tempting that next episode might be!
Third principle: Personalise your sleep
“If you are following along then hopefully you are now considering how to take sleep seriously and are thinking of actions that you can take to prioritise getting your sleep … but how much sleep? … and how much is enough? … and is quality of sleep not every bit as important as quantity? The third principle is about understanding your personal sleep requirement, and then satisfying those personal needs. We are not all the same. It never ceases to amaze me that we seem to think everyone should follow exactly the same sleep rules. Our other physical characteristics, appetites and preferences differ. How much sleep do you, personally, need? How do you figure it out? That’s simple – you do it by trial and error.”
Well exactly. Wellbeing is all personal! What works for you doesn’t necessarily work for me. It’s no different for sleep. Listening to our bodies is so important. You will intuitively know what you need, what works for you. My mother in-law only needs 5 hours sleep. She usually sleeps more but she can function very well on 5 hours. I on the other hand, and this is putting it mildly, am no fun to be around on less than 6 hours. Some people are morning people, others are night-owls. You know yourself better than anyone else possibly could.
Fourth principle: Trust your sleep
“If you have experimented a bit and given sleep the right-sized space or sleep window at the right time for you, the main thing to do next is to trust your sleep to get itself into a good pattern. Remember that sleep is a natural process that the whole animal kingdom can rely upon. So, you want to let your own sleep needs and your sleep pattern drive you, rather than you trying to drive them. Good sleepers are actually not “good at sleeping”. They are usually not doing anything at all except trusting and expecting sleep to come. In fact, to be honest, they seldom even think about it. Nobody is hiding a secret from you about how to get to sleep! Try to resist the temptation to grab at solutions, trying this and trying that as if you are walking some kind of tightrope. This just heightens anxiety, leads to preoccupation with sleep, and will make you feel precarious and desperate.”
Yes yes yes yes yes. A common problem for people (myself included) is that they worry about not sleeping, about not getting enough sleep, and this anxiety makes it difficult to sleep. The solution is (counter-intuitive as it sounds) to give up caring about whether you will sleep or not. Mindfulness helps. Focus on your bodily sensations, your breath. And remember that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t sleep. You will be fine. Lo and behold, you will find you normally fall asleep pretty quickly. For anyone caught in this cycle, try reading ‘The Sleep Book’ by Guy Meadows. It’s fantastic on this aspect of sleep.
Fifth principle: Protect your sleep
“Protecting your sleep falls into several categories. First, sleep thrives on a pattern. I have been emphasising that; and experimenting to get it right. A good personalised pattern protects your sleep. Second, the racing mind is the enemy of sleep. Put the day to rest long before you go to bed, wind down from mid-evening on and be kind to yourself if you struggle to sleep. Third, and related to this last point, don’t try to force yourself to sleep. It simply doesn’t work! If you don’t fall asleep then it’s ok to do something else for a while, then settle down again and ‘reboot’. Fourth, protect your sleep from stimulants like caffeine and nicotine! Alcohol also disrupts sleep, particularly during the second half of the night; and heavy meals too close to bedtime can lead to restless sleep. Fifth, sleep likes a good sleep environment, on the cooler and cooler and darker side, but also well ventilated. Finally, protect your sleep from tablets and smartphones. The problem with them is not so much that is not so much that they are sources of light in the bedroom, but that they keep you awake and alert. Try to protect your bedroom and your bedtime hours, as the place and the time for sleep”
Ok so here’s a checklist:
- Experiment to find what works for you
- Relax before bed
- Don’t force yourself to sleep. It will come if you let it. The tighter you hold on to it the less likely you will sleep well. Wear it like a loose robe. You might not feel great if you don’t sleep well but you will be fine
- Don’t have coffee or smoke fags before bed
- Alcohol isn’t great for sleep
- Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room if possible. If not buy thinks to make this happen!
- Bedrooms are for sleeping
With thanks to Professor Colin Espie.