Without sleep, we would quite literally, die. Shouldn’t it then be as natural and effortless as going to the toilet after downing 3 cups of tea? Au contraire: according to the 432 million hits on Google for “lack of sleep”, it seems that somewhere along the way we forgot how to do the very thing that keeps us happy, healthy and alert – and it’s a phenomenon that’s leaving researchers all over the world baffled. As time goes on, science continues to make headway – though there are still many questions left unanswered. Is sleep something you can good get at? How many hours should you really be getting a night? Should I ignore that “u up” message at 2am? As your questions came flooding in, we enlisted expert help. Today, we speak to Prof. Delwyn Bartlet, a leading psychologist and insomnia specialist, as well as registered nurse and midwife.
I’ve never slept a lot and I feel horrible when I do. Do I just trust my body is on the right amount or is there a way to determine how many hours is best for me?
Well, what comes to mind, if somebody is normally quite a short sleeper and they have a longer sleep, it’s almost as though they’ve jet-lagged themselves in the opposite direction. Do I just trust the average seven to eight hours is the right amount? If you look at large Epidemiological Observational Study of over 2 million people, 7 hours to 7.2 is the average sleep time.
However, healthy sleep is a U-shaped curve. Insufficient sleep (less than 6 hours) is not good for us, and too much sleep is not necessarily healthy either. For example, the person who’s having slightly less than seven hours is often more likely to be employed, does exercise, and has more social interactions. Sleeping eight and a half or longer and/or spending long periods of time in bed is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, pain-related conditions and depression.
One of the most important things is to have consistency during the week as much as possible. If you do like to sleep in on the weekend do it on a Saturday, not the Sunday, and no more than 1.5 hours more than your average sleep time! Most of all, the time that you get up determines your sleep quality far more than the time you go to bed, so try your best to keep your waking time stable during the working week.
I ALWAYS struggle to get to sleep, every night, and used to take sleeping pills non stop! What are some tips on getting to sleep naturally?
Again, try to regulate your waking time as much as possible. Reduce light and avoid screens at night, and try to give yourself time to slow down and wind down before bed. Learn to look after yourself, whether you’re doing mindfulness strategies, whether you’re daydreaming, whether you’re praying, or whatever it is you find works for you. We’ve all had nights lying awake, ruminating over all the things we hadn’t done that day, or need to do the next. What you’re basically doing is sending a message to another part of your body that there’s a danger in the environment, leading to a release of adrenaline, sending you into that fight or flight mode.
Mediation or mindfulness is one tool that helps us let go of the tendency we have to ruminate and hold onto thoughts. It’s not necessarily about having a blank mind, it’s about what you pay attention to versus what you put to the side. Think, “If I hold onto this thought, I shall keep myself awake, is this really what I want to do?” It’s your mind, it’s your thoughts, and you’re in charge.
I find sleeping around the time of my period often uncomfortable, from body temperature to generally feeling hormonal. What causes this and are there any tips for making your sleeping situation more relaxing around your period?
There are quite a lot of women who really battle with their sleep a couple of days before and during their period, so it’s highly likely to be hormonal – it’s just unfortunate, and it’s one of those things. Women have always had to deal with their periods and cycles, so it’s about learning to accept it best as you can if you do not want to take medications…However, there are a few practical steps you can take: room and body temperature is important for good sleep. If you’ve got a very hot room, a fan is useful (even a fan on a stand if you don’t have a ceiling fan) and try to reduce some of the weight of your bedding prior to your period.
Does not sleeping well lead to gut issues?
What we know is that if you have healthy gut bacteria, that has an impact on GABA receptor sites, and GABA is all about reducing central nervous system activation. Does poor sleep cause gut issues? Probably not. But is there an interaction or a bidirectional relationship between the two? It’s possible because we know that if you have a healthier gut bacteria then you are more likely to sleep better and your mood is likely to be better.
What happens to your sleep once you have a newborn baby?
I see a lot of women who’ve had insomnia for 20 years, and the onset of it was having their first baby. If you’re feeding a baby and so on, you are going to be up throughout the night and your sleep is disrupted. We all know that. But no one ever expects it to be quite the way that it is, because we still don’t have enough prenatal education around sleep: around mother’s sleep, around father’s sleep, around baby’s sleep. We don’t have enough information about when to pick babies up, or how to tell the difference between a baby being in quiet sleep versus active sleep. We need so much more information about all of these things.
The study conducted by one of my Ph.D. students, who’s now in post-doc, trialed psychoeducational sleep intervention course for new mothers in the third trimester of their pregnancy. When we compared the results of the mothers who were in the intervention group versus the mothers in the control group, there was no difference in their sleep at six weeks. Namely, because that period is ‘survival time’ and you just have to figure out to get through it the best you can.
However, by the time our mothers were four months postpartum, the intervention group was sleeping so much better. And they had fewer symptoms of insomnia, per se, and the quality of their sleep was better. Conversely, the control group later caught up with our intervention mothers at ten months. It’s really important that we talk more about first-time mothers preparing for disruptions to their sleeping patterns before the baby is born.
Image, Kate Millington.