Whether I’m running mindfulness sessions at an investment fund or a primary school, the most persistent issues people report is feeling tired. Nay, exhausted. Lethargic. Fatigued. We’re in the midst of a sleep epidemic; one-fifth of all GP visits are due to fatigue. It’s the primary reason that patients visit their doctor. 52% of the population complain of poor sleep and 31% takes sleep medication to try and remedy it. The majority of these cases can be traced back to insufficient and poor quality sleep. This may seem obvious but do you really understand how not getting enough sleep impacts your health?

The first thing to note is that sleep really, really important for our mental and physical wellbeing. The bad news is that we are not getting enough of it! 70% of Britons now get 7 hours or less per night, and a quarter of the population is suffering from poor sleep quality. And it’s getting worse; over the past 3 years, the number of us surviving on 5-6 hours has gone from just 27% in 2010 to over one-third of the entire population.

This is bad news!

How much sleep do you need?

8-9 hours. Slightly more if your a child or teenager, slightly less if you’re over 70. Everyone else needs 8-9 hours of sleep every night. 5% of the world’s population has a genetic mutation that means that they can get by easily on 5-6 hours, but chances are that you’re not one of them. You need 8-9 hours. End of story.

Here are some of the statistics showing what can happen if you don’t get enough sleep:

  • Immune system weakened by 50%
  • 45% increased chance of a heart attack
  • Increased risk of diabetes
  • 45% increased risk of diabetes
  • 29% reduction in fertility
  • 30% increased risk of some cancers

In summary, don’t cut your sleep short. Your life depends on it.

What is sleep?

Considering that we spend nearly half our life asleep, we knew relatively little about what sleep is and why we need it until recently.  With the advent of modern neuroimaging technology, we are able to dive into our brain’s inner workings whilst we’re sleeping. In order to understand why sleep is so important, we must first understand what it does.

Not All Sleep is Created Equal

As were sleeping, our brain flows between 2 different sleeping frequencies, both of which serve different functions.

  1. Rapid Eye Movement (REM): 70 minutes after you fall asleep, your brain cycles into REM sleep which makes up 25% of your total sleep pattern. As you sleep cycle repeats, you will go back into REM several times throughout the night. REM sleep is where your dreams happen; your brain pulls up different bits of information you have taken in and plays it out as a type of hallucination. In this process, the parts of your brain responsible for memory and learning are stimulated, as if you were rehearsing different skills and scenarios from your daily life. Your muscles are temporarily paralysed so that you don’t act out these scenarios and hurt yourself (which can happen if this mechanism doesn’t work properly!).
  2. Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM): 80% of your sleep is made up of the slow, long and deep brain waves of dreamless NREM sleep. During NREM, your brain generates sleep “spindles”, where it takes information collected in your short term memory and transforms and integrates it into your long term memory. During this cycle, your body also undergoes significant detoxification and renewal processes which are vital for maintaining good health.

Clean Up Your Sleep!

If you are a member of the tribe of the great unrested, then you will be familiar with the tortuous experience of lying awake into the wee hours, counting down the minutes until you have to get up again.

What is one to do?

Here are our top tips on improving the length and quality of your sleep:

1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including on weekends):

If you do one thing to improve your sleep, do this! Having a different bedtime every night means that your mind and body are in a continual state of jet lag. It doesn’t know when to start releasing the hormones that make you sleepy or when to get your physiology in gear to wake up. Set an alarm to go and get ready for bed 9 hours before your alarm to wake up.

2. Practice mindfulness:

There are endless studies that show that mindfulness meditation improves both the quality and duration of sleep. Many participants report sleeping better almost immediately as they start meditating. In mindfulness meditation you train your relaxation response. Relaxation is extremely useful when trying to sleep!

3. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sleeping tablets:

Caffeine blocks adenosine, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, and it stays in your system for over 8 hours. It is very hard to go to sleep when you don’t feel sleepy. So avoid drinking caffeinated drinks in the afternoon. Alcohol and sleeping tablets are sedatives and sedation is not sleeping. You have neither REM nor NREM sleep meaning that you feel groggy the next day. This leads you to drink more caffeine to relieve the grogginess. The cycle continues….

5. Turn your screens off and dim lights 2-3 hours before bedtime:

Our internal body clock (circadian rhythm) has evolved to receive information from the changes in light throughout the day. Morning sunlight contains lots of blue and violet tones which signal to our brain to be awake and alert. Evening sunlight is warmer, emitting lots of red and orange tones. The amount of natural sunlight then diminishes throughout the day, triggering our brain to get ready for sleep when it gets dark. Indoor lights and electronic devices have wreaked chaos to our internal timekeeping. Screens emit a blue-based light which confuses our circadian rhythm into thinking that its morning, especially when used at night. This means that it doesn’t start signalling to our body that it’s time to get ready for bed. Electric lighting worsens this problem.

6. Get outdoors:

Daylight is crucial in our brain regulating our sleeping patterns. In modern society we spend less time outside than ever before meaning that our circadian rhythm can’t pick up on the natural light signals it needs to regulate itself. Try and walk to or from work, eat your lunch outside and get as much natural sunlight as you can.