Today – 17th March – is World Sleep Day. Sadly, this is not a day when we all get to sack off work and lie in bed snoozing the day away. Instead, it is dedicated to celebrating the benefits of good and healthy sleep, to draw attention to the burden of sleep problems and to promote the prevention and management of sleep disorders.
In 2019 it was estimated that sleep deprivation cost the UK £50 billion. But it’s not just about the bottom line. Behind these admittedly alarming figures lie millions of stories of distress, ill-health, exhaustion and stress.
Any extended period of poor sleep is extremely unpleasant and leaves us feeling irritable and sluggish. But it’s more than that. Sleep is one of THE most crucial aspects of mental health, and how we sleep can have a profound impact on our mood, emotions, stress levels and overall mental wellbeing. When we don't get enough sleep, it's easy to feel irritable, anxious, and overwhelmed. If this goes on for a long period, our brain health and mental resilience will deteriorate.
The sciencey bit
There is a wealth of research to indicate how and why sleep is so important to our wellbeing, so let’s don our white coats and dive into the science behind sleep.
Brain activity fluctuates during sleep, increasing and decreasing during different sleep stages that make up the sleep cycle. In NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, overall brain activity slows, but there are quick bursts of energy. In REM sleep, brain activity picks up rapidly, which is why this stage is associated with more intense dreaming.
Each stage plays a role in brain health, allowing activity in different parts of the brain to ramp up or down and enabling better thinking, learning, and memory. Sleep helps regulate the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that are responsible for regulating our mood and emotions. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety by regulating the release of stress hormones such as cortisol.
Indeed, the link between sleep and mental health is so strong, scientists now believe that there is a bidirectional relationship between the two, which means that sleeping problems may be both a cause and consequence of mental health problems.
Sleep also has a direct impact on our physical health. Lack of sleep is linked to a host of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Getting enough sleep helps boost our immune system, reduces inflammation, and promotes overall physical wellbeing.
An insomniac nation
In short, clocking up the zeds is a big deal. And yet, it seems we’re tremendously bad at it. Last year, the ‘Need for Sleep’ study of 4,000 UK adults indicated that nearly three quarters (71%) of UK adults do not get the recommended 7-9 hours’ sleep a night, while one-in-seven (14%) survive on dangerously low levels of sleep, under 5 hours.
It’s not hard to see why sleep eludes so many of us, and the problem is likely to have got worse in the last year. We are living in challenging times. The cost-of-living crisis, following on from the unsettling upheavals of the pandemic, have given people plenty of reason to worry – and stress is the enemy of sleep. At which point, a vicious circle can set in. When stress begins to undermine our sleep, our lack of sleep undermines our ability to handle stress. Add in the additional worry of not sleeping, and soon you’ve got as potent a mix for sleeplessness as any number of double espressos.
But before we all resign ourselves to a lifetime of staring at the ceiling into the wee small hours, there are plenty of steps we can take to improve the quantity and quality of shut-eye we get. The key is to prioritise getting enough sleep and make sure we understand some of the key things that set us up for sleep success.
The value of timing
Just as with comedy, the secret of sleep is all about timing. The body responds to routine. If you go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time each day (even on weekends – sorry!) you are teaching your brain and body when it is time to sleep, and it will respond accordingly. Obviously, this is not always easy for shift-workers or new parents, but it makes a significant difference if you can establish a regular routine.
If you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, it’s still important to get up at your normal time. And try and avoid napping during the day – particularly in the afternoon and evening. This will increase the likelihood of you being ready for sleep by the time bedtime arrives.
Get in a sweat
Undertaking some physical activity during the day is also a big help. By getting some exercise, you will not only give yourself a daytime energy boost (useful if you’re tired and sluggish) but your body will be more likely to be ready for sleep at the end of the day. The chemicals released during exercise will also go some way to mitigating some of the negative mental health effects of sleeplessness. Just be sure to avoid exercise in the three hours before bedtime, as the short-term energy boost is not conducive to falling asleep.
It's even better if you can take your exercise outdoors. Getting some natural light, particularly in the morning, will help regulate your circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that signals when to be alert and when to rest. Light also affects the production of melatonin, an essential sleep-promoting hormone. The more natural light the body receives earlier in the day, the earlier you’re likely to be ready for sleep.
Ready your room
It's not just about when you sleep – where you do it is important too. Having a bedroom with the right conditions to aid sleep can make a big difference. This is obvious enough – but it’s striking how many of us ignore these simple steps. Firstly, ensure your bedroom is dark. Don’t sleep with the light on and, if you can, invest in decent curtains or blinds to ensure that light doesn’t start to seep in too early.
Also, try and keep your bedroom cool (we don’t mean posters of Billie Eilish). When we fall asleep both our heart rate and our core temperature must drop, so too much heat in the bedroom is a no-no.
Make sure your mattress, duvet and pillow are comfortable. We spend approximately a third of our lives in bed, so it’s worth ensuring it works for us. And – as far as you can – make sure your room is quiet. Alternatively, some people like to have white noise – like a fan – or brown noise – like crashing waves, heavy rain or waterfalls – playing to help them sleep. There’s no right and wrong answer here – if you don’t like silence, find a solution that works for you. Music (not thrash metal), nature sounds, a podcast (not an uproarious comedy) or the radio can all help. This can also be useful in drowning out a noisy environment.
Meanwhile, there are certain steps you could take – or certain behaviours you could eliminate, to help prepare you for some shuteye. As boring as it may sound, stimulants like caffeine, sugar and nicotine don’t help, particularly in the hours before bedtime. And while alcohol might help you initially drift off to sleep, the sleep quality is generally poor, and you’re more likely to waken in the night needing a pee or a drink of water. Also, avoid eating large meals late at night – particularly spicy ones. Try to avoid having your evening meal less than three hours before bedtime.
It's also worth investing a bit of time in a healthy sleep routine. Take some time to relax before turning in. If you’re climbing into bed having just streamed three episodes of The Last of Us directly into your psyche, you’re probably not going to be ready for sleep, any more than if you’ve just spent three hours on Call of Duty on the Xbox.
Instead, wind down with a hot bath (which will help you relax, and helps your body temperature to drop when you get out). Read a book or listen to some music. Turn off the TV. Put down your phone. Do not get involved in an argument about Gary Lineker on Twitter. If you do insist on looking at your phone or pad, switch it to night-time mode on your device to limit the sleep-disrupting blue light.
When the worries come…
Of course, even the best sleep hygiene won’t always work. There will be some nights when your mind simply won’t switch off, and the worries keep up their incessant churning. When this happens, there are still a couple of things you can do to mitigate your stresses.
The first is to get your worries down on paper. Many people find that writing down what is on their mind stops it from whirring around their head. If you’re worried about what you have to do tomorrow, make a list, helping you to realise that it’s all in hand.
Try some breathing exercises, or guided meditation. There are plenty of examples of the former on the NHS and Mental Health Foundation websites, and there are numerous apps, such as Headspace and Calm, which have specific meditations to aid sleep.
And, if sleep continues to elude you after 20-30 minutes, get up and do something relaxing. It sounds counter-intuitive to leave the confines of your bed, but getting up and engaging in some gently diverting activity helps to stop the mind from fretting, and also protects the idea that bed is for sleep.
There is no one single magic bullet to aid restful sleep, and different things will work for different people. But if you can incorporate some of these tips into your nightly routine, you will likely feel the benefit sooner or later. We can’t promise that all your dreams will come true, but these tips should at least help you to have those dreams in the first place.
Did you know we have a BuddyBoost Sleep challenge? BuddyBoost Sleep can be run as a standalone challenge or be experienced as part of the BuddyBoost Wellbeing Challenge. Find out more here.