Sleep for health and success
Sleep is a crucial health issue that impacts our quality of life, work, and relationships. But there are so many pressures in our professional lives that can mean we either cut down on the time available for sleep, or find it hard to switch off and sleep once we are in bed. Travelling across time zones, meeting deadlines, cultures of long working hours, and our connectivity through digital technology can all impact on the quality and quantity of our sleep. In this article I hope to persuade you that sleep is crucial for safety, effectiveness, health and wellbeing, even our very sense of identity. I offer some tips to help you improve your sleep patterns. Sleep is not something to be scrimped on, but to be embraced as a key aspect of living a flourishing life.
How much is enough sleep?
As adults, we need seven to eight hours’ sleep a night. Sleeping less than this means we accumulate a sleep deficit. Such a sleep deficit might be short-lived and easily repaid, but if we constantly under-sleep we may accumulate a significant sleep debt. This will have an effect on our wellbeing and performance in all realms of life.
OK, but how much sleep can I get away with?
Many of us wish we needed less sleep. Days are full of activity, and there is always more that either we need to do, or would love to do, particularly in our 24/7 culture. The need for sleep can seem inconvenient, and we may wish to kid ourselves that we can short-circuit sleep. Some people manage on caffeine and other stimulants like exercise. These can temporarily boost alertness, but if any lull in activity levels ensues, the overpowering need for sleep will take over. In some cases, this can happen in situations of grave danger, for instance, falling asleep at the wheel.
What is insomnia?
In contrast with those who wish they could do with less sleep, many people want the opposite – they wish they could sleep more. Insomnia is defined as difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep. It is associated with waking up feeling unrefreshed.
Why is sleep important?
I’d like to help you fall in love with the need to sleep, and to learn to sleep well, so here are some of the reasons why enough sleep is so very important.
Sleep makes us safer.
Poor sleep is related to a higher rate of accidents. When we are sleep deprived we are more likely to take micro-sleeps – those tiny moments of nodding-off that overwhelm our best attempt to stay
awake. Several catastrophes like Chernobyl have been linked to sleep-deprived human error1. The programming of our biological clocks make us less alert between 2-7am, as well as during the mid afternoon, and even a minor sleep debt makes us even more prone to error at these times1.
Sleep makes us more effective.
Rather then pushing ourselves to work long hours late into the night, our effectiveness and efficiency is likely to be enhanced by getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep helps us learn, with some studies showing a 20% improvement in performance of taught skills after a night’s sleep. Surveys of professionals who have a sleep debt indicate impaired decision-making, creativity and information-processing2. It also impairs our ability to work with others through greater
irritability and poorer communication skills2.
Sleep makes us healthier.
Sleep deprivation is linked to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, obesity, recurrent infections and cancer. Recent research also suggests that adequate sleep plays a role in ‘detoxing’ the brain of amyloid, so helping prevent Alzheimer’s3. In short, lack of sleep not only kills us early, but it reduces the quality of our life whilst we are alive.
Sleep helps us cope with stress better.
A lack of sleep predisposes us to depression and anxiety4, and an increased risk of suicide. When we have slept less well, we take longer to come down from stress4, so are more likely to reach the end of the day still wound-up. This in turn means we are less able to switch off and sleep and a vicious cycle of stress-insomnia-stress ensues.
Sleep enhances our quality of life.
Not only do we die earlier and suffer diseases as a result of poor sleep, but each day is a hard slog when we are unrefreshed and shattered. Arianna Huffington describes feeling more present, joyful, optimistic and solution-focused now that she is getting plenty of good sleep5.
Sleep improves our memory.
Complex and fascinating processes take place in our brains as we sleep6. Sleep allows our brains to do offline processing. It helps embed our memories, particularly those memories that are relevant to our future plans. Sleep loss means our short-term and long-term memory becomes less effective and can threaten the coherence and richness of our identity7.
Sleep supports organisational success.
Organisations have historically focused on enhanced leadership and teamwork to improve their effectiveness. Whilst these are important, there is plenty of evidence that adequate sleep is just as important for organisational success. This may be especially the case contemporary VUCA climates2: In contexts of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, we need our cognitive, emotional and relational skills to be in prime condition!
How can I improve my sleep?
Even if you’ve been suffering from chronic insomnia, you can return to good, refreshing sleep. “Good sleep is largely shaped by the things that we do – by our choices, by our behaviours”, observes sleep-psychologist Vyga Kaufmann8.
Keep regular wake and sleep times throughout the week.
Try to get as much sunlight and physical activity as you can
- specially early in the day, to enhance your biological clock.
Keep a cool, dark, quiet bedroom
- that is only used for sleep, sex and dressing, with no electrical gadgets.
Unwind earlier in the day,
- perhaps by spending time with friends and family, pursuing a hobby or taking up mindfulness. Have an hour of quiet relaxation before bed-time – listening to music or reading. Avoid too much caffeine, particularly from mid-afternoon – it takes about 8 hours to leave our system. Nicotine should be avoided! Alcohol is linked to poorer quality sleep, so drink in moderation.
Strengthen the connection between bed and sleep
- so if you are lying awake for more than fifteen minutes, do something relaxing away from bed.
Thinking and behaviour traps
Often sleep problems become entrenched because our thinking and behaviour patterns make things worse - thoughts like “I MUST get to sleep now”, with anxious clock-watching, followed the next day with an obsessional awareness of how tired we are. How can we get out of this trap?
Sleep comes naturally once we are relaxed and happy
- and have let go of controlling our relationship with sleep. CBT and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) are two therapeutic modalities that are particularly useful. CBT may include use of light therapy, attention to thinking patterns and how much time is spent in bed. ACT will tend to focus more on leading a life full of meaning, supported by mindfulness to diminish the power of the negative thought patterns and anxiety around sleep.
It is worth taking into account the big picture of your life:
- Make sure that you are in harmony with what matters to you. Is your work-life balance good, so that you have a greater sense of perspective on the daily niggles? These are some of the factors that lead to being the kind of person who doesn’t need to try to sleep.
Dr. Jennifer Napier
Is a London-based practising GP who also offers Coaching for Health. She helps individuals and teams lead healthier, more flourishing lives.
© Contextualyse Ltd. 2016
A shorter version of this article - written specifically for the Primary Care Team - can be found here:
 Mitler, M. et al (1988) Catastrophes, Sleep, and Public Policy: Consensus Report. Sleep. 11(1), pp. 100-109.
 Culpin, V. (2016) The Business of Sleep: The Wake-Up Call for Organizations. Ashridge Business School.
 Lim, M. et al (2014) The sleep-wake cycle and Alzheimer’s disease: what do we know? Neurodegenerative Disease Management. 4(5), pp. 351-362.
 Williams, P.G. Cribbet, M.R. Rau, H.K. Gunn, H.E. Czajkowski, L.A. (2013) The effects of poor sleep on cognitive, affective and physiological responses to a laboratory stressor. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 46(1)
 Huffington, A (2016) The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. Harmony Books, New York.
 Stickgold, R. (2005) Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature 437, pp.1272-1278.
 Born, J & Wilhelm, I (2012) System consolidation of memory during sleep. Psychological Research. 76, pp. 192-203.
 Kaufman, V. (2015) How do I sleep better? TEDx talk, Boulder.