Night night, sleep tight

Written by: Emma De Vita Posted: 06/05/2015

Sleep feature imageLack of quality sleep could be affecting your ability to do your job properly - but just how much is enough, and what can you do to get more? Emma DeVita investigates

The importance of wellness at work has become an increased priority for many companies in the last decade, with the focus primarily on issues such as stress, depression and anxiety. But what about sleep? Anyone who"s had a bad night"s sleep knows all too well just how difficult it is to put in a good day"s work. So, are we getting enough?

Before we answer that, though, just how much is "enough"? Margaret Thatcher famously claimed she could get by on four hours, and the recent trend for CEOs to boast they need a similarly titchy amount can leave the rest of us feeling like wimps.

“It"s a bit of a myth that we need six to eight hours sleep a night,” says Dr Michael Sinclair, Clinical Director of City Psychology Group. “Anything between four and 11 hours is effective - it"s different for everyone.”

A broadly accepted average among sleep experts is around seven and a half hours a night. But it"s as much about quality as quantity, according to Sinclair. “A solid five or six hours sleep is better than 12 hours of broken sleep,” he says. This is because it takes us more energy to keep returning to the deep wave REM sleep that our brain needs to truly rest and recover.

What"s more, women need more sleep than men. According to sleep neuroscientist Professor Jim Horne, women need an extra 20 minutes a night because they use more of their brain than men during the day.

The purpose of sleep
While academics remain unclear about the exact purpose of sleep, the consensus is that our brain needs sleep to process the information we"ve collected during the day. There"s a belief that some of us process that information more quickly, and therefore need less sleep. We also need less sleep the older we get, and our daily sleep needs change depending on whether or not we have accumulated a "sleep debt", which many of us are indeed living with.

In a recent international study by the US National Sleep Foundation, 18 per cent of Brits reported sleeping fewer than six hours a night during the working week, around twice as many people as in most other countries.

So, just what does not getting enough sleep do to us? “The first problems to show themselves are usually mental issues, such as reduced concentration and focus, slower thinking, and reduced appetite for work and play,” explains Dr John Briffa, author of A Great Day at the Office: Simple Strategies to Maximize Your Energy and Get More Done More Easily. It"s likely that you"ll not only feel lethargic and irritable but will have real trouble thinking clearly, making decisions and concentrating. Other symptoms include greater impulsivity and recklessness.

There are physiological consequences too. “Sleep debt has been shown to induce changes in the body that predispose to, for example, heart disease, diabetes, muscle loss and fat gain,” says Dr Briffa.

Studies of army officers show that those who have had only three hours" sleep take 20 minutes longer to "come round" and get a handle on a fast-moving crisis than those who have had an hour or two more. And the effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative, as any parent of young children will testify. If you constantly don"t get enough sleep, then symptoms worsen, and can lead to more serious problems such as depression, stress and anxiety.

But is it possible to get too much sleep? What happens then? “Some people can feel worse if they, say, lie in at the weekend,” says Dr Briffa. “One reason for this is that some people don"t maintain blood sugar levels well for extended periods, and a longer sleep can mean you risk waking up fatigued, groggy and grumpy as a result of low blood sugar.”

Switching off
Unfortunately the modern world isn"t conducive to getting enough sleep. “I think a major issue is feeling that sleep is a bit of a waste of time - it"s not,” says Dr Briffa. “It plays important roles for both mental and physical functioning. Also, we have much more potential these days to engage in activities that can rob us of sleep, including television, email and the internet.” We"re always switched on, and our brains - which evolved to take in information and process it - are compelled to keep taking in more and more.

The problem is exacerbated by the measures we take to wake ourselves up. If we"re feeling sleep deprived, then many of us will reach for a double espresso, a habit that can draw us into a vicious cycle, explains Dr Sinclair. “Caffeine stimulates the cardiovascular system, so it"s fake energy,” he says. “There are also so-called "smart drugs", cocaine and amphetamines. People then use alcohol to self-medicate to relax at the end of the day, but alcohol affects the quality of your sleep - you tend to wake earlier because you"re dehydrated.”

So, how can we get a decent night"s sleep? To start, prioritise it, advises Dr Briffa. If you plan to be in bed by 10pm, start winding down at 8pm. Switch off your gadgets and do something that will relax you, like reading or watching TV (just nothing too exciting).

“I"d suggest that people are mindful of keeping light exposure low in the evening, particularly from laptops and tablets,” he says. “Blue light, which laptops and tablets tend to give off a high amount of, can stimulate the brain and suppress levels of the sleep hormone melatonin.” You should also be wary of alcohol, and limit your caffeine intake to a sensible amount, steering clear of it later on in the day.

Although exercise promotes relaxation, ideally, it shouldn"t be done in the evening, explains Dr Sinclair. “Your body is stimulated as it heats up and produces adrenalin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Exercising earlier in the day is better.” He is also a proponent of mindfulness as a way to help you relax during the day. Not only will this give your brain short periods of rest, but it will also help you to drop off at night.

As Dr Sinclair concludes, it"s important to try not to worry about getting the "right" amount of sleep. “If your body really needs it, it will take it.”

Signs of sleep deprivation

Do any of these symptoms ring true for you? If you can say "yes" to more than three of the following, then it might be time to seek some help.

1. Finding it harder to concentrate. If you"re more easily distracted and unable to focus on the task in hand, then watch out. Being unable to see the wood for the trees is also a warning sign of not getting enough sleep.

2. Feeling more irritable and becoming annoyed by little things that previously wouldn"t have affected you. Similarly, experiencing less enjoyment from both work and play is a telltale sign of sleep deprivation, as is losing your "get up and go".

3. Becoming clumsy - both physically and mentally. Forever bumping into things? Struggling to find the right words? You might need more sleep.

4. Being more impulsive and reckless. A weary brain will struggle with the effort of making considered and well-thought-through decisions because it just hasn"t got enough energy for it.

5. Drinking much more coffee in the day, every day and resorting to an alcoholic drink or two every night just to relax probably means it"s time to put the brakes on.


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