Resolutions of eating better, exercising more or catching up with friends more often will have limited success if you’re not supporting them with the best sleep possible. Christabel Majendie, Naturalmat’s sleep expert, explains the benefits of sleep and how you can use it to maximise your overall health, wellbeing and productivity.
How important is sleep?
There is a stereotype that leaders don’t indulge in sleep: for example, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Elon Musk. In the corporate world, there is a certain bravado for “pulling an all-nighter” or working late. But times are changing; the importance of sleep is starting to be recognised, particularly for work performance and mental health.
How much sleep we get directly impacts how we perform the next day and employers are beginning to wake up to this news. Sleep-related fatigue costs of absenteeism, accidents and lost productivity for US businesses has been estimated at $150 billion a year. The cost of fatigue-related work accidents in the UK is estimated at £115-£240 million per year.
How does a lack of sleep alter our state of mind?
Sustained wakefulness of 17 hours, such as a long day in the office, can lead to impairments to performance equivalent to 0.05% blood alcohol concentration (BOC) and after 24 hours, the equivalent of 0.1%. This is alarming given that if breathalysed in Scotland you are legally drunk at 0.05% BOC and in England at 0.08% BOC. Even more alarming given the number of people who drive sleep deprived.
Several major disasters have been attributed to sleep deprivation including both Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and the Exxon-Valdez environmental disaster. It’s estimated that fatigue is implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads.
The benefits of sleep for mental health and performance
Sleep has been compared to the clean-up operation after a house party. During wakefulness (the house party), mess accumulates and damage is done. Sleep then cleans up the mess and repairs the damage, allowing us to wake refreshed for the next house party.
These two processes cannot be done effectively at the same time which is why there is a division of labour. So if you are not getting enough sleep, you will not be functioning to your optimum level during the day and this detriment can accumulate if you continue to cut back on sleep.
If you are getting a good amount of sleep, this can have the following benefits:
- You are less likely to experience irritability, stress, anxiety and low mood.
- You feel more energetic and positive about day-to-day life.
- You have improved concentration and memory processes (studies have shown poorer recall and recognition of words after sleep deprivation).
- You are more likely to work accurately.
- You have faster reaction times.
- It improves your ability to make informed decisions.
- It improves your ability to handle complex tasks with ease.
- It improves your creativity and problem-solving capabilities.
- What is interesting is that sleep deprivation also affects our evaluation of our own mental wellbeing, although this appears to vary with age. Younger people tend to underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation (they think they perform better than they do) while older adults tend to overestimate the detrimental effects of sleep loss.
The benefits of sleep for physical health
A lack of sleep affects us mentally, but it also affects our physical health. For example, one study found that people who had an average sleep duration of fewer than seven hours a night were three times more likely to develop a cold.
Having a good sleep pattern has the following benefits:
- Maintains a healthy immune system so you are less vulnerable to infections.
- Reduces your risk of a link to a number of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
- Helps you maintain a healthy weight, according to some studies, as you have more energy to exercise and are less inclined to overeat.
- Aids with muscle recovery.
- Makes you less likely to put yourself in physical danger.
- Improves athletic performance.
Athletic performance is undoubtedly affected by sleep deprivation, which is no surprise given its impact on attention, accuracy, reaction times and memory. Studies have shown that in basketball, sleep extension led to faster sprints and increased shooting accuracy. But lack of sleep also makes you more prone to injury with injury rates increasing with reduced sleep duration.
How to improve health and wellbeing through sleep
Get enough sleep for you
The amount of sleep you need varies from person to person, but the average is 7-9 hours per night. Some people do just need less sleep than the average and some need a bit more. A good way to find your optimum sleep duration is on holiday. After catching up on any sleep loss, your sleep duration will tend to stabilise if you go to bed when you are sleepy (note this is different to tiredness) and wake up naturally in the morning.
Keep a regular sleep schedule
Just as sleep duration varies between individuals, people vary on when they need to go to sleep and wake up. This depends on your individual circadian rhythm or body clock. Some people are naturally night owls, some are larks, and others are something in between.
In order to maximise sleep’s potential, go to bed and wake up as close to your own circadian rhythm as possible. People often decide the timing of sleep based on the wrong reasons: that’s when their partner goes to bed, they have work to do, or they stay up late watching films, playing games, or socialising.
Whilst we all may cut back on sleep from time to time for these reasons, doing this frequently will start to affect you mentally and physically. So work out when you start to feel sleepy in the evening and take that as your bedtime signal.
Practice good sleep hygiene
There are lots of things you can do to improve your chances of getting a decent night’s sleep:
- Cut out caffeine eight hours before bedtime
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Stop smoking
- Avoid hefty meals before sleep
- Put screens away an hour before bedtime
- Exercise more
- Get out in the natural daylight
- Relax in the hour before going to bed.
There are also a number of changes you can make to the bedroom to potentially improve your sleep quality: use blackout blinds or thick curtains, ensure your bedroom is cool (between 16-20 degrees) and reduce noise disturbance with double glazing or a white noise machine.
You can also improve your sleep quality by investing in a comfortable mattress that suits your taste and using bedding with natural fibres to regulate body temperature. For inspiration, take a look at Naturalmat's Natural Fibre Mattress range and our natural and organic bedding.