When was the last time you got a full night's sleep? We’re talking lights out, straight to dreamland and waking up feeling ready to take on whatever life throws at you?
Military life doesn’t often go hand in hand with regular, valuable sleep patterns. On operations, sleep is often the last priority and there are many sleepless nights waiting for news from loved ones on deployments.
According to research by YouGov published in January 2020, only one in five Brits get at least eight hours of sleep per night. Experts believe that, on average, we need at least eight hours of sleep every night to maintain normal function.
The NHS says that sleep gives you energy and boosts your immune system, helping your body recover from illnesses.
Only 27% of people are getting six hours sleep and 18% are getting less than that.
Why Do We Need To Take Sleep Seriously?
Our ability to lay down memories and, significantly, to process information and come up with innovative solutions to complex problems is massively enhanced by a night of sleep.
Professor Russell Foster, Head Of The Nuffield Laboratory Of Ophthalmology And The Sleep And Circadian Neuroscience Institute spoke to Big Show presenters Jay and Amy on BFBS Radio about why sleep is so important. He said:
“The removal of waste products from the brain and the body.
“The regulation of growth and repair, replacing energy reserves, rebuilding metabolic pathways are all key things going on.
“To the extent that our ability to function during the day is dependent upon the quality of sleep we have at night.”
On average, domestic and wild cats get between 12 to 16 hours of sleep every day. They have the art of falling asleep down to perfection.
This is because, even though your average house cat doesn't need to work hard for its food, they share the same genes as big cats who have to recharge during the day for their next exhausting hunt.
What Is Going On In The Brain When It’s Tired?
When you’re tired you may show high levels of irritability, anxiety, loss of empathy and impulsivity so when you can, you need to be aware that your decision making when you’re chronically tired will not be up to normal standards.
If you aren’t getting enough sleep, make sure you let those around you aware. Your behaviour might be impaired and when you’re having to make split-second decisions, this could become a problem.
Prof Foster says it’s critical to, whenever possible, prioritise sleep. He said:
“When you get back, of course, really stock up on sleep.
“You need to protect your sleep.
“The problem is we’re trying to do so many things and fit more and more and more into an overpacked day – sleep is always the first victim.”
Winston Churchill Knew The Value Of Sleep
Prime Minister Winston Churchill would, routinely, take a nap every day.
In his book ‘The Gathering Storm’, part of his six-volume memoir of the Second World War, Churchill wrote:
“Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.
“You must sleep sometimes between lunch and dinner and no halfway measures."
Can You Catch Up On Sleep?
Many people who are chronically sleep-deprived during the week can’t catch up simply by going to bed early and having a lie-in over the weekend.
Only by taking a full week off work and focussing on paying off your ‘sleep debt’ can you have any chance of feeling any better.
LISTEN: Professor Russell Foster chats to Jay and Amy on The Big Show
How To Get To Sleep Fast
Service personnel are very good at getting their head down whenever the opportunity arises because they don't have the luxury of eight hours sleep.
A trick, reportedly used by the US Army to help their soldiers fall asleep within two minutes, seems to have positive results.
Details of how to do the technique can be found in the 1981 book ‘Relax and Win: Championship Performance In Whatever You Do’, written by American track and field coach Lloyd ‘Bud’ Winter.
The book's original purpose was to improve sports performance and reduce injuries.
Focus on relaxing the muscles of your face. Don’t forget your tongue, jaw and the muscles around your eyes
Relax your shoulders by dropping them as far down as they’ll go. Next, do the same with your arms, one at a time
Calmly expel as much air out of your lungs as feels comfortable. Relax your chest and then your legs, starting from the thighs and working down focusing on each part
Next, take 10 seconds to clear your mind before imagining yourself in one of the following three scenarios:
You’re lying in a canoe on a calm lake with nothing but a clear blue sky above you
You’re lying in a black hammock in a pitch-black room
You say “don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” to yourself again and again for about 10 seconds
NHS Sleep Tips
The NHS also has some very useful tips on how to sleep through the night.
- A regular bedtime routine is crucial. It can sometimes be difficult to stick to it every day but, it's really important that your body learns to wind down before getting into bed. For insomniacs, not having a bedtime routine can be incredibly detrimental.
- Make sure you get to sleep at the same time each night. This little detail helps programme the brain to become used to the bedtime routine. If you know you need at least seven hours sleep per night to function and that you need to get up at 6am, make sure you're in bed with enough time to drift off to sleep by 11pm.
- Regularly waking up at the same time is also important. This is because it's crucial to not disturb your bedtime routine.
- Can you make changes to your bedroom to make it 'sleep-friendly'? Spend five minutes tidying some stuff away, turn off the TV, keep the temperature above 18C and below 24C, turn off the light, pop some earplugs in if there is unavoidable noise around you and keep your bedroom just for sleeping.
- Keep a sleep diary to keep track of what does and doesn't help you drift off to sleep. It could also help your GP diagnose why you're not sleeping.
- Make sure you give yourself enough time to relax before bed. If your mind is racing with all the things you've got to do tomorrow, take a minute to break free from those thoughts and clear your mind as much as possible.
- Perhaps have a bath to warm your body so that it can relax sooner.
- To help clear your mind, write a to-do list for the next day or coming week. That way, your concerns can be out of your mind for a bit.
- Do some gentle exercise like yoga or perhaps meditate?
- Distract your mind by reading a book or listening to a podcast?
- This one might be difficult but, it's really important to not use smartphones in the run-up to bedtime. The light emitted from the screens is known to have a negative effect on sleep.