The Science of Sleep: Lessons from a UK Study

May 24, 2013

lack of sleep

by Angus Carbarns

You slip the PJ’s on, switch the light off and as your head hits the pillow after a long day you fall into a deep, restful slumber… at least, that’s the dream – but a third of the population gets by on just five or six hours sleep a night and bedtime has become a nightly struggle. Read to find out how to sleep longer and better, and why sleep is so important.

Why sleep matters

Margaret Thatcher may have been able to get by on just 4 hours of shut-eye a night, but for us mere mortals, a good night’s sleep is crucial to help us feel our best. The dangers of a lack of sleep are enough to keep us up at night worrying: sleep deprivation has been blamed for stimulating the creation of the sinister-sounding ghrelin which makes us eat more and put on weight, is linked to an increase risk of stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure and can affect our performance at work (Bill Clinton has said that ‘every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired’).

Worryingly, recent reports suggest that British schoolchildren aren’t concentrating in class because they’re not getting enough kip – and researchers from Berkeley in California say it may even contribute to marital woes.

Britain’s sleep deficit

Unfortunately, it seems many Brits are getting by with far too little sleep, opting to play catch-up at the weekend to make up for the lack of sleep.

A recent sleep study has found that we’re a nation of eternal snoozers who are too sleepy to get up as soon as our alarm goes off. One in ten of respondents to their survey hit the snooze button up to five times before lugging themselves out of bed, with 14% waiting for the very last minute to get up.

But some don’t even make it out of bed in time, with one in ten people owning up to having missed a job interview because they slept in and a whopping 25% sheepishly admitting to having received a warning from their boss for being late.

So how can we get a more restful night and bound out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm instead of lethargically hitting snooze again?

5 tips for better sleep

1.       Lights off

Let’s face it, we’re a society addicted to our gadgets. If you turn to your phone or tablet to check out what’s happening on Twitter before nodding off or take an e-reader instead of a paperback to bed to help you wind down, stop.

According to the, being exposed to even the slightest glimmer from an electronic gadget can disrupt our body’s natural circadian rhythms, keeping you awake at night.

Bright lights, whether it’s from a streetlight or a phone, suppresses melatonin (the sleepy chemical) so invest in some decent blackout blinds and a good eye mask. You can even get some eye masks that are filled with lavender to help you feel even more tranquil and ready to get some zzzs.

2.       Switch off your thoughts

Many people struggle to nod off because their minds are racing with worries about what to say in that meeting the next day or going through a mental to-do list for the weak. And with the economic downturn, many Brits are kept up worrying about how to pay their bills or if they’re going to lose their job.

Break the cycle by writing things down on paper to get niggling worries out of your head. If you’re plagued with recurring feelings of anxiety, it may be best to try simple cognitive behavioural therapy exercises, or even speak to a therapist or a friend to get it off your chest.

3.       Get moving

It may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re chronically tired, but going for a gentle jog or doing some form of light exercise in the evening will help you wind down and sleep more deeply. If running’s not your thing, try to slot in time for yoga – the mindfulness and breathing techniques you’re taught in a yoga class will help you chill in no time.

4.       Snack to snooze

Being too full or too hungry will affect your sleep, so you want to aim to eat a light snack a few hours before bed that’s just enough to satiate any hunger pangs.

Go for foods that contain Tryptophan which converts into serotonin, a clever chemical that helps you deal with stress and anxiety and turns into melatonin at night which helps you sleep. Tryptophan tends to be found in foods that are high in protein like turkey, pumpkin seeds, chicken and cheese. Yes, you heard that right – it’s a myth that cheese will give you nightmares.

Though many people unwind with a glass of wine before bed to help them doze off, alcohol severely disrupts the quality of your sleep — stopping you from getting REM (the holy grail of the sleep world). If you crave a reward after work and feel a bit frazzled, try a bubble bath with a few drops of lavender oil or go for a run instead.

5.       Get into a routine

Try to get into the habit of heading to bed at the same time every night and banish any distractions like work or TV from the bedroom after a cut-off point so your body gets used to winding down at a certain time.

And everyone knows that it’s quality, not quantity that matters when it comes to sleep. Your body goes through various sleep cycles during the night, and you’ll feel groggy if you wake up at the wrong point during a cycle, even if you’ve been asleep for a while. One sleep cycle typically lasts about 90 minutes, so decide when you need to wake up and work out when time to go to bed to get about four or five complete cycles.

Image Credit: Ashley Webb