Why sleep matters

This week Elloa, one of our fabulous Bird associate facilitators, has written a piece on sleep. Sleep is such an important, and often overlooked, part of self-care. Read on for Elloa’s insights into why.

‘I’ve always loved sleep — my body would happily soak up 8-10 hours a night whenever possible — but I’ve spent years resisting getting as much as I need, running on caffeine instead like much of the UK (the coffee market is worth a staggering £9 billion in the UK). Recently, after some self-reflection and discussion with a friend, I realised that some pretty powerful gremlin stories were lurking around. There was the story, ‘I’m lazy,’ another one that went, ‘I’m wasting my life by being asleep for so much of it’ and a third, ‘I’ll never be successful if I can’t even get up in the morning.’ 

I’m not alone in carrying these inner stories; when it comes to sleep — an activity critical to our mental, emotional and physical health — we often fall prey to the subtly insidious cultural narrative that successful people sleep less. As neuroscientist Matthew Walker says, sleep has an image problem.

In a world that equates busyness with importance, it’s easy to believe that the less we sleep, the more important we are. Margaret Thatcher would famously get barely four hours of sleep a night and high profile business people such as Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo, and Apple CEO Tim Cook, reportedly get just a few hours a night. These figures are often depicted as ultra disciplined and even exemplary. Their sleep-to-success ratio can easily trigger both shame about how lazy we are and FOMO, the fear of missing out, because however much sleep you’re getting, there are people out there doing far more on far less.

In a world that’s always on, sleep (like movement) can easily become an area where we cut back in order to try to accrue a bit more time for other pursuits. It’s common to push the boundaries, staying up a bit later than we know we ‘should’ so that we can watch one more episode on Netflix, do that extra bit of work, sort out stuff for the kids or simply snatch a bit more free time out of our long working days. This is understandable given the fullness and complexity of twenty-first century life, but in many cases the science is showing that losing that extra time in bed might be doing far more harm than good.

A plethora of studies have found that poor sleep is linked to a huge range of debilitating and often fatal health conditions including diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer (with studies finding a 40% increase in the risk of cancer in people who sleep less than 6 hours a night). In the book, Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker highlights numerous studies that have repeatedly found that getting too little sleep across the span of your adult life can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, yet treating sleep disorders can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by years. It’s often overlooked that Margaret Thatcher, one of those minimal sleepers, developed the devastating disease. Walker states, ’Every disease that is killing us in the developed world has significant and many causal links to insufficient sleep.’ Science is unequivocally showing us that we can’t ‘get away’ with too little sleep, despite the urban legends that highlight the contrary.

Employers are increasingly taking note of how important sleep is, both for employee well-being and in pure business terms — lack of sleep costs most high income nations 2% of their GDP, which for the UK equates to £40 billion. Google is famously leading the way by providing state-of-the-art sleep pods for employees to make use of (with other companies following suit), with many other employers allowing and promoting naps, meditation, movement and mindfulness, all of which can positively impact our sleep patterns. There is even a revolutionary exercise class for sleep-deprived parents that builds nap time into the workout. Organisations don’t need fancy sleep pods to get on board; simply raising awareness and making room for the conversation can help create a culture in which self-care is prioritised. As always, leaders who walk their talk in this area can create a dramatic ripple effect across the organisation.

Taking charge of your sleep is something you can experiment with starting today. Here are a few ideas to explore:

–    Create consistency. Work backwards from the time you need to get up and set a clear intention to get to bed at a similar time each night.

–    Study the effects of caffeine. Many people struggle to sleep or have a restless night if they drink caffeine after a certain time each day. Experiment and see how you get on. For me, drinking coffee after 4pm is asking for trouble.

–    Welcome white space. Our brains aren’t designed to deal with constant stimulation. If you find your head racing at night, try unplugging from technology 60-90 minutes before bed. Instead, you could read a book, listen to some music, connect with loved ones, take a bath or have a walk. For me this is all part of making sure that I’m using technology in my life, rather than the other way around.

–    Study your sleep. I recently started using the Sleep Cycle app, and while I don’t fully trust a free app (!) it does give me useful information about how much sleep I’m getting over time. It also has an alarm that wakes you up when you’re not deep in REM.

–    Get rid of blue light by installing an app such as f.lux which removes the blue light from your screens. This light inhibits sleep hormones from being released.

–    Add in another one-degree shift. Many people swear by bedtime yoga, an evening mindfulness practice or using essential oils such as lavender or magnesium. The key is to work out what works for you.

In our black and white culture, we sometimes prefer to do extreme things like a seven day juice cleanse rather than simply pay attention to the quality and length of our time asleep, but this small adjustment is a shift that can offer us much more longevity. If you’ve read the Bird blog for any length of time, you’ll have come across Hannah’s core idea that self-care is a responsibility, not a luxury. The world’s pace nowadays is relentless, and it’s down to us to be practising agents of change, especially when it comes to self-care. Since sleep is so foundational to our health, where better to start than with a good long sleep?’

Happy sleeping Bird blog readers – with love, Hannah and Elloa

PS if you’d still like to buy yourself (or a friend) a Trigg Life Mapper we still have access to a wonderful 10% off using the code below. Click here or click on the image below to go through to the Think Trigg website.

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