Despite being one of the most powerful and effective health and performance enhancing elixirs that exists, sleep still faces some serious PR issues.
Daniel White, Founder of Sleep Better Live Better and Chairman of the Sleep Better Live Better Foundation explains why the quality of our sleep (rather than just the amount) is crucial to how we function and our feelings of wellbeing.
In a 21st century society making constant demand of our time that perpetually distracts and stimulates us, the gentle allure of silence, stillness and time spent unconscious doesn’t seem to have convinced most us to prioritise the lifestyle choices and behaviours that lead to deep and restful sleep.
In fact, the data shows that two-thirds of adults born in developed nations achieve less than the recommended amount of sleep every night – if you’re struggling with sleep issues, you aren’t alone.
These statistics should be sobering, as even mild sleep deprivation has major repercussions for every aspect of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
“Sleep is not a disposable luxury – it’s a non-negotiable biological necessity.” ~ Professor Matthew Walker (Author of “Why We Sleep”)
Through modern science we now understand that the quality of our sleep plays a crucial role in regulating essential hormones and neuro-chemicals throughout our body that directly impacts our ability to maintain stable moods, manage weight, build muscle, slow down ageing, prevent cancer, and lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
In addition to this, it determines our capacity to perform at peak levels mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Given all that we now understand about the importance of rest, how then does healthy sleep continue to slip through our nightly nets?
What do you know about sleep?
If I asked you to tell me one thing that you know about sleep, the chances are that the reply you give me would be something along the lines of ‘you should aim to get 8 hours every night’.
At a time in my life, this too would also have been my answer.
Yet, despite achieving 8 hours of sleep (or more) most nights, I often still found myself waking up feeling somewhat anxious, depressed and exhausted with little to no energy. I felt as if I was losing a battle with sleep every night until I learnt about ways to radically improve the quality of my sleep without necessarily altering the quantity.
Sleep quality was certainly never a topic discussed at my doctor’s office or in PSHE lessons at school. Yet the last decade of my lived experience working with thousands of clients has shown me how much more valuable it is to focus on ‘sleeping better’ as opposed to just ‘sleeping more’.
Anyone who has owned the latest Apple or Garmin watch, a Whoop strap, Fitbit, Oura ring or other sleep tracking device will be able to tell you that sleep is not a static process, but that throughout a night of ‘normal and healthy’ sleep we should ideally move through 5-6 nightly sleep cycles (spanning 7.5 – 9 hours) during which we transition between stages that include NON-REM (Stages 1, 2 and 3) and REM sleep.
Crucial insights from modern sleep science have taught us that each of the individual stages of sleep provides unique functions that are essential for our health, and that in order to sleep and live well we should aim to achieve healthy sleep cycles, where we move through the various stages of sleep to obtain each of their functional benefits.
We’re essentially missing the low hanging fruit – simple ways that we can improve sleep quality without necessarily sleeping more or less.
The highest leverage sleep-improvement behaviours
There is a very clear hierarchy of behaviours that can help us to improve the quality and consistency of our sleep and despite what most contemporary marketers tell us, they do not include expensive apps or wearable health tracking devices.
The simplest and most fundamental behaviours that support quality rest all have impacts tied to controlling our body’s circadian rhythms, the 24-hour processes that exist within every cell of our body and that indicate at which time our biology performs which functions (including sleep).
Whilst not within the scope of this short article to explore fully, these are the areas that I first focus on helping my clients to manage, knowing that they cost nothing and provide the highest return on investment for sleep quality:
- Regular sleep and wake timing
- Daily and nightly light exposure
- Dietary intake and food timing
- Caffeine consumption
- Exercising timing
- Correct breathing patterns to manage alertness/relaxation
- Exposure to and the use of technology before bedtime, and
- The temperature of your home sleeping environment.
You can invest enormous amounts of time and money into other solutions; lavender pillow sprays, chamomile teas, expensive supplements, app subscriptions and wearables, but without paying direct attention to the aforementioned choices and how they govern the timing of your circadian rhythms, you’ll never reach peak sleep quality and experience all of the human potential that it unveils within us.
Daniel White (pictured) is a Registered Nutritionist, Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach and Sleep Expert. He is the Founder of Sleep Better Live Better and Chairman of the Sleep Better Live Better Foundation. His organisation’s mission is to deliver innovative sleep solutions that combine the best science-backed education, behavioural change tools and products, to help to unlock the enormous pool of untapped human potential that results from being well-rested.