One of the many lessons learned thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic is that the pace at which many of us were living pre-lockdown was ridiculously fast. With only 24h in day and multiple demands on our time from work, family responsibilities, social commitments, sport and recreational activities, many of us fell into that trap of overcommitment. When that happens, we tend to steal time from sleep, and it is unsurprising that before long we end up burnt out and in a heap of exhaustion. Recognising the crucial role that sleep plays in our day-to-day recovery and long term ability to thrive has the power to change everything.
Current guidelines recommend that adults require between 7-9h of sleep per night for optimal physical and mental health. What I really like about these guidelines, is that they recognise that 6h is sufficient for some people, while for others 10h is necessary. This is not licence to go rogue and get away with as little sleep as possible. Rather it implies that we each have a unique sleep “sweet spot”. Bear in mind too that your sleep need changes depending on what’s happening in your world at any given time. If you are training hard for an athletic event, your sleep need will increase, as it will when you are ill or very stressed. You may notice that you can get away with less sleep in summer than winter, and that on holiday, once you have repaid some sleep debt, your sleep need may reduce.
Interestingly, many people talk about how many hours they should sleep each night, but not too many people interrogate quality. My view is that quality of sleep is so important that I would choose shorter good quality sleep over longer fragmented sleep any day. I think of it like this: if you can fall asleep reasonably easily, barely remember the night (waking once or twice is quite normal if you can fall asleep again easily), begin to surface just ahead of your alarm in the morning, are energised and alert during the day, and are not reliant on medication to sleep – you are most likely experiencing good quality sleep. Numerous things can ruin sleep quality like stress, a racing mind, a baby or child, a sleep environment that is too hot/cold/light/noisy, a snoring partner, stimulants (e.g. caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines), alcohol, some medications … the list is endless. Observing which factors either enhance or impair your sleep quality and making changes to remove the culprit is a good idea. Sometimes, it may not be possible to identify or remove the factor which is ruining your sleep, or you may find it difficult to do alone. In this case, you may wish to seek advice from a sleep specialist.
Insufficient or poor quality sleep has far-reaching physical and mental health consequences. In a nutshell, the sleep deprived version of you will be less productive at work, more forgetful, grumpy or emotional, more prone to depression and anxiety, more likely to have accidents or make risky decisions, make poorer food choices, be at increased risk for weight gain, insulin resistance and heart disease or find it harder to perform well in your chosen sport. Not only is sleep the time when our bodies repair and regenerate, but we consolidate and store new information and spend a lot of time processing our emotions. Our immune system also relies on sleep to get its job done: much of our resistance against pathogens is built up while we sleep, not to mention the housekeeping function of killing off mutated or damaged cells. In light of this, I view good sleep today as a long-term insurance policy for good health in the years to come.