Everything you need to know for the best night’s sleep ever
Essential to wellbeing, we sleep to process information, for memory consolidation and to
clear toxins from the brain.
For optimum health benefits, sleep in the foetal position on your non-dominant side, to protect your vital organs, leaving your strong side free to protect yourself.
SLEEP LIKE A PRO
Elite sports sleep coach Nick Littlehales has trained athletes, including Ronaldo, on how to sleep better. Now it’s your turn…
Read more: How to declutter and create a zen den
Sleep is central to our wellbeing – that has always been clear to me. Yet so often, it seems to be wildly underestimated. A recent YouGov study, for example, found that getting less than six hours sleep per night increases the risk of an early death by up to 12% – not to mention the increased risk of a stroke, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, memory loss, cardiac disease, accidents and a reduced resilience to managing stress. At the same time, poor sleep quality affects alertness, awareness, mood, motivation, stamina and decision-making.
So, getting good quality sleep is central to heightened performance and being the best version of yourself.
These days, with 24/7 living and the march of technology, we all need to rethink our approach to sleep, both mentally and physically. Recovering from a poor night’s sleep is linked to a negative mindset, which leads to anxiety and depression.
THE MODERN STRUGGLE
Having worked with elite athletes for more than 16 years, I have developed a profiling tool focused on maximising sleep recovery. Called the R90 Technique, its principle purpose is to educate and raise awareness of what I believe are the seven key sleep recovery indicators (KSRIs). The most important of these is becoming more aware of the impact circadian rhythms (put simply, our body clocks) have on us; and knowing our chronotype, which prevents us from adopting routines that are counterproductive to our natural recovery.
In zoology, the word chronotype refers to the sleep timings and regular activities of an animal. Nocturnal animals such as moles and bats are active at night, for instance. Humans are diurnal – active in the day, asleep at night. However, our chronotype also determines whether we are morning-active or night-active, so the concept of the owl and the lark is far from a myth. (See below to work out your chronotype.)
It’s worth noting that our ancestors would have woken naturally at sunrise, as the light stimulates the brain’s pineal gland and produces serotonin, the wakeful hormone. In contrast, when darkness falls, melatonin is triggered, putting the body into a sleep state. The invention of the lightbulb changed that.
Our predecessors were probably polyphasic – they slept for shorter periods of time but more often than we do – as opposed to monophasic, trying to get their sleep in one block at night, as most of us do today. The Spanish, on the other hand, are still polyphasic – they’ll stay up late, sleep for a shorter time at night but then have a siesta in the afternoon, which takes the pressure off the 24/7 nature of modern life. It goes to suggest that in the UK we may have got it wrong.
CYCLES NOT HOURS
In any 24-hour period, we should allocate around a third of that time (eight hours) to sleep. However, this is not realistic for everyone and some can survive on a lot less.
So, rather than just sleeping at night and aiming for eight hours, I advise on planning your sleep in 90-minute cycles, which gives you a greater sense of control.
Ninety minutes is used because the body’s natural sleep phases of non-REM (rapid eye movement) and REM sleep – the stage in which we dream – are thought to last 90 minutes.
Therefore, target either five cycles (7.5 hours) or four (six hours) in every 24 hours. This then becomes 35 or 28 cycles over seven days. So you count cycles rather than hours. If you find your sleep is interrupted, whether by frequent night-time toilet trips or difficulty drifting off, it could actually help you to limit the amount of sleep you get per night. That might sound counter-productive, but if you stay up later and get up earlier – and sleep for a multiple of 90 minutes – you’ll have more time to unwind at the end of the day and your mornings will be less rushed.
In addition, I then suggest a 30-minute shorter controlled recovery period, or nap, to take advantage of the two other natural recovery windows in the day, from 1pm to 3pm and 5pm to 7pm.
So, in any 24-hour period, an athlete creates a sleep/wake cycle plan that can cope with their demanding schedule and maintain sustainable recovery.
If, like most people, you can’t just drop everything to have a nap during those times, don’t worry. Instead, step away from what you’re doing every 90 minutes, even if it’s just for a short time. Zoning out is as good as having a nap. Although, I do always like to point out that if a pilot, mid-flight, can afford to take time out for a nap, chances are, so can you.
BEFORE AND AFTER
Adopting a practical and achievable pre-sleep process, moving from light to dark,
warm to cool, turning off computers, screens, phones and so on, and adopting non-stimulating activities promotes a naturally stimulated sleep. A meditation app might also help. And, similarly, to aid a naturally stimulated wake for the first 90 minutes, ensure an unrushed post-sleep process on rising.
When I get asked what my top sleep tip is, most people aren’t surprised to learn it is to stop worrying about it. There is no such thing as a perfect night’s sleep – but you can certainly vastly improve yours.
THE 90-MINUTE CYCLE
A standard sleep cycle consists of five phases. Four are non-REM (rapid eye movement), when the body enters a deep sleep, and the fifth is REM sleep, when we dream. The first cycle of REM sleep is short, but it becomes longer with each cycle, and can last up to an hour.
For more information on Nick, visit Sport Sleep Coach
WHAT’S YOUR CHRONOTYPE?
If you had no commitments for the day ahead and were free to plan your own agenda, what time would you choose to wake up? Would you plan key activities for the morning, afternoon or evening?
Love mornings and breakfast. Less daytime fatigue.
Love evenings and dinner.
Use hypoallergenic, lightweight, microfibre bedding rather than natural-filled products to limit the build up of allergens and bacteria.
NATURAL ALTERNATIVES TO SLEEPING PILLS
Those who perform acupuncture are confident the treatment is effective for insomnia. They say it can help the body reach a more restful state.
‘Most of my clients come to me with sleep issues,’ says acupuncturist Carolyn Sykes (carolynluckygirl.com). ‘Acupuncture looks to balance Yin and Yang (introvert and extrovert) energies in the body and organs. Because of our busy modern lifestyles we tend be too yang. Sleep is yin – if you look at the yin/yang symbol, it’s half and half which creates balance.
‘When we are too yang and active, a lot of empty heat gets created in our systems which can exacerbate a busy mind, keeping us awake. Acupuncture can bring back balance by reducing this heat and calming the body.’
When it comes to sleep, meditation and mindfulness are both said to be beneficial.
Last year, 49 adults with sleeping problems took part in a small experiment that saw half of them attend a class on improving sleep habits, while the other half were taught mindfulness.
Those who practised mindfulness reported lower levels of insomnia.
‘Stress, emails and city living can be extremely stimulating for the mind and body,’ explains Will Williams (willwilliamsmeditation.co.uk), an instructor in Vedic meditation, a form of meditation designed for everyday people who find it difficult to switch off.
‘By entering a profound level of relaxation, the effect of these daily stresses is cleared, so it’s much easier to naturally switch off.’
Herbs & Supplements
Some plants have natural sedative qualities and have historically been used as sleep aids.
Up to 70% of women and 40% of men have too little magnesium, a deficiency which leads to insomnia and fatigue. ‘This is because modern food preparation strips it out,’ says Holland & Barrett head nutritionist Alex Thompson. BetterYou Magnesium Oil Goodnight Spray provides 150mg in each dose. Spray directly onto the skin every evening and massage in for best absorption (£12.69, hollandandbarrett.com).
Pukka’s Night-Time tea (£2.49) and supplements (7.45 for 30, pukkaherbs.com) contains herbs renowned for their calming effects. ‘Valerian and ashwagandha are traditionally used to encourage good sleep and reduce stress,’ says Pukka’s Sebastian Pole. Nytol’s Herbal Elixir (£6.29, boots.com) is a liquid sleep aid, which promotes calm and decreases feelings of anxiety.
Research indicates that floating helps people reach a meditative state, calming the body and preparing it for sleep.
The high magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) content in the water is beneficial as magnesium is known to regulate the levels of calcium, potassium and sodium in the body, as well as improve heart health and keep migraines at bay.
‘Floating reduces the activity in the amygdala, the fight or flight response area of the brain. This in turn reduces the level of stress hormone cortisol in the blood, so it’s easier to sleep afterwards,’ says Edward Hawley, co-founder of The Floatworks (floatworks.com).
This specific training helps to stabilise the brain during rapid shifts in sleep and can get to the root of insomnia.
The process of monitoring brain activity is known as Neurofeedback. ‘Good sleep involves a lot of brain activity,’ explains Stuart Black, MD of BrainTrain UK (braintrainuk.com). ‘The ability of the brain to shift states is known as brain regulation and is key to good mental health and good sleep.
‘During a session, the client sits in a comfortable chair with sensors attached to their scalp. Brainwaves are monitored and feedback is provided through a video or game. It helps problems such as sleepwalking and night terrors.’
Once any physical causes of sleep disturbance have been ruled out by a doctor, it may be worth exploring whether stress or negative thoughts are affecting your sleep.
Hypnotherapy can break patterns, including broken sleep and dependency on sleeping pills. Hypnotherapist Rosalyn Palmer (rosalynpalmerhypno.com) says: ‘Hypnotic suggestions can reactivate the perfect sleep habits you were born with, so sleep “comes to you”. It is recommended you listen to a hypnotic tape for at least 21 days throughout the night.’
HOW THE STARS SNOOZE
While most of us would be happy with restful, uninterrupted sleep, some celebrities go a little further in their bedroom routines. Sometimes their methods are sensible, while others are a little more outlandish, and probably shouldn’t be tried at home…
Winston Churchill was said to be a fan of afternoon naps
15-hour sleeps keep Mariah Carey’s voice on top form
White noise and tinfoil over the windows help rapper Eminem sleep
CREATE A PERFECT SLEEP ENVIRONMENT
Easy ways to turn your bedroom into a zen den, by sleep expert Dave Gibson (The Sleep Site)
1. Temperature Your bedroom should be 60-68°F. If your partner prefers it warmer, buy a cooling pad for your side. A warm bath two hours before bed will raise your temperature enabling a steeper drop and a deeper sleep.
2. Lights and alarm clocks Using candles for the last hour before bed is calming. Sleep in total darkness and turn your alarm clock away from you so its light doesn’t disturb you. If you get up in the night, keep the lights off.
3. Beds and Bedding Always buy the best bed and mattress – and bedding (preferably cotton) – you can, as they are key components of a good night’s sleep. Also, declutter your bedroom. It will help to reduce night-time anxiety.