In a climate where mobile phones are glued to hands, eyes are fixed to screens and free time is increasingly precious, switching off to get a good night’s sleep is becoming ever more difficult. Luxury London explores the harm our lack of shut-eye is doing us and suggests how to catch more Zzz’s
Everyone does it. We spend a third of our lives doing it. Margaret Thatcher claimed she only needed four hours of it. Thomas Edison declared that it was a waste of time. I’m talking about sleep, of course.
Snoozing plays a big part in brain development, and a ‘bad sleep’ can often lead to poor work performance. Dr Guy Meadows, clinical director of Sleep to Perform, is trying to uplift lethargic workforces by educating employers and employees about the vital role sleep play in our lives.
“Sleep is fundamentally important to our day-time performance. In the workplace we do a lot of high-order executive functions – communicating, recalling memories, problem solving and being focused to name a few,” he says. But how does a lack of sleep affect these functions? Dr Meadows explains the science behind it.
“These processes are run by an area of your brain called the prefrontal cortex – one of the most vulnerable areas to be affected by sleep deprivation. When we experience poor sleep we encounter reduced focus and attention, our creativity is dulled, our risk of accidents increases and our ability to manage our emotions is significantly affected.”
Essentially, a bad sleep equals a bad day at work. When discussing this, Dr Meadows refers to an intriguing Dutch study from 2003 entitled The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness by Hans P.A. Van Dongen PhD, which tested the cognitive performance of people who’d slept for eight hours, against people that had experienced total sleep deprivation (zero hours). He then tested the cognitive performance of people who had had two weeks of six-hour sleeps. He discovered the cognitive performance of the six-hour sleeps after five nights, was equivalent to cognitive performance of the zero-sleepers after two nights.
“This highlights that partial sleep deprivation does also have a detrimental impact on us. Many of us sleep deprive ourselves in the week by sleeping for five or six hours and trying to catch up on the weekend. It doesn’t work like that,” says Dr Meadows. So next time you tell your co-workers your Friday night plans involve “catching up on lost sleep”, you’re essentially telling them a lie – the bottom line is there is no real way to recoup lost sleep.
There’s no specific answer to the question ‘how many hours of sleep do we require?’ explains Dr Meadows. “Our sleep need is determined by genetics and so while the average proportion of the population needs an average of seven or eight hours, there are also a small percentage of people who might need anything from a range of four to 12 – though this is an extreme range.” Essentially, I’m told, you know you’re getting the right amount of sleep if you wake up feeling refreshed.
Maryanne Taylor, sleep consultant and owner of a clinic called The Sleep Works, which specialises in developing personalised schedules, explains that “there is a myth that an adult requires eight hours of sleep for maximum functioning ability.” She continues: “Sleep needs vary to some degree from person to person. To determine what an individual’s sleep needs are, it is important to consider both the spectrum of average sleep hours and the lifestyle of the individual.” She firmly believes that there is not a “one size fits all” solution when it comes to sleep.
TURN OFF TO SWITCH OFF
The technology we’re surrounded by could be one contributing factor to poor-quality snoozing. “The way in which we live our lives is affecting our sleep. We’re not making sleep a priority in an incredibly stimulating world,” says Dr Meadows.
One of the main issues is the blue light that laptops, phones and TVs emit. The light suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps control your sleep cycle and fundamentally, blue light will trick your mind into thinking it’s time to wake. Sending a late night email or checking Facebook before bed hampers melatonin production and keeps your brain in an active state.
Not all technology is bad: those of us with Apple’s latest iOS 10 will have noticed the introduction of the ‘Bedtime’ app. Notify your iPhone how many hours sleep you’d like to sleep and it alerts you to when you’re nearing your bedtime, and wakes you with a gradual alarm.
As winter sets in, and most of us start to begin and end our commute in darkness, it’s not just that we’re psychologically more tired. “Sleep patterns can be affected by season changes,” Taylor explains. “Melatonin is affected by exposure to light and the more melatonin your body produces, the more tired you feel. Bright light slows down this production and makes us feel more awake. So we often feel more tired and sluggish during the winter and have more energy during the summer and spring.”
Women need to sleep, on average, for 20 more minutes than men
According to Dr Jim Horne, a sleep science expert, women need to sleep, on average, for 20 more minutes than men – research points to female tendencies of multitasking and using more of their brain than men, leading to a greater need for sleep. However, this doesn’t mean that women are getting the sleep they need.
Dr Meadows tells me that in his clinic, 65-70 per cent of the people experiencing insomnia are women. “The most common reason is that females have two powerful hormones – progesterone and oestrogen – and these have powerful stimulant and hypnotic effects, so they can aid sleep but also have a higher potential to disturb sleep.”
In 2011, a survey of 6,700 people by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that just over one third of respondents were classified as ‘good sleepers’, while more than a third were categorised as possibly having chronic insomnia. So, for the latter third, what can be done?
Dr Meadows’ Sleep to Perform campaign aims to increase daytime productivity through a single-minded focus on improving sleep. It’s helped businesses such as Unilever, P&G, PricewaterhouseCoopers and, so far, 750 traders at Lloyds Bank. How?
“We have three key areas we help corporate businesses with: how to improve quality of sleep, how to lessen impact of stress on sleep and how to transition from work to home. The whole purpose is so that they can perform at their best knowing how to sleep well and manage anxiety,” says Dr Meadows.
“One of the biggest challenges in corporate organisations is that they find themselves awake in the middle of the night, their minds racing and they don’t know how to switch off and they’ll go to war and try to block it out. The problem with this is that it’s like telling someone ‘don’t think about a white elephant’. We teach people to do the opposite, to objectively notice the white elephant arriving, but then to let go of holding them.”
In the US, more than a third of employers offer programmes addressing sleep disorders. For staff at insurance group Aetna, it pays to get a good night’s sleep – literally. The group encourages its workers to sign up to a scheme that rewards them for getting at least seven hours of shut-eye per night – they could end up earning $300 (approximately £240) a year for doing so. For every 20 days an Aetna employee reports sleeping at least seven hours, he or she can earn $25.
It’s with all this information to digest that I leave you with a line from the famous diary of Samuel: “And so to bed.”