We speak to sleep specialists to find out the real consequences of having less than seven hours of sleep, and the realistic changes we can make to help us doze off
It wasn’t that long ago that successful leaders and CEOs were preaching about getting little sleep, with Donald Trump writing in his 2004 book that he runs on five hours a night to be his most ‘productive self’. But the reality is, with little sleep, you’re likely to be less productive, as the brain hasn’t had its full spring clean (we’ll get into this). Many of us prioritise work over sleep during the week, claiming that we’ll ‘catch up’ over the weekend. But the weekend may not give us enough time to recover, leaving our bodies and brains under-rested and trying to prevent burn out.
In 2007, co-founder of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, was at home working when she passed out; upon regaining consciousness, she found she had a broken cheekbone and a cut over her eye. After weeks of medical tests, the reason behind the incident was simple: she was exhausted. Arianna, who’d been working 18-hour days, told People magazine that this was the ‘wake-up call’ that changed her life.
But recurrent bad sleep can have serious short- and long-term effects on our bodies and brains, and the more we brush it off, the worse it can get. So, we spoke to chartered psychologist Dr Lindsay Browning to discuss the real impact of only getting five to six hours of snooze time.
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“Other than breathing and eating, sleeping is arguably the most important thing that you can do for your body,” says Dr Lindsay. As well as being an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, Dr Lindsay runs her own sleep consultancy service, Trouble Sleeping.
And it’s not just the likes or Ariana and Donald who are at risk of suffering from burnout. With the increase of WFH, our work and home lives have irrevocably intertwined, but checking emails and Teams messages while tucked up in bed is a recipe for disaster.
So, what’s the actual impact of bad sleep?
“Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can increase the risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, dementia and obesity,” says Dr Lindsay. “A 2019 neuroimaging study showed exactly how the sleeping brain is washed clean of amyloid plaques during non-REM sleep.”
Amyloid plaques are a sticky substance that form in the spaces between our nerve cells and are thought to play a crucial role in Alzheimer’s disease. In another recent study supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), researchers found that during the non-REM sleep stage, the brain can clear toxins and amyloid plaques, and long-term restriction of sleep is linked to a rise in the level of amyloid plaques in the brain.
As well as increasing our risk of brain disorders and unhealthy ageing, not getting enough sleep can also play a part in weight gain. “Lack of sleep affects the two hormones that regulate hunger: leptin and ghrelin. When we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t produce enough leptin, which is what helps us to feel full.”
But just saying we’re going to get a good night’s sleep is harder than it sounds. If you’re someone who generally struggles to fall asleep, or your mind tends to wander when your head finally hits the pillow, it can be an incredibly frustrating task.
Ways to achieve better sleep
Firstly, Dr Lindsay recommends developing a sufficiently robust circadian rhythm. This means creating clear distinctions for our body between night and day. “Many people suffer from an insufficiently robust circadian rhythm because they don’t get outside to see sunlight each day. This can happen if you work in an office, or if you work from home.” To help remedy this, try to go outside for a walk for at least half an hour during daytime each day.
Next, Dr Lindsay emphasises the importance of having a good mattress, bed and bedding. “Having good neck support, replacing our mattresses around every eight years and having bedding that allows air to flow through is extremely important,” she explains. “Becoming over-heated is one of the main reasons that people wake up during the night, especially those going through menopause, and having insufficient bedding will contribute to this.”
Similarly, founder of Luff Sleep Stephen Goknel notes the importance of quality bedding when it comes to temperature regulation, pointing to his brand’s Organic Bamboo Silk Bedding as being a perfect option for those who struggle with overheating. As well as being more eco-friendly than cotton, bamboo fabric has a natural silky-smooth texture, making it more breathable and cooler. Similarly, Luff Sleep’s innovative Mayfair Gel Pillow contains a unique cooling blue gel layer on one side to help keep the heat out and you cool.
Small changes for bigger sleeps
When it comes to the afternoon and evening, try swapping out your coffee or tea for a decaffeinated option or nibble on some walnuts, cherries or kiwis instead (which all contain melatonin, which plays an important role in circadian rhythm regulation). Our bodies aren’t designed to eat and digest food at night, so try to have your last meal or snack about an hour before you head up to bed, and this should ideally contain a mix of complex carbohydrates and dairy (porridge is a great option).
One of the biggest contributors to bad sleep is, of course, our phones — which we all tend to stare at endlessly before we finally put them down. Instead, Dr Lindsay recommends developing a regular sleep schedule, in which you should limit screen time and instead focus on signalling to your brain that sleep is coming. Here, you could try a relaxing bath each night, dimming all the lights at a certain time, working on your skincare routine or doing some deep breathing right before bed.
It’s also important to ensure that your bedroom is stress and clutter free, so try to create a clean environment that’s free from the worries of work (in other words: remove your laptop, folders or any other stress-related objects from the room).
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sleeping, these simple swaps and lifestyle changes could really go a long way.