It was Arianna Huffington who first talked about sleeping your way to the top (in this context anyway) after finding herself on the bathroom floor with a cracked jawbone having passed out due to exhaustion. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that we are generally more effective and far more even tempered after a good night’s sleep then without one, but many people are unaware of just how necessary sleep is for performance, emotional, mental and physical health and wellbeing.
This is National Sleep Awareness Week so I wanted to share with you some tips that can help you get a better night’s sleep and by that I mean, more of it and better quality.
First however, here are some revealing facts (not designed to keep you awake at night!) which show some of the impacts of missing out on sleep that can most harm your career.
WHY PROPER SLEEP IS SO ESSENTIAL
Lack of sleep seriously affects your cognitive abilities making it harder to concentrate and making you far more likely to get distracted. In a time when there is so much competing for our attention this is a problem for us, especially at work, as the quality of our outputs will suffer, we are much more likely to make mistakes, people will become frustrated with you because they can see you’re disconnected, and things will take longer to complete because we are jumping from one thing to the next.
It messes up your memory, both the ability to recall memories of things that have already happened and the ability to create new memories. This means that the important conversations you’re having, meetings you’re in or the things your learning are lost when you don’t have enough sleep to be able to store them for future reference.
They affect the quality of our relationships. When we deprive ourselves of sleep it negatively affects the parts of the brain responsible for empathy and compassion. It also makes us more irritable and aggressive. Top this off with reduced serotonin levels (simplistically the hormones that help us feel happy) and we have a bunch of people who are unhappy, easily triggered, short tempered and lacking in compassion. Ouch!
Though there are many who experience having their most creative moments when they are sleepy or sleep deprived and there is scientific reasoning as to why this is so, the bulk of evidence however suggests that lack of sleep actually significantly hampers innovation. The processes that happen in our brains only when we are in deep REM sleep are essential for creativity, plus the critical or analytical thinking which is necessary to make sure the ideas work in practice is only possible after a good night’s sleep.
Lack of sleep also increases risk taking and impairs judgement. A greater propensity to take risks combined with a reduced ability to work out whether or not they’re worthwhile or even safe is clearly problematic.
Not directly career related but at the same time important because physical wellbeing infiltrates every part of our lives it’s important to think about the physical impacts of sleep deprivation.
A shortage of sleep can cause weight gains and lead to obesity. When we sleep the brain regulates two hormones. Grehlin (the hormone that is linked to hunger) which goes up, and Leptin (the hormone that tells us when we are full) which goes down. As a result we feel hungrier and are less aware of when we’ve had enough causing us to eat more. Cortisol the stress hormone is also regulated when we sleep and increased cortisol levels in the body also contribute to weight gain both from the processing and storing of the food we consume but also because of the kind of foods it makes us crave (note, we’re talking simple carbs, sugar and salt here, not lean chicken and leafy veg). This is why when we’re stressed we often put on weight.
Because sleep is where the body repairs and restores cells, insufficient sleep has been scientifically linked to increased risks for serious and chronic illnesses including alzheimers’ disease, cancer (particularly breast cancer), heart disease and stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Finally, long term shortage of sleep is linked to mental and emotional health problems such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and increased propensity towards suicide.
The list of reasons why we need to be prioritising sleep continues but I’ll stop here for now.
Given that the recommended amounts of sleep for adults is between 7-9 hours and many of us falling well short of that what can we do about it?
TIPS FOR BETTER SLEEP:
Eat a nutritionally balanced diet clear of highly processed foods, sugars and salts which cause havoc with our body’s ability to rest and repair.
Eat foods that contain the amino-acid tryptophan (contained in milk, oats, nuts, salmon, poultry (especially turkey), soy products, eggs, spinach) which help you to fall asleep. Grandma’s warm milk before bed wasn’t just a wive’s tale!
Limit how much alcohol you drink. While alcohol may cause you to feel drowsy initially it will affect the overall quality of your sleep and usually involves you waking up in the night. It also affects the absorption of tryptophan into your blood stream so that glass of red-wine before bed to help you wind down or nod off may not be such a good idea after all.
Avoid caffeine after 2pm as it can take 5-6 hours to clear the system.
Switch off your devices at least 2 hours before bed. Studies showed that exposure to electronic screens before bed reduced dopamine levels (the hormone that helps you get to sleep and affects the quality of your sleep) by up to 50% .
Keep all electronic devices out of the bedroom, the electronic signals they emit can affect the quality of the sleep you have. Ideally your bedroom should be used for only two things, sleep and sex and nothing else.
Meditation and slow deep belly breathing will both help enormously to send your brain signals that it’s ok to relax and allow you to sleep. Use apps like Calm or Headspace which will both guide your breathing and also have specifically designed sleep meditations to help you.
Consciously breathing more through your left rather than right nostril has also been shown to be effective in activating the para-sympathetic nervous system, the part of you that governs rest and relaxation. If you find you are wide awake close one nostril for a moment with your finger and then the other to see which one you are breathing through more, chances are you’ll have clearer breath through the right nostril if you’re alert. To regulate this either press your right nostril shut with your finger for a while and try to breath slowly and deeply through the left nostril to activate it, or practice alternative nostril breathing to balance it. There are many tips and guides online or on YouTube such as this one that show you how to do alternate nostril breathing.
Yoga is a fantastic form of exercise for many ailments and will most certainly have positive benefits for your overall wellbeing. Furthermore, certain types of more passive yoga such as yin yoga and restorative yoga are especially helpful in reducing stress hormones and activating the parasympathetic nervous system aiding your relaxation and rest.
Getting some fresh air, natural daylight and having had some exercise during the day where you’ve been able to naturally release stress chemicals from your body will increase your chances of sleeping well at night.
A warm bath before bed is not only a pleasure but also has been shown to trigger sleep hormones helping you to nod off.