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Planning Retirement Online

Sleep school

    March 2008   


Alarm ClockTired all the time?
You need our two part guide to sleep: why you need it, how to get it.  

Tired all the time?  But when you finally get cosy under the duvet, you can’t get to sleep or you find yourself wide-awake in the wee small hours? 

One in two of the population is fighting daytime tiredness on a daily basis, according to a new analysis of 30 years of sleep data.  And it’s our hectic lifestyle that’s to blame, says Norfolk clinical researcher, Dr Neil Stanley. 

‘If you put 100 people in a room and ask how many of them feel really energetic and full of vitality, very few would raise their hands,’ he says.   Most of these people wouldn’t be diagnosed with insomnia, he explains.   They’re in a permanent state of low-grade exhaustion, what he calls ‘semi-somnia’ – and sleep experts warn that it’s a health problem with consequences.

‘Sleep is not an optional extra, it’s a fundamental requirement of a healthy life,’ says Professor Colin Espie, director of the Sleep Research Laboratory  at Glasgow University.  While we’re fast asleep, the body is able to refresh and repair a whole range of processes that enable memory, thoughts and feelings to function properly. 

A single night of disrupted sleep leaves you feeling grumpy, groggy, irritable and forgetful. Longer-term, chronically poor sleepers risk a range of unpleasant consequences from depression and divorce to diabetes and heart disease.


A good night’s sleep may seem continuous.  But it’s actually a series of 90-minute cycles that begin with an all-important session of deep sleep that normally occurs shortly after you fall asleep – with a lighter sleep cycles towards the morning.  REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the time for dreaming, occurs in both cycles – though we’re more likely to have vivid, and perhaps more meaningful dreams in the early part of the night.    

What concerns Dr Stanley is that our 24/7 society interferes with the natural forces that gently propel us towards deep and refreshing sleep.  We all have a ‘sleep homeostat’ that controls the drive for sleep: so that that the longer we’re awake, the more we want to sleep.  But what controls the body clock that tells us when to sleep, is melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that is synchronised by sunrise and sunset light.

There’s no such thing as a normal body clock, however.    It changes with age: the sleep drive of a 20 year old remains strong at 7am while it’s already started to decline two hours earlier in someone in their 40s.  Some people are ‘owls’ who don’t feel the effect of melatonin until late in the night – while ‘larks’ rise early and become sleepy in the early evening.    Men over 50 report falling asleep much faster; it tends to be older women, especially those who suffer depression, who find it hardest to get to, and stay asleep.  And our modern irregular lifestyles can disrupt the body clock even more significantly. 

Catching up with emails or playing computer games late at night will keep your mind racing, says Dr Stanley.  He decries the ‘Blackberry-bushed’ syndrome where making yourself inaccessible even in the bedroom leaves you feeling guilty. New research suggests that teenagers who play computer games to  ‘relax’ in the evening after doing their homework will have trouble sleeping – and will also have greater difficulty remembering what they have just learned. 

‘It’s much healthier to restrict yourself to activities that help you switch off from daytime action,’ says Dr Stanley.  But it’s important to find your own way of relaxing – rather than following dogmatic advice.

‘It’s easy to get the impression that there’s a quick solution that applies to everyone – that if you’re not sleeping you should avoid coffee, cola and alcohol as well as exercise for four hours before bedtime, not to read or watch TV in the bedroom and make sure you take a hot bath 90 minutes before turning in.

 It’s all good advice and no doubt at least some of the rules of sleep hygiene work for some people.  ‘For some people it’s a hot bath and a milky drink; others like to do yoga or meditate, watch TV or even listen to the Pink Floyd.’

He even suggests abandoning the marital bed.  ‘Sleep is simply our most selfish activity’ says Dr Stanley. ‘Not having sex is bad news for a marriage. But historically, we have never been meant to sleep in the same bed as each other and there’s no shame in doing whatever it takes to get a good night’s sleep.’

Yet the research also shows clearly that while a good night’s sleep should be a priority, it shouldn’t become an obsession: worrying about semi-somnia could actually keep you awake for longer. ‘The more committed people are to fixing the problem, the more likely they are to mess up, because sleep does not respond very well to conscious engagement," says Professor Espie.

‘Its rather like swapping your car's automatic gearbox for a manual version,’ says Professor Espie.    'Because you have taken over more of the controls, you’re ability to go to sleep automatically is inhibited. You are more aware of sleep and sleeplessness in your life, and so a vicious circle develops.’

The best way to slip into unconsciousness is to count your chickens – rather than sheep!   There never was a golden age of sleep that preceded modern day comfortable mattresses and airy bedrooms, according to Professor Jim Horne of Loughborough University. 

The reality, he says, is that we probably sleep more now than our ancestors did 100 years ago.  Victorians, he points out, worked 14-hour days and spent their nights in communal bedrooms that were infested with bedbugs. 

Far from worrying about daytime sleepiness and night-time waking, people should build into their lives.  ‘It’s perfectly normal to feel tired in the afternoon, it’s a natural dip in the day,’ he says.

Waking up at night, says Dr Stanley, need not make you panic. ‘It’s quite possible to enjoy a period of wakefulness,’ he says.  So next time you’re awake while the rest of the world seems to be slumbering, enjoy it!  Relax with some deep yoga breathing or catch up with some reading – or simply take the opportunity to consider the life from the perspective of a warm bed. 



Forget tossing and turning. Here’s how to make it through the night


 Don't exercise within two or three hours of bedtime. Strenuous activity can boost your metabolic rate leaving you buzzing and unable to sleep. Instead try some gentle relaxation techniques such as simple yoga poses to calm you down before turning in.


Try adding a few drops of a soporific essential oil to your bath while the water is running. Good choices include clary sage, lavender oil, camomile, neroli or marjoram. Alternatively burning a few drops in a burner can create a sleepy atmosphere or try mixing a few drops of your chosen oil with some water in a pump action spray bottle and spritzing onto your sheets and pillow.


Listen to some relaxing music, read a calming book or have a soothing cup of herbal tea. Valerian, camomile and peppermint are all said to help induce sleep.


Hang black out blinds or heavy lined curtains to keep out unwanted light and noise. Think about investing in some double glazing or a pair of earplugs if outside noise keeps you awake.


Keep your bedroom for sleep only. Activities such as watching TV, reading, eating or working in the bedroom can encourage wakefulness. If you find yourself watching the TV night after night to help you drop off then it is time to change your habits.


Cold extremities such as hands and feet can keep you awake so wear bed socks and mittens if you start to feel cold. A footbath or massage before bed will also help to keep feet warm, or invest in a hot water bottle but make sure it’s got a cover.


Try to avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol for four to six hours before bedtime. A nightcap might seem like a good idea but overdo it and you risk waking up within a few hours with dehydration. Go for a warm milky drink instead which contains the substance tryptophan, a natural relaxant.


If you’re having trouble drifting off, visualisation can help. Close your eyes and imagine yourself walking down the road to sleep. As you walk watch yourself putting down anything that is worrying you. Walk slowly and surely, knowing sleep is waiting for you at the end of the road.


If your partner is a restless sleeper or his snoring stops you sleeping try to sort out the problem. Avoiding alcohol, smoking and excess weight can all help snoring while individual duvets and single mattresses which can be zipped together can help to make sleep more peaceful.


Aim for a regular wake-up time and bedtime. If establishing a pattern for going to bed is a problem at least make a point of always getting up in the morning at the same time.


10 ways to greet the morning full of energy

Face the day feeling on top of the world with energising tips to get you going


 Get your body into gear with a good stretch from top to toe. If you’ve woken late or can't face getting out of bed do it under the blankets. Alternatively, sit on the side of your bed and give it your all. Roll your head to your left shoulder then forward to your chest, then to your right shoulder. Repeat a few times before reversing order. Then stand up and reach your arms above your head as far as you can, first your right hand higher, then your left.


Throw open the curtains, open the window and expose your face to the sun for five minutes. Better still go outside. Sunlight stimulates the pineal gland in the brain which helps to wake you up.


Have an invigorating wake -up shower by alternating the cold and hot water. Wash yourself with a sponge to which you have added a couple of drops of a stimulating essential oil such as citrus or pine. To get yourself into positive mode use the time under the water to visualise all the lovely things that could happen to you in the day ahead.


Try some mind exercises to get your brain in gear first thing in the morning. Try using your non-dominant hand for those getting-ready-for the day rituals such as washing your teeth or brushing your hair.


 Avoid that first black coffee of the morning. The caffeine  may give you an instant burst of energy but it won't last long. Far better to go for a cup of herbal tea. Peppermint or ginger are good pep-up choices.


It will kickstart you into action and set you up for the rest of the day. Try a low-releasing carbohydrate breakfast such as a bowl of muesli topped with a handful of berries. If you want to be really healthy use soya instead of cow's milk.


Try some deep breathing to get the blood flowing and a good amount of oxygen to the brain. Block your right nostril with your thumb and breathe in slowly through your left nostril. Hold this breath for a few seconds then place your index finger over your left nostril, remove your thumb and breathe out through your right nostril. This will help to rid your body of carbon dioxide.


If you constantly wake up feeling more tired than when you went to bed you could be getting too much sleep. Try getting up at the same time each morning but vary your bedtime until you wake up feeling on top of the world. Once you have established your natural sleep quota you can adjust your routine to ensure your body gets the right amount of shut eye it needs to function at optimum levels.


If you wake up every morning full of aches and pains it could be time to update your mattress. Protruding springs, below-surface ridges, creaks and crunches, or middle mattress sagging mean you should invest in a new one as soon as possible.


 The time of your evening meal and what it consists of can affect your wake-up mood. To help you leap out of bed bounding with energy instead of crawling out feeling sluggish and bloated,aim to eat your last meal of the day before 9pm to give your digestion sufficient time to get on with its work. Avoid anything to heavy - go for lean-cut meats and  cut out full-fat dairy foods  as well as fried foods and sugar.



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