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World Sleep Day: All your sleeping questions answered by university expert

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Published on 15 March 2019

How to get a good night sleep
How to get a good night sleep

Sleep is essential for health and to enable us to function at our best. This is particularly true of young, ambitious people wanting to go far in life.

On World Sleep Day, sleeping expert Dr Paul Innerd, from the University of Sunderland, separates truth from fiction when it comes to getting some shut-eye.


Sleep? Sorry, I don’t have the time

In our modern, fast paced society sleep often comes last on our list of priorities. However, sleep is essential for our health. Only two to three nights without enough sleep causes low mood, irritability, problems being able to focus and reduces memory.

Physically we have low energy, and also have increased hunger. When we have not slept enough, our bodies produce less of the hormone Leptin, which makes us feel satisfied after eating, and more of the hormone Ghrelin, which causes the sensation of hunger. So, not only do we move less when tired, we tend to choose higher calorie foods. Over time, this can lead to weight gain and serious health problems.


I find it difficult falling asleep right away, it frustrates me. I play games on my smartphone until I nod off

If you have problems sleeping, looking at bright artificial light from your smartphone is unlikely to help. Look at your ‘sleep hygiene’. Sleep hygiene refers to the daily practices which promote good sleep quality and alertness the next day.

First look at the environment you sleep in, typically the bedroom. To sleep well we need darkness and we need calmness, keep artificial lighting and technology use to a minimum. Try to avoid TV’s, laptops or your smartphone in the hour before you plan to sleep. In one of our studies we found that university students who avoided these devices before bed slept roughly two hours longer (average eight hours) compared to those who did not. We need a cool room, trying to sleep in a warm room causes us to feel hot, restless and unsettled. During the day, avoid long naps and too much caffeine as both factors reduce our need to sleep in the evening.


I survive on four hours sleep per night. Lots of famous people did

True, there are many biographies of famous and very successful people who claim to have slept very little indeed. However, many of these were written when the importance of sleep for optimal performance was not recognised. Many of history’s greatest figures had dedicated sleeping regimes.

Sir Winston Churchill led Britain to Victory in WWII whilst napping undisturbed every afternoon and sleeping a total of seven hours per day. Albert Einstein slept a solid 10 hours per night. Conversely, Nichola Tesla maintained a ‘polyphasic’ sleep pattern which involves napping roughly 20mins every four hours getting a total two hours sleep per day. He did this from age 11 and others warned his father this would damage his health. Tesla became a gambling addict, lost all his tuition money, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown aged 25. However, he did go on to work another 30+ years. The reality is that a minority of people can survive on four to six hours per night, but these people are rare.

We all need different amounts of sleep to suit our lifestyle and own biology, generally between seven and nine hours. If you can get through the following day without feeling tired, then this is a sign you are sleeping enough.

Why do I dream?

The reason we dream is not well understood. Dreaming usually occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During REM sleep the brain is very active. Assessments of brain electrical activity show that brain waves during sleep are similar to those that occur during wakefulness. One explanation of dreams is to consolidate memory.

Nevertheless, what we can be sure about is that REM sleep is essential for health. At this stage of sleep the body cleans the fluids of the brain and nervous system which prevents cognitive decline - reduced brain function - later in life.


My husband/wife/partner snores. It drives me crazy

Snoring may be harmless. Many of us make slight snoring noises during sleep. However, very bad snoring can be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea occurs when the muscles supporting the airways relax, the airways close, and snoring gets louder until the individual stops breathing. This is called an apnoea, when the airflow is blocked for 10 seconds or more.

The blockage in airflow causes oxygen levels in the body to fall, eventually the person is roused from sleep, but does not typically wake up. They might gasp for air then start falling back through the stages of sleep until snoring occurs. Repeated apnoeas are very bad for health


No matter how much sleep I get I always wake up exhausted

This could be a sign you have sleep apnoea. People with sleep apnoea do not spend enough time in the deeper stages of sleep and so they do not feel as rested when waking in the morning. If this happens continuously, it can lead to health problems as well as excessive daytime sleepiness which can be dangerous when driving or operating machinery. If you feel this way, see your doctor.


I wake up at 3am and I cannot get back to sleep

Before the invention of artificial light people generally went to sleep shortly after nightfall. This is earlier than we do today.

It was normal that people woke around the hours of 3am and often got out of bed, had conversations or were intimate before falling back asleep and sleeping till sunrise. This might be why, many of us still today wake up around 3am. However, we typically have to rise only a few hours after this for work. If you regularly wake up in the early hours. Simply relax, clear your mind, focus on your breathing and you should fall back asleep soon.


Why do older people nap during the day?

As we age our circadian rhythm becomes less pronounced. The circadian rhythm is the natural body clock which makes us feel awake and alert in the morning and sleepy in the evening before bed. Children and young people sleep more as their bodies are growing and developing. As adults, when we age the distinction between daytime wakefulness and night time sleep becomes less pronounced. Typically, by our 60s and 70s, we experience more fragmented sleep at night and nap more during the day.


I have an important deadline. How long can I get away with no sleep?

Planning to work through the night and not sleep at all is not a good idea. Sleep deprivation is not even permitted as a form of torture during war. This should tell you how important sleep is.

Research shows us that not getting enough sleep increases blood pressure, causes weight gain, eventually leading to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, cognitive decline and conditions such as Parkinson’s are also linked to a lack of sleep.

To operate at your best, get good quality sleep as part of your daily activities. Who sleeps best? Exercise has been linked to sleeping better. We looked at the effects of exercise on improving sleep and compared this with mindfulness meditation. We found that both exercise during the day and practicing mindfulness improve sleep. However, we also found that people who exercise and practice mindfulness meditation had even better sleep, falling asleep roughly 10mins faster than either of the other groups.

Mindfulness can be practiced easily these days. In our research, we used a free smartphone app, participants listened to at home. Without question, sleep is part of a healthy and happy lifestyle, particularly in those aiming to excel in life.