How to Sleep. And Why.

Sleep. It seems really simple, and yet most of us aren’t doing it right. Research shows that up to 65% of adults in Australia either don’t get enough sleep, or get poor quality sleep. Enter, Shona Halson.

Shona Hanson is a sleep expert. But she’s not just an ordinary sleep expert (if there’s such a thing), she is a sleep advisor to some of the most high performance individuals in the world - the athletes at the Australian Institute of Sport.

I spoke with Shona about what makes a good night’s sleep, what impact sleep - or lack of sleep - has on us, and how to get better at it.

Sleep is one of the greatest performance boosters we have ready access to. There may not be another activity that has the return on investment that a good 8 hours of nightly sleep will give us.

Sleep has been shown to increase problem solving, memory, focussed attention as well as a myriad of health benefits too numerous to mention.

Sleep has gained in popularity in both science and general. “You would have to be from Mars to NOT realise that sleep has a big impact on how you perform,” says Halson.

How does sleep deprivation affect athletes and us?

Halson notes that Sleep deprivation affects different tasks and efforts differently. For example,short, high intensity efforts don’t seem to show a massive response, but longer efforts and cognition suffer a lot more. “ if you do a 1 RM or max squat, you probably wouldn’t have much of an effect with sleep deprivation - especially just one bad night. But one bad night before say a rugby game which is longer effort with a lot of cognitive processes going on then you start to see more of an effect.

But we obviously don’t lose fitness overnight - even if we sleep poorly - so what’s going on? “A bad night’s sleep doesn’t change your physiology, but your perception of effort is going to increase, and I think everyone knows that when you are sleep deprived your brain is not working as well as it should.”

What about the general population?

“There’s been quite a bit of research in non-athlete, truck drivers, shift workers, those kinds of populations, but even in the general population the finding is still basically if you do have periods of sleep deprivation - and it can only be three to four hours of sleep loss, acutely - it seems to be the brain that is the first thing that is actually affected. That is, cognitive processing, your ability to learn new things - there is a lot of evidence around that now, about learning - your reaction time, there’s a lot of stuff out there on mood, decreases positive mood, decreases efficiency, decreases emotional intelligence, increasing impulsivity (which is not a good thing, especially in athletes).”

She suggests there is also some evidence around change in hormones, where we become more catabolic (degrading) as opposed to anabolic (building) and chances of getting sick increase dramatically with suppressed immune function.

I’m not going to say that sleeping, by itself, will make you successful but it sure does help.

“In my experience it’s very difficult to find a long term, highly successful athlete, who has a lot of longevity, who are consistent in the way they perform, who are bad sleepers, I’ve never seen that,” Says Halson, “I’ve Never come across an athlete who is at the top of their game who neglected to focus on their sleep.”

Halson is always dumbfounded that athletes neglect sleep. They’re not being asked to do another seven kilometre set in the pool to get better after all.... it’s just sleep!

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

But despite everything what we know about sleep and how great it is for us, research shows that 65% of people are not getting the sleep they need. How much is enough?

“The standard eight hours is pretty good for the general population,” suggests Halson, “but obviously athletes need more due to physical recovery requirements.”

“But,” she adds, “Sleep is quite genetic. If you talk to anyone with a sleep issue, chances are their mum or dad has the same issue. So there is quite a strong genetic component.”

She adds that the best way to work out how much sleep you need is to think about how you usually feel in the morning with different amounts of night time sleep. Most people feel they ‘instinctively’ know.

“You should feel pretty good within an hour of waking, without caffeine, most days of the week. We say most days because no one sleeps perfectly 365 days of the year. And you don’t want to set that expectation - or people will get stressed about it.”

Wait a sec. Without caffeine? Yep - if you’ve had enough sleep, you will wake up just fine without caffeine. Other research suggests that caffeine doesn’t wake you up at all, but simply stops you from getting tired. If you think caffeine wakes you up..... it’s probably just a placebo or association effect (for how to optimise your coffee game, read this article).

Another way to work out how much sleep is enough for you is to see how do you feel in the middle of afternoon. While most of us feel a bit foggy and fatigued around 2pm, gauge how strong your desire to sleep is. Could you just fall asleep immediately or can you get through quite easily?

“If you could just crash in the afternoon, chances are you haven’t had enough sleep during the night,” says Halson. Although she suggest this could also be due to a big workout or exhausting day, though.

How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Us?

Another big factor that this sleep expert measures in athletes is their sleep onset. Shona says that athletes love to brag about how quickly they fall asleep once their head hits the pillow, but falling asleep too quickly isn’t a great thing.

“When we work with athletes we monitor sleep onset, we see a lot of one to two minutes. They brag to their friends. But if you fall asleep that fast… you are obviously very sleep deprived.

“Obviously you don’t want to stay awake for an hour, but you want to be around 10-20min - you don’t want to fall asleep immediately.”

Getting the right amount of sleep is obviously important, but it’s most important for us to rejuvenate mentally.

Halson explains that you can basically divide your nightly sleep into two parts (although I distinctly get the feeling she was dumbing this down for me....probably a good call).

The first half of sleep, while it does have recovery for the brain and the body, it’s weighted more towards physical recovery. The second half of sleep is weighted more toward mental recovery, so of course what we do is we cut off the second half of sleep which is primarily that mental recovery, which is why we get the brain fog and the decreased ability to regulate some of your thoughts and emotions and that kind of thing.”

“When we cut sleep short,” says Halson, “we are essentially missing the whole second cycle. In this way, our brain isn’t getting the rest it needs, and this is the main reason that sleep deprivation- even just by three to four hours in a single night - starts to affect our cognitive processes.” These are things like decision making, problem solving and focussed attention. Being able to shut out distractions and our executive function like controlling emotions and will power or self control.

What Does Quality Sleep Look Like?

By now though, most people are starting to realise that it’s not just about the amount of sleep you get, but the quality of that sleep. Better quality sleep means you feel better in the morning.

“Some people think they are a 9-10 hours sleeper,” explains Halson, “but their quality of sleep is poor, so they need the extra hours to make their sleep more effective. Other people sleep 6 hours and they get good quality deep sleep and wake up ready to go.”

The ideal is good quality and quantity, obviously. But what does good quality look like, apart from waking up feeling great (without coffee.... I want to reiterate this).

Halson looks at two factors that signal the quality of your sleep.

One we have already talked about - Sleep Latency. This is the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. Fall asleep too quickly and you’re probably sleep deprived, but taking a long time to fall asleep might mean you’re stressed or anxious. Your ideal Sleep Latency is10 to 20 minutes.

Other things that might affect our ability to fall asleep are stimulants like caffeine too close to bed time, exercising late and consuming a big or rich meal in the evening.

The other parameter that Halson measures to gauge sleep quality is Sleep Efficiency. This reflects the number of times your sleep is disturbed at night. Ideally, Halson suggests that you wake up no more than once a night - this is generally to go to the bathroom.

If you’re waking up more than this, it might be a sign of stress: “People who are quite stressed will often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something. People don’t realise the brain is very active at night, if you haven’t dealt with stress during the day, then chances are it’s going to pop up at night.”

For this reason, Poor quality sleep is often seen in very anxious people.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

So the million dollar question is how do you give yourself the best chance of getting a good night’s sleep?

Some big influencers, it seems, are stress, room temperature, noise and light. If your room is cool, dark and quiet - and you don’t feel too stressed - then this helps enormously.

But routine is key, says Halson.

“Routine is really important. Going to sleep at the same time and waking up at the same time gives you good sleep quality, because the body likes to know what to expect. It’s like being jet lagged or being a shift worker - if you’re going to bed at all different random times and waking up at different times - you tend not to sleep very well at all. Routine is key.

And if someone said they were willing to do anything to get a good night’s sleep, what would you tell them to do?

“I’d start with routine - going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time every day. And I’m not worried if it’s midnight until 9 or 8 til 5. Some people are morning types, some people are night owls.”

And the routines immediately before you go to bed are incredibly important, “for example: clean your teeth, have a shower, read a book. Then you become a bit like Pavlov’s dog - your body starts to think ‘Oh it’s time to go to bed.’

Halson explains that she urges athletes to make sure these pre-bed routines are simple to recreate wherever they go. That way they can do them easily when travelling - as someone who spends at least one night a week in a hotel somewhere around the country, this is great advice.

Next, Halson would like to take phones out of people’s bedrooms. “At the least,” she says, “check your phone in the living room, go to the bedroom and then switch it to flight mode until the morning.”

“The light that is emitted from devices is blue light and blue light stimulates the body clock and says “be awake!” - because of this, you have a smaller release of melatonin.” Melatonin is the chemical that produces serotonin and helps us get that good quality sleep.  

The worst thing people do is engage with social media at bed time, Halson suggests. And this is another reason to put that phone on flight mode. “When people put things out on social media they’re waiting for people to comment or like it - there is an anticipation. And If you look at doctors on call or anyone that does shift work where they have to leave their phone on because they are anticipating that it may ring, they have really poor quality sleep. They call it the on-call effect.” Halson says that waiting for that social media ‘like’ pretty much replicates this ‘on call effect.’

Halson suggest a ‘Power Down Hour’ where you get away from all screens, except maybe TV, and start your pre-bed routine. “Television is not quite as bad because of the distance away. It’s generally iPads, computers and phones that keep us wired and awake,” she says.

And the worst thing you can do? Falling asleep at around 7pm in front of the television. This is a sign that you are sleep deprived, and is “absolutely one of the worst things you can do,” says Halson.

“Your ability to fall asleep at night is dependent on a few things, one of those things is the question of: “when was the last time you slept?” If the last time you slept, you woke up at 8 o’clock in the morning, You’ve probably got a lot of sleep pressure to help you fall asleep. but if you woke up at 8 o’clock at night because you fell asleep on the couch for an hour, you’re probably going to have more difficulties falling asleep that night.” Because there is very little sleep ‘pressure.’

Most people who do this fall into a pattern whereby they fall asleep in front of the television for an hour, wake up, can’t get to sleep later on so they stay up late, then they don’t get enough sleep, then the cycle starts all over again.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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