Dream big! Understanding the fundamentals of sleep for your health


For World Sleep Day, Vitality is unpacking the benefits of sleep on our health and the importance of quality, not quantity


Our hardest goodbye and most welcomed hello, nothing beats the comfort of our own bed. And not just for feather-down pillows and Egyptian cotton sheets, but what our beds represent... delicious sleep. 

Sleep is as fundamental to our life as eating and drinking, and as humans, we are unable to function without it.

264 hours – or just more than 10 days – is the longest record of a person not sleeping, but scientists do not know how long humans can survive without sleep. 

Findings show that half of Britons do not believe they get enough sleep each night and 90% of UK adults believe that their life would be improved if they had more sleep

“Our sleep can often be seen as a second thought,” says Henrietta Kennedy, International Engagement Manager at Vitality partner Headspace. 

“But it’s so important when it comes to cognitive function, memory recall and emotional regulation; there are so many areas of our wellbeing that it impacts and we should prioritise it more,” she adds.

Believe it or not, in an amongst our dreams, our brain is undergoing a maintenance process and sleep helps us to repair and restore.

Kennedy says: “Our hippocampus, the learning centre of the brain, which is also responsible for our emotional regulation, is quite affected when we’re sleep deprived.”

She notes that even one night of disruption can impact cognitive function causing impaired concentration and brain fog.

There’s no magic number

A fixation on getting seven to nine hours’ worth of sleep can actually cause more harm than good, says Kennedy. “When we’re fixated on that number and if we’re not getting it that can cause issues,” she says.

“It can be quite stressful and can make us feel anxious, when actually we just need to tune into ourselves; all of us need different amounts of sleep.” Kennedy says that instead we should be focusing on the quality of sleep that we’re getting. 

She adds: “There are four different phases of sleep and they run in cycles and so sometimes we can feel like we’ve slept, but we might not have got into REM sleep as much as you would need for that deep clear out and renewal in order to feel refreshed that day.

“It’s a really complex picture and it’s not always about the hours.” Naturally, there are instances where we’re unable to control the hours and quality of sleep, such as having a baby, but there are certain things that we can control to encourage better sleep. 

“How we approach our days can really affect our sleep at night,” says Kennedy. “All of a sudden, we lay down in bed and we’re no longer distracted by the day, and our minds start to race.

“Your brain is trying to keep you safe and it’s going to keep bringing those things up by reminding you that you need to deal with what’s worrying you.”

One trick she mentions is something called the ‘Worry time technique’. This involves writing down everything that’s in your head, either while you’re in bed or a few hours before, to ensure all of the worries from the day are out of your mind. 

“That act of getting it down onto paper can get it out of your head and allows you to know that you can come back to that,” she says.

To help here, Headspace offers a selection of courses that are designed to be done during the day to prepare our mind and body for sleep at nighttime. 

Sleep SOS

Often, what a lot of people don’t realise is how we approach our days has a knock-on effect to our quality of sleep that night, according to Kennedy.

Should it be a tough day at work or having too many tasks on our mind, the feelings of stress, worry, anxiety and how that translates as we come to the land of nod.

“Things in our head can ruminate and make them much bigger than they need to be. We bring a lot of it to bed and the anxiety of not being able to sleep can stop you from sleeping,” she adds.

But there are a few things we can do to help unwind and ease into a restful sleep. Kennedy explains fiveuseful tips to get our forty winks:

1. Try a warm shower or bath before bed

Dubbed by scientists as the ‘warm bath effect’, a shower or bath before bed aids our natural temperature regulation process. “A quick reduction in body temperature and that can be quite helpful to regulate your temperature for sleep,” says Kennedy.

2. Embrace pink noise

You’ve probably heard of white noise to aid sleep. But what about brown or pink? The difference is the tone and frequency. White noise contains all frequencies together producing a static-like sound, while pink and brown noise takes a bassier sound like strong wind or a heavy rainfall. Noise such as these help to distract our minds, according to Kennedy: “It takes us away from what’s stopping us from sleeping and transports our mind.”

3. Get into a routine

Sticking to a sleep schedule reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle and helps you get better rest. Research has found those with a regular sleep routine find it easier to cope with life’s daily stressors. To get into a happy, consistent sleep routine think about turning off electrical devices and screens at least an hour before bedtime, according to Sleep Foundation.

4. Limit alcohol

Alcohol can limit our ability to get REM sleep; this is the dreaming state of sleep where memory consolidation, emotional processing and brain development occur. That’s not to say don’t have a glass in the evening, says Kennedy, but consider the time between when you’re going to bed and how long alcohol needs to go through our system – on average “it’s about one unit per hour”, says Kennedy.

5. Sleep courses

The Headspace app offers meditative sleep courses that are designed to help winddown for sleep. The latest in its roster is a CBT-based programme aimed at those with insomnia. Made up of daily 10-minute sessions, the three-week programme offers expert guidance, meditations and written exercises.

Giving allocated time to turn off and decompress from the day with support from experts may make all the difference to not just your sleep pattern but overall wellbeing.

Find out how Vitality Writer, Olivia Matsell, got on when she tried mindfulness through the Headspace app for a month. I tried mindfulness for a month | Magazine | Vitality

Related: 6 common sleeping myths put to bed

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