Hacking your Stress Levels: Sleep

How sleep reduces stress

A key message I explore with training delegates and coaching clients is that Sleep is one of the most effective, yet seemingly elusive, hacks that you can do to improve your stress levels. Sleep is a necessary human function — it allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to rest. When we do not sleep long or well enough, our bodies do not get the

The RAND Corporation Sleep report idetified the cost of poor sleep on key OECD countries, showing that in the UK, poor sleep costs the country over £40bn in poor productivity, decision-making, illness and absenteeism \ presenteeism
The RAND Corporation Sleep report idetified the cost of poor sleep on key OECD countries, showing that in the UK, poor sleep costs the country over £40bn in poor productivity, decision-making, illness and absenteeism \ presenteeism

full benefits of sleep, such as muscle repair and memory consolidation.

Sleep is so crucial that even slight sleep deprivation or poor sleep can affect memory, judgment and mood. In addition to feelings of listlessness, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to health problems, from obesity and high blood pressure to safety risks while driving. Research has shown that most people would be happier, healthier and safer if they were to sleep an extra 60 to 90 minutes per night.

During sleep cycles, the brain consolidates memory and learning from the day, and also regulates cortisol (commonly considered the stress hormone) which is used in the morning to raise you to wakefulness and get you up in the morning. Failure to get enough sleep, particularly when you’ve had a stressful day, causes cortisol dysregulation which leaves you waking, still stressed from the day before.

How do you know whether you’re sleep deprived?

Prof. Richard Wiseman, Author of the excellent Night School, gives these simple criteria. You are likely sleep deprived if:

  • You sleep for 7 hours or less
  • You take a very short or very long time to go to sleep (10-12 minutes is ideal)
  • You need an alarm clock to wake up at the right time

Now for most people, these criteria are a slap in the face. Many of us “believe” that we only need 5 or six hours’ sleep to function. And if “function” is all you need, then yes you’re right. But virtually all people need a minimum of 7 hours of good quality, continuous sleep to be close to being at our best. And be healthy, happy, and live a long time, even if we don’t have stressful lives. In a survey of over 1300 adults in 2013, the American Psychological Association found that Adults were significantly more likely to suffer from stress and errant emotions and physical issues than those that did.

How much sleep do you need?

Whilst it isn’t exactly the same for everyone, the research suggests that sleep cycles last around 90 minutes, during which, depending on the number of sleep cycles you have had, go through the various stages known as deep sleep, light sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, ending in a light sleep phase. This is why sometimes you will wake and feel groggy versus other times where you wake gently. The simple way to work out how much sleep you need is to find out how early you need to go to bed to wake up naturally just before you need to get up. For most people that is 7.5 hours (5 sleep cycles).

It has also been demonstrated that “catching up on sleep” at the weekend fails to compensate for the physical stress that sleep deprivation causes, including fat accumulation and hormonal dysregulation. Treat each night as a one off and you’ll be happier, slimmer and healthier.

The benefits of good sleep

Mental benefits
  • One night of good sleep can improve your ability to learn new motor skills by 20%.
  • Eight hours of quality sleep increases your ability to gain new insight into complex problems by 50%.
Electronic Music Producer Tom Middleton has developed a scientifically proven sleep soundtrack to improve the quality and depth of your sleep. The songs are designed to slow down the listener's heart and respiration rates, as well as lower blood pressure - which should produce a calming effect and help you drift off.
Electronic Music Producer Tom Middleton has developed a scientifically proven sleep soundtrack to improve the quality and depth of your sleep. The songs are designed to slow down the listener’s heart and respiration rates, as well as lower blood pressure – which should produce a calming effect and help you drift off.
Physical benefits
  • Reduces stress and the likelihood of nervous system dysregulation and experiencing extreme negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, depression and sadness
  • Good sleep promotes the production of DHEA which is essential for skin health and a youthful appearance.
  • Sleep controls optimal insulin secretion, reducing the likelihood of fat accumulation.
  • Sleep encourages healthy cell division (helps prevent cancer)
  • Sleep increases athletic performance.

The basics of a good night’s sleep

Whether or not you currently have trouble sleeping, there are several key things you can easily do to improve your current sleep. These are the most basic yet most critical hacks that will help you upgrade both the quality and quantity of sleep, so you can optimise your rest every night.

  1. Sleep in a pitch-black room. Make it as dark as you can possibly make it. Block all the light sources you can, whether it’s a curtain or just pinning up fabric as needed. Seriously, if you live in a city, you need blackout curtains that don’t allow in all the light pollution. Cover LEDs with black electrical tape.
  2. Start winding down at least two hours before bed. This means less eliminating white lighting at night, as well eliminating, or at least dimming, computer screens and TVs. Smart lighting such as Philips Hue is perfect for this as you can set timers for the lights to change colour to an orange glow. Eliminate as much blue spectrum from your environment as possible once the sun has gone down, because we have blue light sensors in our eyes that promote wakefulness during daylight hours.
  3. Only use your bedroom for sleep and sex. Don’t associate anything else with it (particularly working, social media, emails, TV and other mental stimulators). Your nervous system should associate bedroom with warm and fuzzy stuff.
  4. Caffeine is not a sleep aid – stop drinking it by 2:00 p.m. each day, or at least 8 hours prior to bedtime (earlier if you’re sensitive to it).
  5. Go to bed by 11:00 p.m. when possible because your body creates a cortisol (the wakefulness hormone) surge after 11 p.m. to keep you awake. The later you go to bed, the worse you feel in the morning. Sleep is regulated by a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin production peaks at 2.00 am, & drops by 4.00 am. The later you go to bed, the less melatonin your body gets.
  6. Don’t exercise within 2 hours of bedtime unless it’s restorative yoga, medical QiGong or something similar.
  7. Find an activity that relaxes you and settles your mind before sleep. A bath, reading a good book, doing a jigsaw puzzle, listening to relaxing music, all are effective methods for settling the mind and body.
  8. Sleep cycles run for 90 minutes so work out when you need to wake and count backwards in 90 minute segments. Aim to wake before the alarm goes off.
A 2017 Rand study found that lack of sleep can result in reduced productivity as well as more work absences, industrial and road accidents, health care expenses, and medical errors
A 2017 Rand study found that lack of sleep can result in reduced productivity as well as more work absences, industrial and road accidents, health care expenses, and medical errors (image courtesy of National Geographic – check the Further Reading section for Link)

Further reading

Wiseman, R., Night School. 2015. Pan. Link here.

Powell, A., Researchers discover second light-sensing system in human eye. 2007. The Harvard Gazette. Link here.

Tom Middleton, Sleep Better. 2018. Commercial Marketing. Link here.

RAND Corporation: Why Sleep Matters: Quantifying the Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep. Link here.

Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation. (n.d.). Why do we sleep, anyway? Healthy Sleep. Link here.

American Psychological Association. Stress and Sleep. Link here.

Harvard Medical. The Characteristics of Sleep. Link here.

Leproult, R., Copinschi, G., Buxton, O., Van Cauter, E., Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. 1997. The Journal of Sleep. Link here.

Wang, X., Sparks, J., Bowyer, K., Youngstedt , S., Influence of sleep restriction on weight loss outcomes associated with caloric restriction. 2018. Sleep. Link here.

Werner, G., Ford, B., Mauss, I., Schabus, M., Blecher, J., Wilhelm, F., High cardiac vagal control is related to better subjective and objective sleep quality. 2015. Biological Psychology. Link here.

Wegerif, S., Research Summary: Sleep quality is related to HRV before bed, iThlete. Link here.

National Geographic – Sleep Science. Link here.

Matt

Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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