Are they to blame for your restless nights?
By Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
We spend a third of our lives asleep but, although we are coming to understand just how integral sleep is when it comes to living a healthy life, there are still a lot of myths and misunderstanding surrounding the subject.
I’ve been working with sleep problems for over two decades and have come to realise that unhelpful beliefs can significantly hinder our ability to get good sleep. Rethinking some of these beliefs should instantly change your relationship with sleep for the better.
Myth 1: It’s not normal to wake during the night
Many of my patients and clients feel they shouldn’t be waking up during the night and this belief itself creates anxiety which stops them sleeping. In fact it often leads to at least two sleep-disrupting behaviours: checking the time throughout the night and measuring your sleep. If you are a sensitive sleeper (more on that below) checking the time and measuring your sleep with so-called ‘smart’ devices will actually perpetuate the cycle of insomnia. It is completely normal to wake during the night. In fact, an adult can wake 8-10 times per night (although not always coming into full consciousness). When you wake up, try to stay as relaxed as possible, focus on breathing deeply into the belly and allow yourself to rest.
Myth 2: You can catch up on lost sleep
Too many people take slices off their sleep – going to bed late and waking extra early during the week – in the mistaken belief that they can catch up at the weekend. But over-sleeping at the weekend – lying in late or napping for hours during the day – can actually disrupt your week-time sleep routine. We sleep in 90 minute cycles and each cycle is vital for healing a different aspect of your health and physiology. Missing out on vital sleep phases can, over time, lead to health problems. The 90-minute sleep phase before midnight is especially important for balancing the nervous system, calming the sympathetic nervous system and reducing adrenaline levels. Unfortunately, because of the lure of technology, this is the sleep phase that too many night owls are missing out on.
Myth 3: Napping will ruin night-time sleeping
Do you avoid napping because you worry that it will stop you sleeping at night? This only really happens if you’re napping the wrong way. The best way to nap is to do so at some point between 2 and 4pm for a 10-20 minute power nap. Simply try to relax, close your eyes and get comfortable but not too comfortable (so no lying in bed under a duvet!). Focusing on deep, abdominal breathing will help calm your mind and body. This type of napping isn’t actually sleeping, but a form of deep rest from which you emerge with improved concentration and focus. Napping in this way also de-excites the nervous system, which is why it can actually help you to sleep better at night.
Myth 4: Alcohol helps you sleep
Alcohol affects sleep detrimentally – in excess it stops you getting deep sleep and the vital dreaming process of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is also disrupted. So it’s not sleep, but passing out!
Myth 5: A bad night’s sleep ruins performance
Many people don’t sleep well on Sunday or before a big event like an interview or presentation because they worry not getting sleep might affect their performance. They put so much pressure on getting a good night’s sleep that this in itself stops them sleeping. I see this with athletes who’ve got a big game the next day. But rest assured (no pun intended) one night of poor sleep does not affect your performance, physically or mentally. Sure, you may feel a bit more tired the next day but if you have to actually perform on some level, studies show that one night of poor sleep has very little measurable effect.
Myth 6: You need complete darkness to sleep
Each of us has a unique relationship with sleep and getting good sleep is about working out what’s right for you. Some people, especially if they are very sensitive sleepers, may find that a blackout curtain is very helpful. Others may prefer to have some light in the bedroom or to wake up to some light. The key is to become attuned to what your mind and body need in order to let go, relax and sleep.
Myth 7: Sleep problems are genetic
If you’ve been suffering from sleep problems for a while, you may feel that they will never get better because other family members have insomnia too – it has to be in your genes. In my experience, sleep problems that ‘run in the family’ are more to do with unhelpful learnt behaviours rather than something that is encoded in your DNA.
Myth 8: Caffeine doesn’t affect sleep
I have clients and patients who drink huge amounts of caffeine from tea, coffee and energy drinks but still say they sleep well. And it may be the case that they are dropping off to sleep easily and staying asleep, but when I ask them about their energy levels the story changes. They are often grey and exhausted, can’t wait to get into bed at night and wake up pressing the snooze button and needing more sleep. They are in a fatigue cycle, which means they’re driving their caffeine levels up. I encourage them to take small steps to breaking this cycle – eating a healthy breakfast, being well hydrated, snacking healthily during the day, getting regular exercise, etc. A few weeks of doing this and their energy levels have lifted, caffeine intake has dropped and….they don’t need as much sleep.
Are you a sensitive sleeper?
I describe a sensitive sleeper in my first book Tired but Wired as someone who wakes at the slightest noise, is easily disturbed by the movements of their partner, finds it hard to sleep if they are worried or stressed, needs to sleep on their preferred side of the bed and with their own pillow (always) and can’t sleep in hotels or on planes.
How to manage if you’re a sensitive sleeper
These small changes can make a big difference:
- Withdraw from technology at least an hour before bed
- Go to bed before midnight
- Think consciously about what you do before you go to bed (even down to the type of TV programmes you watch and the book you read) and ensure they’re all helping you sleep, rather than keeping you awake
- Lay off the caffeine after 2pm