We spend around a third of our lives asleep and it plays a critical role in our physical and mental health, yet it is very often the most neglected part of our well-being.
Professor Jason Ellis, leading sleep expert at Northumbria University’s Centre for Sleep Research and Director of Sleep Science at Mammoth Technologies, answers our questions and explains the surprising and often overlooked impact of sleep and how to tackle sleep problems.
Professor Ellis, how important is sleep to our health?
Our understanding of sleep and its role in human health is still in its infancy but it is developing at a rapid pace. Serious research into sleep started around 70 years ago, which is actually more recent than research into computing but we have gained considerable insight into how sleep effects mental health, such as depression and physical illnesses including diabetes, cancer and coronary diseases.
We are still exploring how sleep, or the lack of it, produces these results but the evidence of an association between poor sleep and several illnesses is very strong. We do know with certainty that insomnia causes depression.
With such major health implications, how many of us suffer from sleep problems?
The number of people suffering from sleep problems is significant, an estimate is 50% of the UK population have some problem sleeping. This includes insomnia, sleep apnoea, snoring, restless leg syndrome or other related medical problems.
Poor sleep is the most common problem described to GPs by patients but is often seen as a symptom by GPs rather than the cause of ill health.
Is there anything we can do ourselves to improve our sleep?
Yes, although in some cases you will need to get expert help to make real progress. In order to improve your sleep you need to consider: the sleep environment, your own behaviour or routines and your thinking processes.
Much of my work with patients is around reviewing and adjusting these three areas.
How do I improve my sleep environment?
The optimum environment for good quality sleep is a one that is cool, dark, quiet and comfortable.
If you are too warm then your body clock will be tricked into thinking its daylight. Remember that it’s not only room temperature that can influence how hot you get but also your bedding and mattress. Look for mattresses, pillows and duvets that control temperature and help dissipate body heat by using appropriate materials or design.
Make sure you minimise light in your bedroom, which can also make your body react as if it was day time by waking up.
Intermittent noise is more significant than the level of noise. It can disturb sleep which reduces the quality of your sleep and the ability for it to restore physical and mental balance.
Comfort is about having the right mattress, pillow and duvet. Make sure your mattress and pillow supports your whole body and keeps you comfortably cool. Duvets should also be designed to help maintain a regular comfortable temperature.
So what would the perfect bedroom for sleep look like?
Firstly it would be a place that would be specifically for sleep. Don’t clutter the room with TVs or books or other distractions and make its primary purpose to support sleep.
Your mattress and duvet should keep your body cool and not cause overheating. The mattress will be supportive to your body and use materials that don’t retain heat that can create temperatures that will start your waking process.
Make sure your pillow is supportive. If it folds in two when held vertically then it’s time to replace it. Again, you should avoid pillows that cause overheating by using heat control technologies and, materials.
I’d also have black-out curtains to eliminate any external light and remove all electrical devices. If you have to have a clock in the room turn it away from you.
What should I do if I have problems with my sleep?
If you can, consult a sleep expert but there is a real scarcity of medical professionals who understand and can treat sleep problems effectively. There are three key tasks you can do to help. They are the three ‘D’s – Detect, Distract and Detach.
Firstly try and detect any problems with your sleep. Keep a diary noting when you go to bed, when you wake during the night, and how long you sleep for. If you wake up at the same time during the night the likelihood this is an environmental factor – a noise or the central heating coming on. – which you can do something about.
Distracting is about making sure you start winding down and are prepared for sleep 2 hours before you go to bed. Have a routine or schedule such as a bath or writing in a diary. Avoid dwelling on problems that arose during the day and focus on your routine and getting in a frame of mind for sleep.
Finally detach, make sure your bedroom is about sleep. If you can’t sleep get out of bed and go in another room but not to sleep. Make sure your bedroom is the room you associate with sleep.
Is it that simple?
Unfortunately not, sleep is a complex process and we are still developing our understanding. There are other factors such as the type of food you eat before bed, timing of eating, and alcohol intake that can impact on the length and quality of sleep.
But there is also so much more to discover about sleep and our bodies reaction to it. There are a series of hormones released and cognitive processes that we are just beginning to understand. This is the focus of my ongoing work at the Centre for Sleep Research and Mammoth Technologies.
Thank you Professor Ellis