From diet and exercise to smoking and drinking, sleep has an important part to play in strengthening our resolve to be healthier, as Dr Jonathan Bloomfield, human performance expert and Mammoth sleep ambassador, explains.
In an age of self-care and self-improvement, many of us are making the effort to be healthier. Whether it’s improving your diet, boosting your productivity or taking up a regular fitness regime, health and wellbeing have never been further to the forefront of society.
The downside to this is that self-improvement can often feel like an impossible task. Daily obligations and general tiredness can all too easily get in the way, wavering your once-firm resolve to put your healthy habits into practice.
But there is one thing you can do to strengthen your resolve and increase your chances of being heathier in the long run: to consistently get a good night’s sleep.
Many people don’t realise just how integral sleep is to willpower. The two are intrinsically connected, and understanding how to improve your sleep quality is a key step in reinforcing your willpower.
The science of sleep and willpower
In recent years, research has looked more closely at the relationship between sleep deprivation and our ability to exert self-control. One review published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience explored the interaction between these two factors over a range of studies. Their findings revealed that sleep deprived individuals are far more likely to give in to impulses. They also concluded that a lack of sleep leads to less focus and a greater risk of making risky or questionable decisions.
Sleep deprivation impacts self-control in two main ways. Not only can it reduce your capacity to exercise willpower, but it can also lower the energy needed for said willpower, too.
Numerous brain imaging studies reflect this. Attempting to control behaviours increases brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. Studies into sleep deprivation have found a decrease in activity in the same area as a result of poor sleep. This suggests that our ability to control our impulses could be neurologically impaired when we’re sleep deprived.
Sleep and our decisions
Our attention, judgement and decisions can all become compromised when we don’t get enough sleep. Without sleep, our ability to engage our prefrontal cortex is diminished, meaning the reward centre of our brain holds more sway. This is particularly evident when it comes to food.
One 2013 study published in Nature Communications found that our brain activity spikes at the thought of food when we are sleep deprived. This is an important aspect in how sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain over time. Other studies have found that sleep loss increases junk food cravings, increases food purchases and encourages poor dietary choices in teenagers. Indeed, it seems that our natural instinct when our body senses the danger of a lack of energy is to crave sugars and fats.
And it isn’t just our food choices that are impacted by sleep deprivation. Poor sleep quality can make us avoid cognitively demanding tasks, diminish our moral judgement and make us take part in risky behaviour. One 2017 study published online in the Annals of Neurology found that seven consecutive nights of sleep deprivation led to a sharp increase in financial risk taking.
As well as our decision making, sleep deprivation can also have an effect on our ability to keep our emotions in check. Research shows that poor quality sleep can cause you to react more emotionally to stressful situations.
Matthew T. Feldner, one of the authors of 2015’s research findings Sleep and Affect, explains that: “Some of the neurological structures that we think are involved in regulating emotional or affective experiences don’t seem to function the same after we lose sleep as they do when we are fully rested.”
One pilot study published in Personality and Individual Experiences found that naps can play a part in strengthening willpower. Participants who were told to nap reported feeling less impulsive and frustrated than their counterparts, spending longer on tasks and completing them with greater care.
Are you getting enough sleep?
We all have our own relationship with sleep. Some of us can function on surprisingly little sleep, while others can’t cope if they don’t get their eight hours. Genetics, age and other factors can all play a part in determining how much sleep you need. However, the National Sleep Foundation recommends aiming for seven to nine hours sleep per night.
But it seems that, in the UK, most of us don’t meet these guidelines. The average Brit gets just six hours and 19 minutes of sleep per night. Busy lives, hectic work schedules and stress are some of the main reasons behind our poor sleep quality.
And it isn’t just the UK. An international poll by the National Sleep Foundation surveyed five countries and found that the amount of people getting less than seven hours sleep ranged from 29 to 66 per cent.
How to improve your sleep quantity and quality
Improving your sleep can help you regain control over your willpower and impulses. The first step to enjoying better sleep is to set yourself a clear routine. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps your body recognise that it is time for sleep and begin winding down.
You should also avoid caffeine and alcohol, especially close to bedtime. Try to keep off your phone and other devices for at least an hour before bed, as the blue light exposure can disrupt your body’s melatonin release – our natural sleep hormone. Instead, spend some time reading or meditating before.
By making simple changes to your routine, you can enjoy better sleep quantity and quality.