Let There Be Light
Original article from LMA's The Manager magazine.
According to sport sleep coach Nick Littlehales, daylight is crucial to a good night's sleep.
Whether you sleep poorly or just too little, life doesn't make allowances. When the alarm goes off, you have to get on with your day, but in your sleep-deprived state you're a shadow of your usual self.
Most of us recognise the effects of too little sleep on mental performance, the wandering, unfocused mind, the dithering over what to wear or which sandwich to buy, but sleep deprivation also affects physical wellbeing.
Over the course of the day, you might feel drowsy, suffer mood swings and lack stamina, energy and drive. Craving sweet or fatty foods is also common; studies have found that sleep-deprived people have lower levels of leptin, the chemical that makes you feel full, and higher levels of ghrelin, which stimulates hunger.
Little wonder, perhaps, that persistent sleeplessness has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as social isolation and addictive behaviours. While sleep studies are still in their infancy when compared with other areas of science and medicine, it's becoming increasingly clear that sleep plays a much bigger part in our overall physical health and performance than once thought.
Sleep deprivation is a term used to describe the state of not getting sufficient sleep in a night, and while adults are advised to aim for seven to nine hours, people vary in what they feel is enough. Margaret Thatcher famously said she only needed four hours' sleep a night while Sir Winston Churchill reportedly took a two-hour nap each day at 5pm, but often worked through the night.
Nick Littlehales, a sleep expert with more than 20 years' experience working within recovery and elite sport, says that while you do come across people at the extremes of the scale they're unusual and, often, it's more to do with their behaviour than what their bodies actually need. “Sometimes, when someone is burning the candle at both ends it's because of what that person is trying to achieve in a particular period of their life. I've been there myself – when I became a father, and when I took jobs where I felt under pressure to get in earlier and leave later than everyone else. You tell yourself you can manage, but it's working against what the body wants and needs.”
Of course, focusing too much on the potential health impact of too little sleep may be counter-productive; it's hardly likely to help you nod off. What's important is to understand the value of sleep on performance and wellbeing and take steps to improve the likelihood you'll sleep well.
That, says Littlehales, is less about what happens at bedtime and more about how you manage your waking hours. “The brain goes through cycles of light sleep and deep sleep, (REM and non-REM), which is when physical and mental recovery takes place,” he says. “When your head hits the pillow. your brain takes over and it will give you whatever sleep it can. The problem is, over the course of the day there are so many variables that affect your sleep both positively and negatively, from what you've eaten and drunk to exercise to mental challenges. If, for example, your diet was more rich in proteins than carbohydrates, if you didn't stay hydrated enough, or the activities of the day were stressful or caused anxiety, your brain won't let you go down into that deeper sleep, because there's too much other stuff going on.”
Unfortunately, sleep is not something you can catch up on; once it's lost in any 24-hour period it's gone and the effects will be felt over the short and long term. “When you wake up you need to just say, it's done and there's no changing it,” advises Littlehales. “Ask what you can do in that first period of your day to help ensure you're fully awake. You need to empty your bowels and bladder, get your appetite going and set yourself some little mental challenges. But the biggest thing you can do by far is to exposure yourself to daylight.”
Light and day
He explains that the one constant throughout humans' evolution has been the movement of the Earth around the Sun and, as a result, our brains and bodily functions are totally aligned to the daily cycle of light and temperature.
“When daylight enters your eyelids first thing in the morning and hits your light receptors, a message is sent to the pineal gland in the brain, which starts to produce the hormone serotonin. This instructs the brain to start activating all the things that were curbed for sleep – mood, motivation, appetite, etc,” he says. “Then, as afternoon draws on and light levels diminish, the brain produces melatonin, which begins to suppress these things, slowly shutting us down in preparation for sleep.”
Melatonin will also start to be produced if not enough natural light enters the eye for several hours, inducing feelings of drowsiness and lack of energy and motivation. The problem is, whereas light levels outside might be 60,000-70,000 lux, they may be as low as 200-300 lux inside your office, train or gym.
Finding opportunities to get outside first thing in the morning and at intervals throughout the day, or to use a daylight lamp, is important in countering these effects,” says Littlehales. “Some forward-thinking organisations are already taking note of this, installing circadian rhythm lighting systems or daylight lamps in their offices and training centres to keep their people alert and energised.”
Lark or Owl?
Its advice that's likely to be even more important for the 60-70 per cent of the population who are night owls. “We are all one of two chronotypes, owls (night people) and larks (morning people),” says Littlehales. “While most of us are owls, we live in a lark's world, because in most cases work and school dictate that we have to wake up early. If the lark and the owl are up at the same time, the lark will start producing lots of serotonin as soon as the sun hits the horizon and will be up and active, hungry and ready to go. The owl, meanwhile, will be several hours behind in production of serotonin, so they'll still running on melatonin and will be be far less alert.”
Littlehales has spoken to people in schools, businesses and elite sports organisations, aiming to raise awareness both of chronotypes and of the importance of light exposure on sleep and overall wellbeing.
“Imagine, for example, that as a leader you realise that you're a lark and all the activities of the day are designed around when you're at your best,” he says. “You might discover that the people around you are, in fact, owls, but that with some subtle changes to the daily routine and some advice you can help them perform and feel better.”
Take a break
Littlehales advocates either getting outside or exposing yourself to strong daylight lamps at 90min intervals throughout the day to top up serotonin levels and keep lethargy at bay. He also advises building regular recovery breaks into the day, whether that's mindfulness, meditation, breaks away from work or short naps.
“These days, we seem to fill every available opportunity for rest and recovery with work, social media, online shopping, commuting and so on, and we spend far more time indoors than we used to,” says Littlehales. “Everything about our lives and work makes it more difficult for the brain to do what it really wants to do, come bedtime, and take us down into that valuable deep sleep. The result is we drift in light sleep, so may feel tired even when we've had eight hours.”
This lack of adequate recovery, over the whole 24-hour period, may be one reason that sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's, Parkinsons and dementia. While there's still a lot we have yet to understand, in the constant drive for better performance and healthier bodies and minds, sleep appears to be something of a new frontier.
“For many years, we've been told what to eat, how to exercise and to avoid this and that, but these messages haven't had the impact that they perhaps should,” says Littlehales. “I believe that the key lies not in these little nuggets of advice, but in educating people about the processes relating to sleep and addressing how we balance our days in terms of light and recovery. We might find, then, that all the other things fall into place.”