Sleep by Nick Littlehales: Chapter 1. The Clock is Ticking

Circadian Rhythms

You wake up to your alarm, on your phone, and reach over to turn it off. While you’re there, you check the notifications beamed in overnight from your news, sport and entertainment feeds, your social-media providers, emails and texts from work and friends. Your mouth is dry, your head already awhirl with what’s to come this morning, the curtains leaking light and the TV standby light at the foot of the bed staring unblinking at you, reminding you how you finished the night before. Welcome to your day. Did you sleep well? Do you know how to sleep well?

The average person in Britain gets a little over six-and-a-half hours sleep a night. Furthermore, over a third of the population get by on just five to six hours a night, 7 per cent more of us than just three years before.[1] It’s a similar story around the world, with over 20 per cent of the population in the USA reporting less than six hours sleep on workdays, with Japan not far behind. The statistics show that in these countries, as well as the likes of Canada and Germany,[2] most people ‘catch up’ on their sleep at the weekend. Their work lives are limiting their sleep. Almost half of the UK population report being kept awake by stress or worry, and when you take a look at the schedules of many people, it’s not difficult to see why.

A top cricketer might play an international final in India one day and then be back at his county the next day to hear me talk to the squad about sleep. He’s probably wondering when he’s next likely to get some, as he’s about to spend the next few months on the road, playing cricket in all its forms – Test match, one-day, Twenty20 – all over the world. You can do it for a while, of course, with the right approach. Round-the-world sailors can get by sleeping for twenty-six minutes every twenty-four hours while they’re at sea for three months; we’re remarkably adaptable creatures with incredible reserves of stamina. But do it for too long, and sooner or later something has to give. The player associations in sports like cricket and rugby league are starting to get me in to educate the players and help them manage their schedules, because they’re seeing a rise in players coming to them with depression, relationship problems and burnout.

It’s not just in sport, of course. These patterns are replicated all over society. All of us face difficulties fitting in the demands of our work and personal lives. Knowing what I know now, I can say that I stayed in a job for five years too long. I was working long hours, with an abundance of day-to-day stress and plenty of travel, which meant a lot of time away from home. But they were business-class journeys along with plenty of fine dining, gin and tonics and coffee to keep me going, so at the time you think you can handle it, you can compensate for it through various measures. The truth is that it took a very heavy toll on my family life.

How much was I sleeping then? How much is the England cricket team getting? What about that teenager sitting up playing computer games deep into the night? How much are you sleeping? Does it actually matter?

The number isn’t the important thing at this stage. What is important is a natural process that has been with us since mankind began, a process that many of the aspects of modern life are taking us away from. Artificial light, technology, shift work, sleeping tablets, travel, checking our phones when we wake, working late – even running out the house and skipping breakfast to race to our jobs on time. They’re all taking us away from this natural process, and this is where our problems with rest and recovery begin.

Off the Grid

Let’s start by getting off the grid for a while. Let’s get back to nature for real. You and I will leave all our possessions behind – our watches, computers, phones – and head out to an uninhabited island, where we’ll live off the land, just as our ancestors once did. We’ll hunt and fish and sleep under the stars. Eat your heart out, Bear Grylls.

So out there on this island we make camp in a great rolling field. When the sun eventually goes down, and the temperature drops with it, we build a fire. We’re going to spend quite a lot of time now without daylight, so we want to eat. We cook and devour our spoils for the day, and then sit back sated, chatting softly, absorbing the amber light of the fire as we look into it. Eventually the talk subsides, we gaze up at the stars for a while before, one by one, we turn over, curl up under our blankets and drift off into sleep.

At some point in the morning, the sun is going to start approaching the horizon. The birds will start singing even before it gets there, and when it does, the temperature will start to rise. Even if it’s really cold, it will still rise by a degree or two, and everything will get lighter. Whether or not we’ve got our head under a blanket, the light gets in and we wake up. The first thing we’re likely to want to do is empty our bladders, and then we’ll start thinking about drinking some water and eating breakfast. Then it’ll be time for a bowel movement, before we go fishing and hunting for the day. Nothing hurried, all in its natural time.

Later in the day, when the sun starts going down again, we’ll sit back down in the field. The temperature will drop and it will get dark again, so we’ll have to light the fire – we’ll do it all again. This is really getting back to what we do naturally, working in harmony with our circadian rhythms.

Got Rhythm?

One of the first things I ask anyone I work with, whether it’s a top footballer or a City broker struggling to sleep, is, ‘Are you aware of circadian rhythms?’

A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal cycle managed by our body clock. This clock of ours, deep within the brain, regulates our internal systems such as sleeping and eating patterns, hormone production, temperature, alertness, mood and digestion, in a 24-hour process evolved to work in harmony with the earth’s rotation. Our body clocks are set by external cues, chief among them being daylight, as well as things like temperature and eating times.

It is vital to understand that these rhythms are ingrained within us; they are part of the fabric of each and every one of us. They are the product of millions of years of evolution. We could no more unlearn these rhythms than we could teach dogs to stop barking or ask a lion if it wouldn’t mind giving vegetarianism a go. Each of these animals, of course, has its own body clock and its own circadian rhythms, just as every other animal and plant does. These rhythms function even without external stimuli, such as in Eskimos living with next to no daylight for months on end. If international events conspired to rain a nuclear apocalypse down on us all and we had to move underground and live in caves without daylight, they would persist within us.

A typical circadian rhythm, which describes what our body wants to do naturally at various points throughout the day, looks like this:

 

 

So, on our island, once the sun’s gone down and we’re sitting round the fire, we can see that our body suppresses our bowels – we don’t want to be woken by that urge during the night – and melatonin secretion starts. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our sleep, produced in the pineal gland, which responds to light. Once it’s been dark for long enough, we produce the melatonin to ready us for sleep.

Our body clock isn’t the only regulator of our sleep. If we think of circadian rhythms as being our urge to sleep, then our homeostatic sleep pressure is our need to sleep. This intuitive need builds from the moment we wake up, and the longer we are awake, the greater it becomes. However, our circadian rhythms are able to override this at times, which is why we can experience a ‘second wind’ when we’re slumping and why, as many night-shift workers and night-life lovers will be able to testify to, we can have trouble getting to sleep at certain points of the day even if we’ve been up all night. We’re fighting against our body’s circadian urge to be up with the sun.

If we keep ‘regular’ hours and get up in the morning, our need to sleep peaks at night, which coincides with our circadian urge, producing the ideal sleep window. During the night we tend to reach our most-effective sleeping period around 2–3 a.m. (which is mirrored with another period of sleepiness twelve hours later in the form of the mid-afternoon slump), and our body temperature dips at its lowest point not long after, before the sun comes up and everything gets started again for us again. Melatonin secretion stops, just like a switch being flicked, because we’re moving from dark to light. Daylight gets our bodies started on producing serotonin, the mood-boosting neurotransmitter from which melatonin is derived.

Light the Way

Light is the most important time setter for our body clocks, and there’s nothing better than daylight on a morning for it. Out on the island, sleeping under the sky, we’d get our fix as soon as we woke. But too many of us in the real world spend our time indoors – at home, on the train and in our places of work – and even an overcast day dwarfs any artificial light in terms of brightness. Get the curtains open when you wake, eat breakfast and get ready in daylight, and then go outside.

We are particularly sensitive to a wavelength known as blue light. Because of its prevalence in the light given off by electronic devices such as computers and smartphones, blue light gets a bad press. But in this case there’s no such thing as bad light – only badly timed light. Daylight is full of blue light, and during the day blue light is good. It sets the body clock, suppresses melatonin production and improves alertness and performance.[1]

Once it’s dark, however, these are all undesirable qualities. If you’re using devices or have the lights blazing late into the night, then it’s going to cause problems. It’s going to lead to what Professor Chris Idzikowski calls ‘junk sleep’ – disrupted and diminished sleep as our lifestyles and gadgets inhibit the production of melatonin and push our body clocks later. 

On the island it was all daylight and darkness. The light from our fire was the only man-made illumination, and the yellows and ambers and reds that fire gives off don’t affect melatonin production.

Sitting by the Fire

No matter what we do in our lives, the sun will go down and it will come up again. When we’re in harmony with this process, our brain triggers the functions within us to make the events described on our circadian rhythms chart happen. They might not occur at exactly the times on the chart, but your brain and body will want to do them at some time around then.

Many of us only really become conscious of our circadian rhythms if we fly long haul and experience jet lag, which is when our rhythms are out of sync with the local light-dark cycle because we’ve travelled so fast across time zones, or when we work a night shift and our hours are at odds with the light-dark cycle. But being aware of your body clock in your day-to-day life will allow you to begin to understand why you might be feeling lethargic at certain times of the day, and why you might be struggling to get off to sleep. And it’s not just your sleep that benefits from this knowledge: it’s the whole of your waking day.

If you get up and out as quickly as possible in the morning, grabbing snacks and coffee as you jump on the train to work, you’re out of step with your rhythms. Back on our island, we weren’t in a rush. We’d have breakfast, have a bowel movement – because once we go hunting for the day, we don’t want to have to go to the toilet.

It’s the same on the train – is it in your interests to need the toilet on a packed commuter train? It’s no coincidence that you will see adverts for all sorts of digestion products – from yoghurt drinks to anti-diarrhoea tablets – at train station platforms. One of the leading brand’s tag lines is ‘Restore your body’s natural rhythm’. Right message, wrong answer.

If your exercise regime involves hitting the gym hard in the early evening, be aware of what that means. Your blood pressure is highest at this time, and the kind of sharp increase in blood pressure that intense exercise causes is something you need to know about, especially if you’re a bit older. Just ask the BBC’s Andrew Marr about that. Get a Fitbit on, have a look, maybe think if there’s a better time to be doing this.

Think about your rhythms when you’re using technology. I don’t shy away from it (I don’t actually live on an island). I use social media as an important part of my business, I have a smartphone and am just as able to be reached anywhere on the phone or email as the next person. But I do know that, if I’ve been working on my laptop late at night or video-calling a client in a different time zone when it’s convenient for them, the artificial light from my computer is going to suppress the natural sleep process. So I won’t go to bed straightaway; I’ll put the laptop to one side and stay up for a bit, so that my pineal gland can function efficiently and get on with producing melatonin now that it’s dark, just as it wants to.

So much of what we do in our lives today interferes with our circadian rhythms, and there’s little to be done about a lot of it. If we have to work shifts or late into the night, then it’s often a case of tough luck for us, we need to get on with it. But if we’re aware of our rhythms, we can make sure we’re not doing too many things to add to the problem. We don’t want to be at war with our own bodies.

As Professor Russell Foster, Director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, told the BBC’s Day of the Body Clock:

We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems.

We’ve only had artificial light since the nineteenth century. Computers and televisions, let alone smartphones and tablets, are mere babies when put against the length of our evolutionary process. We haven’t evolved to cope with these things in the way many of us are using them now.

Whatever it is you’re doing, I want you to think about the two of us out on our island, in harmony with a biological process as old as mankind. That is our ideal. Every step we make to improve our sleep, no matter how small, needs to be a step towards us sitting by the fire.

Circadian Rhythms: Seven Steps to Sleep Smarter

  1. Get outside! Set your body clock with daylight, not artificial light.
  1. Take the time to learn about your rhythms and how they affect you – engage family and friends too.
  1. Know your peaks and troughs: monitor yourself against what should be happening naturally – use a wearable fitness tracker to measure.
  1. Peak sleeping time is around 2–3 a.m. If you go to bed as the sun comes up, you are fighting against your body clock.
  1. Slowdown in your mornings: rushing off from the word go can disrupt your body. 
  1. Blue light is badly timed light in the evening – dim it down when you can.
  1. Picture yourself by the fire on our island: What are you doing right now that is in conflict with this? What are you going to do about it? Plan simple changes to current routines to align yourself better with the circadian rhythms chart.

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