Sleep And Performance: Are You Getting Enough?
We all know how it feels to get a good night’s sleep – you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. But did you know that the amount of sleep you get can also affect your memory and performance? Research has shown that apart from causing you to feel refreshed, getting a proper sleep can also have a profound impact on learning and memory. Sleep plays an important role in the processing and consolidation of memory and learning, and also enables us to focus throughout the day and absorb new information. Sleep, therefore is key to our productivity and development. Recent surveys have shown that in the UK, we are under-sleeping by an average of one hour per night, so the question is: are you getting enough?
Sleep and Performance
We all have the occasional night where we stay up too late or wake up during the night, and that’s normal. You will probably feel sluggish to begin with, but it’s nothing a good strong coffee won’t sort out.
However, a continual lack of sleep over a period of time can seriously impact on your performance at work. Lack of sleep can affect your focus and concentration, which makes it more difficult for your brain to store information. Additionally, neurons in our brain are not as effective at retrieving previously learned information, which means we are unable to make sound decisions. Lack of sleep can also affect your immune system, meaning you are less able to fight off common colds and flu.
A recent study has shown that the average person in the UK is missing out on an hour’s sleep every night, and is only getting on average 6.8 hours of sleep each night. Over the course of a week, this amounts to missing out on a whole night’s sleep. People who took part in the survey listed a range of effects the lack of sleep had on them, and the results range from feeling more stressed, to eating more junk food.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
So how much sleep do we actually need? For most adults, 7 to 8 hours is the optimum amount, although additional factors such as age and health may mean you need more than this. Studies show that not getting enough sleep creates a “sleep debt” which eventually you will have to make up. If you regularly get less than 7 or 8 hours sleep then you may actually get used to a sleep-depriving schedule although your judgement and performance will still be impaired. In some work environments it’s almost treated as a badge of honour to work to exhaustion, and so sleep deprivation becomes the norm.
Signs That You Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep
There are a number of signs you can look out for, which may indicate you are sleep deprived:
- feeling drowsy throughout the day
- nodding off at your desk, or while sitting in a chair (microsleeps)
- falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow
- having to take a nap during the day
Sleep Deprivation and Stress
So why are we not getting enough sleep? For many of us, it may simply be a case of “burning the candle at both ends” where we stay up late at night, either working late, partying, gaming, or binging on Netflix (we’ve all been there!) This is easy to fix, and just means a few minor adjustments to your daily schedule.
For others, though, it may be a more deep-seated problem that is preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep. Stress is usually one of the main culprits when it comes to not sleeping, which can turn into a vicious cycle of becoming even more stressed and getting even less sleep.
Many of us go through stressful periods in life – losing a job, moving house, splitting up from a long term relationship, ill health. The good news is that if you address the problem of not sleeping, then it can dramatically reduce your stress levels.
Other than stress, there a number of things that can influence the way we sleep. Certain foods and chemicals can change the balance of neurotransmitter signals within our brain and either cause us to become drowsy or feel more awake:
“Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and drugs such as diet pills and decongestants stimulate some parts of the brain and can cause insomnia,or an inability to sleep. Many antidepressants suppress REM sleep. Heavy smokers often sleep very lightly and have reduced amounts of REM sleep. They also tend to wake up after 3 or 4 hours of sleep due to nicotine withdrawal. Many people who suffer from insomnia try to solve the problem with alcohol – the so-called nightcap. While alcohol does help people fall into light sleep, it also robs them of REM and the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep. Instead, it keeps them in the lighter stages of sleep, from which they can be awakened easily.”
What Actually Happens When We Sleep?
There are various stages of sleep, which each have a different function within our brain. Every night we go through a number of “sleep cycles” meaning we move through all of the different sleep stages.
During this stage, we don’t experience many of the restorative functions of sleep, and can be easily awakened by outside stimuli – noise, light, warmth etc.
Deep Sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep)
This is when memories are stored and the brain recovers from the activity of the day. Deep sleep, therefore, is essential for memory and learning. Deep sleep is also restorative for the body as well as the mind and helps the body grow, develop and recover. This is the sleep stage where people with sleep disorders may experience sleepwalking, bedwetting or night terrors.
REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement)
This is the sleep stage where we are more likely to dream, and the brain activity reaches levels similar to when we’re awake. Our eyes move rapidly from side to side, and our muscles become temporarily paralysed. The brain works hard to process all the new information it has learned each day, making the REM stage just as important as deep sleep when it comes to learning and development. Babies and toddlers spend most of their sleep in the REM stage, with the percentage reducing to around 25% of the total sleep time for adults. Throughout a typical night’s sleep, the length of time in light or deep sleep will reduce as morning approaches, and most of the sleep just before waking will be REM sleep. It has been suggested that those who regularly don’t get enough REM sleep may develop depression, aggression, or other psychological issues.
My Own Sleep Analysis
I thought it would be interesting to measure my own sleep patterns, to see whether I was getting enough and if there was anything I could do to improve.
There are a number of gadgets and apps which claim to be able to accurately analyse your sleep patterns. I tried out the S+ by ResMed, which is the only non-contact tracker able to capture data on all the different stages of sleep. I liked the fact that this unit is non-invasive, which means you don’t have to attach any sensors or wires to yourself!
The unit simply sits on your bedside table, and you connect via Bluetooth to an app on your phone. You fill in a few personal details such as your age, weight, and height, then every night before bed you record your stress levels, alcohol intake, and caffeine consumption. All of the data from your sleep is then recorded, analysed, and ready for you when you wake.
Each night you get a sleep score out of 100, along with a chart showing how long you spent in each sleep stage. You also get daily hints and tips, personalised to your sleep issues, helping you to improve the quality of your sleep.
Other Functions Available
With the S+ by ResMed, you can plot graphs showing your sleep vs. alcohol, caffeine or stress levels. This allows you to get an in-depth analysis to find out where your sleep problems lie. You can also plot pie charts showing how much of each stage of sleep you get each night or look at your sleep history throughout the month/week.
If you have trouble falling asleep in the first place, the app contains a variety of soothing sounds, which sync with your breathing and help you to relax; while the alarm function wakes you up gently in the morning.
The ResMed website itself is packed full of resources and information regarding all aspects of sleep, so if there is a particular area that you’re struggling with, you’ll find everything you need there.
At the end of the week’s trial, I was able to generate a full report into my sleep patterns for the week.
Here’s what I learned:
- My bedtime varies by 00:47 hours
- My average sleep time is 06:22 hours
- My average sleep efficiency is 87.22%
- My sleep is disrupted an average of 5.9 times per night
- It takes me 00:12 hours to fall asleep on average
Getting a Better Night’s Sleep
From my own sleep analysis, there are key areas I need to work on – having a regular bedtime, and perhaps going to bed earlier so I get more than 6 hours sleep are the main things I have to concentrate on. But there are a number of measures we can all take to improve the quality of our sleep:
- Set a schedule – go to bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time in the morning. Even on weekends.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine – especially in the hours before bedtime
- Exercise more – If you exercise during the day you’re more likely to get a good night’s sleep. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime.
- Wind down and relax before bed – stop checking emails, or Facebook. Phone and laptop screens should be avoided for at least half an hour before you go to sleep. Read a book or have a warm bath instead, or try meditating or doing some light yoga stretches.
- Forget your to-do list – If you have a lot on your mind, try writing it down so you don’t have to lie awake worrying about all the things you have to do tomorrow
- Don’t lie in bed awake – If you still aren’t asleep after about 20 minutes, go back downstairs and watch TV or read until you feel tired.
- Focus on the positives – give thanks for all the positive things that have happened during the day. Concentrate on these instead of the negatives to help reduce levels of stress.
- Maintain a comfortable temperature – Being too hot or too cold can disrupt your sleep, or stop you from getting to sleep in the first place.
- Sync with sunlight – Sunlight helps the body’s internal clock reset each day, so waking up with the sunrise is recommended. If this isn’t possible, try using bright lights, or you can even get special lamps which mimic the effect of natural light.
Making small changes to your sleeping habits can drastically improve your performance at work, or in any sort of mental capacity where brain power is required. Not only that but it can help reduce stress levels, depression, and just generally make you feel good.
Prior to starting this trial I had no idea that I wasn’t sleeping enough, or that I had any sleep issues, so this has really been an eye-opener for me, and I’d definitely recommend that people learn more about their own sleep patterns.
Regarding sleep research in general, this is a key area which is attracting more scientific research. Innovative techniques are being developed to help doctors and scientists understand how sleep impacts on our health. In the future, we may find new sleep therapies to help us deal with a range of illnesses and problems from mental health issues to overcoming jet lag and coping with shift work.
“There is a great opportunity to put contemporary sleep research findings to work for the public good, and I’m sure many would agree on the importance of adding sleep to the nation’s health agenda.”
– Shirley Cramer, Royal Society For Public Health
The S+ by ResMed is the world’s first non-contact, fully-comprehensive sleep tracking system. The product has recently been launched in the UK and is the first non-contact tracker that can capture data on all stages of sleep.
ResMed have been researching sleep and sleep issues for over twenty-five years, so all of their knowledge and expertise has gone into creating this solution. Results from the US show that after using the S+, poor sleepers were able to get, on average, an extra 45 minutes sleep each night, after only one week of using the S+.
Unlike other smartphone apps and other sleep trackers on the market, the S+ accurately tracks every stage of the sleep process. It provides an accurate breakdown of how the night unfolds, pinpointing sleep onset, and tracking cycles of light, deep and REM sleep to help build up a picture of the quality of sleep achieved as well as the quantity.
“We know that people who want to measure their sleep really need to be able to rely on the results they are given in order to be able to make meaningful changes,” said Hanna Salminen, Head of Consumer Strategy. “The SleepSensor technology behind the S+ by ResMed means they can have total confidence, and they have the added benefit of not having to wear or sleep on top of a device. Our commitment to advancing sleep science has helped many people with sleep disorders, and now with the S+ our aim is to help everybody improve their sleep in order to live life to the full.”
The S+ by ResMed retails at £129.95 from mySleep.resmed.com, ResMed clinics, Amazon and John Lewis.
Please visit www.splus.resmed.com and follow @FixMySleep on Twitter.
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