The 3 processes of sleep:
Our sleep is controlled by 3 processes. Understanding these processes can help us to understand where our sleep can go wrong and relate to the sleep tips provided below.
1. Sleep Homeostasis
In very simple terms, the longer we have been awake the higher the pressure for sleep is and the sleepier we feel. When we go to bed in the evening, we need our sleep pressure to be high to be able to fall asleep.
It’s like a rubber band, you need stretch in the band (sleep pressure) for it to be able to snap back into place quickly (fall asleep within 30 min).
Things that can negatively impact our sleep pressure are napping and caffeine. That is why it is recommended that we don’t nap for too long during the day (less than 30 min) and avoid napping and caffeine intake within 6 h of our normal bedtime.
2. Circadian Rhythms
The two main circadian rhythms that influence your sleep are those in body temperature and melatonin.
In the evening your body temperature decreases whilst melatonin secretion increases. This helps you to fall asleep and stay asleep. The opposite happens in the morning to help you wake up.
However, the timing of these changes will depend on whether you are an “early bird”, “night owl” or somewhere in between.
“Night owls” are driven to stay up and sleep in later, whereas “early birds” are driven to go to bed and wake up earlier.
If you are a “night owl” or “early bird”, you need to make sure your bed and wake times align with these drives.
3. Sleep Automaticity
Sleep is an automatic process. Unfortunately, you can’t tell yourself to sleep and then fall asleep instantly. In fact, sleep works the opposite way, the more you think about it, the worse it can get. If you ask a good sleeper what they do to sleep well, it is likely that they will say “nothing”!
In that way, sleep is its own separate entity. You can’t be as prescriptive with sleep as you can be with your training (e.g. do 3 sets of 10). For example, if you set yourself the target of getting 10 h of sleep, striving to achieve that will result in you sleeping worse.
Top 3 sleep tips:
1. Consistent Wake Time
You’re likely to start feeling sleepy (with no nap) 16 hours after you have woken up. If your wake time is consistent, then your bedtime will also become consistent.
2. Stop trying to ‘produce’ sleep
Sleep is a PASSIVE thing. Shift your attention to things you enjoy (e.g. reading, watching your favourite Netflix show, listening to music etc.); this will take your mind off sleep and will help you fall asleep faster.
A word of warning on sleep hygiene. Don’t treat this like a ‘To Do’ list as its not helpful to have to perform certain behaviours to be able to fall asleep. Instead treat it like a ‘To Don’t’ list. Check that you’re not doing anything that’s going to potentially sabotage your sleep. If you are, aim to change that behaviour. If you’re not, then move on and don’t worry about it.
3. Resist the temptation to ‘catch up’ on sleep by taking a long nap
Your brain is clever, if you have a bad night’s sleep, then it will automatically adjust the amount of time you spend in different sleep stages the following night to compensate.
If you have trouble sleeping at night, fight the urge to take a long (more than 30 min) daytime nap. This will reduce your sleep drive, which is the only thing that can ‘produce’ sleep.