Getting a good night’s sleep | Education Support

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Insomnia and sleeplessness - teachers and education staff

Getting a good night’s sleep

Sleep - how welcome that is in these times of turbulence and challenge. Good quality sleep to counteract the instability, uncertainty and levels of anxiety that seem to permeate our everyday lives just now. Yet it is this very anxiety and uncertainty that could be getting in the way of much needed sleep.  

So what can you do? How can you chase away those intrusive thoughts and fears to gain a restful night’s sleep and be ready for the next day, feeling good in yourself and able to support others? Thankfully, quite a lot.

Sleep and why we need it

Scientists grew to understand in depth what happens during the sleep cycle when one key instrument was invented – the MRI scanner.  For the first time this allowed researchers to see exactly what happens in the brain at different parts of the cycle and to draw parallels with how this impacts on our health and wellbeing.

During sleep complex electrical activity occurs, supporting diverse functions including learning, ability to memorise, make logical decisions and choices. We need sleep to process thoughts and memories, support healthy brain tissue, keep our vital organs healthy and replenish our energies.

Sleep science and what we now know

Many people claim they only need 5-6 hours of sleep each night to be productive. But science proves that is a myth.  98-99% of people do physically require the seven to nine hours of sleep that doctors recommend. We are the only member of the animal kingdom that deliberately deprive ourselves of sleep without legitimate gain! 

How many times during the course of a day do you re-read the same sentence numerous times without absorbing its meaning, walk or ride to a destination yet cannot remember the journey, or need caffeinated energy to be able to focus or fulfil your tasks?

Routinely sleeping less than 6-7 hours demolishes your immune system. Sleep deficiency directly impacts the hormones that regulate our bodies, slowing everything down, making us less effective. It disrupts blood sugar levels, increases the hunger hormone, diminishes immunity and contributes to all mental health conditions. The good news is that you are in control. You may have external factors to consider, but you can and should make good choices.

So this is for you, located somewhere, but remote from all you know and trying now to meet everyone’s needs; pupils, students, colleagues, parents, external stakeholders, family and loved ones. Please remember one simple fact, you cannot look after the needs of others if you do not take care of yourself.  Sleep will give you the strength, resilience and endurance that you need so much and help keep things in perspective.  So here goes. These are your choices.                                                                       

Top tips for a good night’s sleep

Tick tock, it’s your body clock!

Two main factors determine your sleep/wake pattern. Every living organism with a lifespan longer than 72 hours has an inbuilt body clock. Each of us has an internal body clock of around 24 hours located deep within our brain. Additionally, from the moment you wake up a natural compound called adenosine builds up in your brain and creates a ‘sleep pressure’, controlling your alertness and when you will feel tired. The longer you've been awake the more this chemical sleep pressure accumulates, a little bit like a pressure cooker.  It is the balance between these two factors that controls your alertness and when you will feel tired. There are things we do that can upset this balance.  Avoiding these will make all the difference.

Light and temperature

You are no doubt aware that light plays a crucial part in regulating your body clock. Deep in the brain you have a master clock controlling your circadian rhythms. So as the days get longer and currently work is largely online, it is important to ensure that you control the amount of light in your living space, that you don’t stay constantly connected and that by 9.00pm all your electronic devices are on ‘sleep’. Which should be a clue for you too!  Even ‘night shift’ mode disrupts your ability to wind down ready for sleep. TV can suppress your sleep-inducing hormones and disrupt restful sleep, so be selective.  Lower the lights in your living space as much as possible, let the natural melatonin being secreted in your brain do its job and let your internal body clock tell you when it’s time to swop the sofa for the duvet! If you can’t block light in your bedroom, consider wearing a sleep mask. You will feel better for doing so tomorrow.

Another aspect to bear in mind is room temperature. From around 9.00pm your core body temperature falls, easing you towards sleep and helping you sleep more soundly. That’s why it is so hard to sleep when the nights are warm and humid. So lower your room temperature, make sure your bedroom is cool, invest in a silent fan if necessary and ensure your bedding is light and made of breathable fabric.

Sleep’s enemy number one!

Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive stimulant in the world and the second most traded commodity on the planet, after oil. Undoubtedly it is the most common culprit that keep us from falling asleep and/or sleeping soundly, masquerading as insomnia. Whilst I’m sure you are aware that caffeine gives you an energy boost, you may not be aware that it is present in many consumables other than coffee.  Furthermore, caffeine has a half-life of 5-7 hours, so for instance, 50% of a coffee drunk at 7.30pm will still be circulating in your brain tissue at 1.30am, acting as a stimulant when all you want to do is go to sleep.

The whole time caffeine is present adenosine continues to build up, but sleep will not come readily as your brain battles against this opposing force, and caffeine will always win. Furthermore, caffeine is present in many foods and drinks. Teas, soft drinks, chocolate, ice cream, cereal, pain remedies and medicine all contain caffeine.  Consuming these late in the evening ensures work lies ahead throughout the night before caffeine disappears. It is also important to note that decaffeinated does not mean caffeine-free!   Typically a decaffeinated drink can have around 15-30% of caffeine contained in a regular coffee/drink. Add to that the fact that sensitivity to caffeine is increased by poor prior sleep and it becomes a vicious circle.

So please, avoid caffeine in the afternoon as much as you can.  Whilst caffeine sensitivity will vary between individuals, there is a reason why most doctors recommend limiting your caffeine intake after 12.00 noon.

Sleep or sedation?

We all know that alcohol has a dehydrating effect and that it also makes you drowsy.  But did you know that, whilst the body tries to adjust to this, dehydration reduces sleep quality, in particular dream sleep? Dream sleep is extremely important for emotion regulation and memory processing, clearing the brain of things that aren’t needed and enabling your body to replenish itself. After a few glasses of wine you may drift away into a level of unconsciousness, but you are not asleep.….you are sedated.  You are conscious of movement and sound, but you have not entered the natural sleep cycle that your body needs. As the effects wear off you experience periods of wakefulness, hence the lack of energy and poor sense of wellbeing the next day.

In these pressured times you deserve to reward yourself.  Just take care on what, how and when you do so.

The impact of sleep on mental health

There is no single mental health condition where sleep has been found to be normal, be that anxiety, depression, PTSD or any other disorder related to mental health. So sleep has a powerful story to tell in our understanding of how we can support our mental health, how we can prevent low level irritations and situations from becoming magnified and how we can self-medicate in the most natural way possible to regain ‘balance’

Sleep impacts on all of our energies, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual, each one of them equally important and all needing to be in balance. Quite simply, sleep is your life support system. The bedrock for all you want to achieve in life, both now and in the future.

Take control!

To a large extent, your ability to sleep is in your own hands.

Make your own sleep plan and determine to stick to it, so that you can better serve those people in your world who matter so much, not least yourself.

Boundary your time. Don’t try to solve the problems of the world all at once. Don’t try to do everything. Even in normal times you can’t do that! Find a rhythm to your day that mirrors your work day. Take regular breaks.  Switch off when it’s time to do so.

Write down your anxieties and then put them to one side. They will always seem bigger at night and yet lying awake will not solve anything, it will only make it harder to cope the next day. A good night’s sleep will give you clarity and enable you to prioritise much more effectively.

Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. You cannot repay a sleep debt, so a weekend sleep marathon is never going to work! Working long hours just makes each task take longer as your concentration slips. Where’s the sense in that?  Sleep well, wake up refreshed, get on with the job!

Manage your evening, be aware of what you eat and drink and when, and give yourself a period to wind down and relax before bedtime. Set yourself a reminder if necessary, until you get into a routine. Find the bedtime rituals that work for you.  A warm bath, relaxing music or a book that offers easy reading.

Beware of constant connectivity and blue light, keep your bedroom cool and dark and let your circadian rhythm dictate your schedule. It knows what it’s doing!

You can do this. Sleep matters. Sweet dreams!

Barbi Goulding-Parr is an Associate at Education Support and a former Principal, Academies Chief Officer and regional School Improvement Partner