Sleeping Beauty

Sometimes when I am feeling tired, I envy Sleeping Beauty.  I love that nobody bothers her.  Sure, they can’t find her in the overgrown castle grounds but nevertheless, she enjoys uninterrupted deep sleep. In our crazy, busy lives sleep seems to be one of those things that is easily sacrificed or at least diminished in the vain hope that we can achieve more, more, more. Recently I have been fortunate enough to interview Professor Barry Marshall as part of  a series of interviews for my second book. In 2005 Professor Marshall was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology for his work with Professor Robin Warren in showing that most peptic ulcers are caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and not a result of stress, spicy food and too much acid. A truly interesting story and discovery. Is there a link between ulcers and sleep? No, but Barry Marshall believes that sleep is vital to not only his well-being but his daily physical and mental performance.  We are talking about someone who has a demanding job with a family, spends around 5 months of the year travelling and presenting at conferences and other meetings and really needs to have their brain running at full speed.  Sleep is a topic that attracts much attention and a recent symposium at the Australian Institute of Sport highlighted this crucial aspect of our lives. Dr Charli Sargent who is based at The Australian Centre for Sleep Research provided a good reminder that sleep is important for: growth – hormones  are released (essential for children and adolescents), energy conservation, memory and learning and tissue growth and repair.  How much sleep you need every night is very individual but most experts in this field will advise us to get between 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each and every night. Dr Sargent suggests there some ways in which you can enhance your sleeping habits and they include:

  • Avoiding caffeine in the 4-5hrs prior to sleep (although this does not affect everyone in the same way)
  • Avoid stimulants like TV and computers directly before sleeping
  • Napping can boost sleep but should be limited to 60mins
  • Maximise opportunity for sleep
  • Improve sleep hygiene – dark, quiet, temperature-controlled room
  • Develop a sleep routine
  • Keep a sleep diary
  • Avoid sleep tablets where possible (address all other avenues first) as they do not increase deep sleep, can affect your performance the following day, may cause addiction and are a short term fix

Deep sleep is really important and often seems to be the elusive element but it does accounts for around 20% of sleep time and involves growth and repair while REM (Rapid Eye Movement) involves dreaming, memory and learning.  Sleep impairment can have a direct impact on our memory and I know that when I am tired, lots of things seem to fly out of my internal hard-drive, some of which don’t seem to come back again. Sleep impairment is directly proportional to your daytime performance but the secret weapon could be napping. Napping is beneficial when sleep at night time is not adequate to alleviate sleep pressure. Professor Marshall uses this tactic often and finds that a 60 minute nap in the middle of the day ensures that he can maintain a high level of performance and productivity.  He has perfected a skill that I would love to have and that is his ability to sleep or nap anywhere in the world in any situation.  Barry feels the ideal time frame for him is 60 minutes and this fits right in with expert advice in this field. This may mean sleeping on carpet or at a desk or on the floor in airports fully clothed with shoes doubling as a pillow. Italians have got the napping skill sorted and their culture reflects the need and support for the siesta straight after lunch.  The Australian culture (and many others) do not support napping and we often feel the need to ‘carry on’ even when our brains and bodies are telling us otherwise. In the event that napping is not possible for you, Professor Marshall suggests scheduling empty time in the day to avoid overload and give your brain some quiet time, so when you are expected to be as productive at 5pm as you are at 9am, you are up to the job. When it comes to our health, sleep really is one of the best performance enhancing tactics.