Sunday, 18 September 2016

Sleep 101

"I love my sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?" - Ernest Hemmingway

For many of us who 'burn the candle at both ends', sleep could be the one areas of our lives that could make the biggest impact to our health and wellbeing if we were to address it. In this post, I take a deep dive into the hacks and tactics that will bring you the amazing sleep that your body craves.

Firstly, let’s outline why improving our sleep quality and quantity is something we should care about.

I like to break our daily activities down into two broad categories: ACTIVITY and RECOVERY. Activity is anything that’s physically or mentally draining. Examples might be the 8 hours we spend at work each day or the hour of structured gym-based exercise on the way home. On the flip-side, Recovery might include the food that we eat, the long bath that we take to relax and the sleep that we get each night. Out of all of the recovery tactics out there, sleep is generally acknowledged to be the very best means of recharging the batteries and rebuilding the body. After all, I keep telling my clients that exercise is, in fact, bad for you. The subsequent recovery is where the magic really happens.

So, how much sleep do you need? The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following for various ages:

Sleep - Pete Yardley Health & Fitness

As you can see, the optimum range decreases with age. This is due to the physical growth that takes place during sleep. Children are obviously growing more so maybe cut that teenage son of yours some slack the next time he rolls out of bed at 11am!

I mention a chap by the name of Nick Littlehales in the blog post Your 1 Week Challenge. Nick works with elite athletes the world over and suggests that 7.5-9 hours of sleep is ideal for the average adult. One full cycle, including all 5 stages of sleep, lasts around 90 minutes. Waking up part way through a cycle will have you feeling groggy, so Nick likes his athletes to complete every sleep cycle. This means that you’ll go through 5 cycles if you hit 7.5 hours and 6 cycles if you manage 9 hours. He also recommends napping for this length of time too, identifying the best nap times as 1-3pm and 5-7pm.

With all of the above in mind, let’s look at what we can do to improve our sleep, focussing first on the preparation.


The space in which we lay our head at night needs to be geared up to optimising sleep as much as possible.

Temperature – Opening a window is a very simple way to ensure that you’re not too hot in the night. The research suggests that an average temperature of somewhere around 18 or 19 degrees Celsius is ideal for optimising sleep. Most of us will pile the blankets on and get nowhere near that low, but this could be a real game-changer for all of you insomniacs out there.

Blue Light – Minimising our exposure to blue light just before going to bed can have a dramatic effect on our sleep quality. High levels of blue light will be emitted from devices such as mobile phones, tablets, TVs and laptops. It will also come from the light bulbs in our houses and at work. There are a number of steps you can take to limit this problem:

1)      Install f.lux software to your computer which will automatically change the spectrum of light that you’re subjected to when using the device at certain times of day. Download f.lux here.

2)      Activate the Night Shift mode on your iPhone and iPad. This essentially does the same as the above. Just go to Settings/Display & Brightness/Night Shift to do this.

3)      Change the light bulbs in your bedroom or wherever you’re likely to be spending a lot of time in the hours leading up to bedtime with blue light blocking light bulbs or something like these True-Light bulbs that mimic daylight.

4)      Buy and wear some geeky blue light blocking glasses. There are loads of these on the market now and some of them are actually really cool. Gunnar Optiks glasses might just be what you’re looking for when it comes to that bedtime reading or to block out the nasty blue light from the latest Netflix series you’re hooked on. However, be sure to make sensible bedtime TV choices as anything with too much violence and action is likely to stimulate your nervous system and keep you up.

General Light & Sound – The presence of any light and sound during the night can disturb sleep. I’d suggest turning the lights off and investing in blackout blinds, covering up LEDs from devices switched on or on standby and even using a sleep mask to keep out every bit of light. I bought this sleep mask from amazon a while back. I personally struggle to use it because I’m guilty of wriggling around a lot as I try to nod off which makes it uncomfortable to wear but for those of you who are a bit less fidgety, I’d certainly recommend giving it a go. It also comes with ear plugs which are great if you have to contend with traffic noise coming through your window (which you now leave open to help maintain that optimal 18-19 degrees temperature). Regarding sound, another option might be to use white noise to block out background noise. Learn more about how that works here

Essential Oils – A simple sleep hack can involve the use of essential oils. Lavender oil is probably the best known for its ability to promote relaxation and therefore aid in sleep. Try either adding drops of this oil to a hot bath just before bed or diffusing it in an aromatherapy diffuser like this one from KINGA.


I frequently get asked about sleep supplements. From the reading that I’ve done and experience that I’ve acquired, I’m happy to recommend a few supplements which have the potential to produce profound results when it comes to improving our sleep.

Magnesium – It’s widely acknowledged that those of us in the western world following a typical western diet are likely to be deficient in this powerful micronutrient. Poor magnesium load in the grains that we farm and the lack of leafy green vegetables in the diet contribute to this deficiency. Studies have shown that magnesium can help to improve sleep quality in those who have problems with their sleep. You’ll often find it coupled with zinc in the form of ‘ZMA’ which I’ve seen produce amazing results. These can also be fantastic for exercise recovery.

Potassium – Often referred to as the ‘good salt’, potassium is a mineral salt that helps to regulate blood pressure and works with sodium to control nerve impulse transmission. More relevantly, potassium has been shown to help us stay asleep once we’ve dropped off. Eating lots of dark leafy green vegetables is the best way to up your potassium levels but if waking in the night persists, it might be worth looking at potassium supplementation.

Melatonin – Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland. It plays a massive part in regulating our internal sleep clock and its secretion is activated by the onset of darkness (think back to what we talked about earlier regarding light). This hormone can be acquired in some foods (cherries are a good example) but, if deficient, supplementation can be useful.


Have you ever had little to no recollection of the previous night’s antics after a heavy night drinking? Of course you have! It’s therefore possibly not a great surprise to learn that alcohol does something strange to our bodies during sleep. Firstly, the whole ‘having a drink makes me sleep better’ argument is absolute nonsense. Yes, a few glasses of wine may well knock you out but the quality of your sleep, particularly in the second half of the night while the booze is being metabolised, will almost certainly be poor. Alcohol consumption also disrupts your REM sleep. This is the portion of the sleep cycle (roughly 20-25% of the cycle) that is heavily involved with the processing of memories and learning. So it’s probably not ideal to be sinking the beers during or after studying.


Limiting caffeine intake to the first part of the day is a good idea when it comes to optimising our sleep. When consumed in the late afternoon or evening, the stimulatory effects of a coffee or energy drink is likely to last well into the night, disrupting your sleep. A caffeine curfew of around 3pm is sensible. The amino acid L-theanine has been shown to partially counter the sleep related disturbances in rats. Once more human trials have been done this could be a viable option for supplementation in the future.


We all have a set of genes that to some degree dictate our physiology and behaviours. The expression of our genes (epigenetics) can be altered by the diet that we adopt, the environment we put ourselves in and generally the decisions we make that affect our health. Companies like 23andme claim to identify our genetic traits and ancestry, helping us make the correct decisions to promote our wellbeing. One trait that can be tracked is our propensity to sleep at a certain time. The categorization of either ‘morningness’ or ‘eveningness’ is known as your chronotype. I’m sure we all know people who just can’t get up in the morning. Hands up if that’s you!

Hands up

You can order a 23andme salivary test for a very reasonable price from their website or use this Morningness-Eveningness Self-Assessment to help you understand your own sleeping patterns.

Sleeping Positions

If you’ve identified posture as being a problem for you, it might be advisable that you consider sleeping on your back. Provided that you use only a small pillow beneath the head, this will help to keep your spine in a neutral position. Personally, because I’ve spent so much of my life doubling up on the pillows I use, I find it fairly uncomfortable to sleep with one or no pillows. However, for the health of my spine it’s something that I should be addressing. One word of caution for back sleepers though – if you suffer with sleep apnea (pauses in breathing or shallow breathing whilst sleeping) this position could actually be quite dangerous to adopt.

Sleeping on your left side is arguably the best sleeping position for maintaining good blood flow at night. Pregnant women are encouraged to sleep on this side for this very reason. Other added benefits include better digestion and lymph drainage.

From a primal fight or flight point of view, consider this scenario… You’re sleeping outside, alone in a forest. You don’t know what dangers could present themselves as a threat to your life as you sleep. The natural inclination would therefore be to lie on your non-dominant side, closing off your vital organs from the world, with your strong arm accessible for defending yourself. If this is fundamentally the safest position to lie in, it’s likely to be the position you’re most likely to relax in.

Sleep Tracking

There are countless apps and wearables on the market that offer sleep tracking functions. A good example of an app that many find useful is Sleep Cycle. This software utilises your phone’s microphone and accelerometer to track the stages of your sleep, identifying light sleep within 30 minutes your desired get-up time and gently waking you at this point. Alternatively, if you’re interested in monitoring your sleeping patterns and tracking how many hours you get each night, a wearable fitness tracker like the Jawbone Up3 will do the job.

So, there you go! I’d suggest firstly identifying whether getting to sleep or staying asleep is the problem for you. You’ll then be in a better position to decide on appropriate interventions to maximise this essential recovery period. You’ll be waking up and feeling like a superhero in no time at all.

Sleep well.


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