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Sleep: The Great Panacea

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

What if...?

What if there was a new breakthrough in medical technology and this new therapeutic technique made the following claims based on solid evidence:

  • Improved mood, emotional stability plus lower rates of depression and anxiety

  • A better immune system with increased resistance to infection

  • All round improvements in health

  • A slower ageing process and therefore increased life longevity

  • Less weight gain and more attractiveness

  • Better concentration for work or study

  • Improved creativity, problem-solving and more flexible decision-making

  • Better relationships

  • ....and safer driving(!)

Best of all, this new ‘therapy’ is completely free. It costs nothing. Not a penny. This new wonder cure is, in fact, nothing other than just getting a regular good night’s sleep. It’s not like this knowledge is particularly new. For example, four hundred years ago, Shakespeare referred to sleep as the 'balm of hurt minds' and the ‘chief nourisher in life’s feast '. In Don Quixote, Cervantes refers to sleep as ‘the cloak that covers all thoughts, the food that cures all hunger, the water that quenches all thirst, the fire that warms the cold, the cold that cools the heat; the common coin, in short, that can purchase all things’. So why do we need reminding of this simple fact? If sleep is so damn good for us, why aren’t we all tanking up on it like there’s no tomorrow?

Sleep vs the 21st Century

There are suggestions that people in the modern world are, on average, sleeping less than any time in human history and that many of us are actually chronically sleep deprived. The late William Dement, pioneer of sleep research at Stanford University, once estimated that modern humans in industrialized nations now sleep at least an hour and a half less than a century ago (an estimate he made before the invention of the smartphone). He believed that modernity had led to the increased likelihood that we are walking around with a sleep deficit. To those of you who are sceptical of this, I would ask: do you rely upon an alarm to wake you every morning? And do you find your levels of concentration and alertness dip in the afternoon?

The demands of our 24/7 society have been driven by a combination of economic imperatives, technological advance and an increased appetite for stimulation. All of these things have devalued our appreciation of sleep. Many people now consider hours spent resting or sleeping as unproductive or boring. William Dement coined the phrase ‘hedo-masochism’ to describe this modern treadmill of sleep-deprived over-stimulation. In short, many of us now need to be reminded of the importance of sleep and making sure that we get it.

Before the invention of electric light, people would have gone to bed with the dusk and woken with the sun, their bodies more in tune with natural circadian rhythms which would shift with seasonal patterns of daylight. Sleep lab experiments by Thomas Wehr confirmed this by re-creating a pre-industrial winter environment with darkness for 14 out of 24 hours and then measuring the sleep patterns of volunteers. After sleeping off their 21st Century sleep deficits, he noticed how the volunteers' soon settled into a nightly sleep pattern comprising of two four hour periods of deep sleep interspersed with periods of restful wakefulness spent thinking and reflecting on dreams.

'Nothing Happens Unless First We Dream'

Another downside of not maximising our sleep is that we have less time for the REM (rapid eye movement) dream sleep which is associated with memory and creativity. Most cultures throughout human history saw dreams as highly significant, offering a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world, giving them rich spiritual and transcendent experiences. Even if we no longer hold these beliefs, there are many examples of dreams offering creative inspiration. Writers Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that the ideas for both Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde respectively came to them in dreams. The melody for 'Yesterday' came to Paul McCartney in a similar experience. Albert Einstein claimed that a dream where he was travelling at the speed of light prompted a line of thought that eventually led to his theory of relativity.

Making the Most of the ‘Wonder Cure’

Apologies to those who already have a good relationship with sleep, but, for the rest of us, here are a few reminders of how to maximise the benefits of a good night's sleep:

1. Establish a regular bed-time routine and stick to it to establish a stimulus response.

2. The amount of sleep required by individuals varies between 7 and 9 hours. Aim to have a regular bedtime which allows for somewhere in this range that works best for you. Note that you may have a tendency to want to sleep more in the winter months. Also consider that sleep onset latency (the time difference between lights off and falling asleep) can take up to half an hour.

3. Avoid screens in the bedroom. This means making an effort to stop looking at phones, laptops, tablets or TVs in the hour before going to bed.

4. Ensure that your bedroom is dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature.

5. Avoid caffeinated drinks in the evening and avoid alcohol before going to bed.

And finally…

If you are having problems with sleeping then, of course, first contact your GP.

If you have ruled out medical conditions and think your insomnia has a psychological element, e.g. anxiety, worry or habit, then cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy may be useful in helping to develop strategies to help you cope and overcome your sleeping difficulties.

Contact neil@focusedattention if you would like to explore how I could help you with issues relating to insomnia or just click on the button below.

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