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Why sleep might be the missing element to help you reach your goals.

The average adult needs an optimum of 7-9 hours of quality sleep every night. While we sleep our bodies cycle through light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep. Deep sleep is when physical recovery takes place - this might be recovery from a workout or an injury. REM sleep is when our minds recover and we should feel mentally replenished when we get enough of this! We know from extreme sleep deprivation experiments that lack of sleep can have severely damaging effects on physical and mental health - but what about chronic, low key sleep deprivation?

Society these days demands that we are accessible by phone, text, email or social media 24/7. Bright lights from phone screens and the algorithms used by apps such as Instagram or Facebook exploit our dopamine systems to keep us hooked - just another video, just another picture. Working hours are often extended beyond what contracts state and we have become unable to fully switch off and wind down. All these factors will have an effect on our stress levels, health, sleep quality and how we then interact with our external environment. We go to bed later, drink more caffeine or alcohol, make impulsive and poor food choices and it may even result in more extreme substance abuse in some circumstances!

Individuals that regularly get less than 6 hours sleep have a 50% higher risk of being/becoming obese than those getting the optimum of 7-9 hours. This risk only gets higher the more sleep deprived you become. Regular sleep deprivation affects your hunger and satiety hormones - increasing the chances of you making more impulsive, calorie dense food choices. This more than likely results in consuming more calories than you burn in the day and as such, resulting in unwanted weight gain. Obesity comes hand in hand with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, joint issues and a whole host of other health problems. Sleep deprivation itself can also lead to diabetes, coronary heart disease and a general shortening of your lifespan alongside general cognitive decline. So if something so simple could have such a hugely positive effect on our health - why isn’t it taken more seriously?

In meta-analyses of sleep deprivation experiments that consider long term, short term and partial sleep deprivation - long and short term covering periods of less/more than 45 hours with no sleep and partial covering less than 5 hours in a 24 hour period - the partial sleep deprivation comes out worst on most markers. So whilst the odd late night out or a weekend partying might initially make you feel knackered - it’s the chronic lack of sleep every night that is doing more damage (though I’m not encouraging a regular weekend of boozing..). Regularly getting less than optimal sleep reduces our cognitive performance, physical performance and most notably, our mood.

So what can YOU do to improve your sleep routine and sleeping environment in order to get the best possible rest?

Start with your evening routine. This is obviously influenced by whether you have children, work shifts/work late and where you live but a good time to start winding down for most people is 8pm. Here’s a little checklist:

  • 8pm, turn off all overhead lights, very bright lamps and stick to a slightly softer, darker light setting.

  • Turn off all work notifications, emails, put your laptop away etc. Unless you’re getting paid to answer emails at 8pm onwards, you do not need to work beyond that time.

  • Sit down with family, loved ones and maybe watch something on tv, read a book, play a board game. Keep it relaxing, nothing too high energy or tense! This is the winding down bit.

  • Try a warm drink such as herbal tea, hot milk, horlicks etc - no caffeine though!

  • 9pm, start getting yourself ready for bed. This might include a shower or a bath (get the candles out for your bath!), getting some comfy PJs on or your skincare routine.

  • Check your diary and consider writing yourself a little to do list for the next day. This means that there’s no 3am wake ups, panicking about something you’ve forgotten. Don’t be tempted to send a quick email for work though!

  • If you like journaling, this is a great time to write your thoughts and feelings about the day. Or just read a book, listen to some music or spend time with a loved one in bed.

  • 10pm, turn off your phone entirely and plug it in somewhere else OR turn off all but essential notifications ie. incoming calls. If someone needs you in an emergency, they’ll generally call you.

  • 10.30pm, if you’re not already in bed then this is an ideal time for most people working on a 9-5 schedule. If you’re asleep between 10.30pm and 11pm you can still get up at 7am and have had a decent night’s sleep.

Obviously it isn’t possible for everyone to start this routine at 8pm. You could definitely start at 9/9.30pm and condense it into an hour! The point is, step away from stressors such as work and immerse yourself fully in things that you enjoy. Things that allow you to relax.

Once you’ve got a routine sorted, irrespective of what time you start, try to keep it as consistent as possible. Particularly with the time you get into bed to sleep and the time you turn your phone/bright screens off. I’ve noticed a big improvement on the days I turn my phone off completely by 10pm in the quality of my sleep. The nights I mindlessly scroll through social media my REM sleep is always reduced and I’ve been more restless. Meaning I wake up feeling groggy!

Your sleeping environment is just as important as what you do before bed too!

  • Keep your room cool - changing to a lighter tog duvet as spring/summer begins and turning the heating down. It shouldn’t be hotter than 19 degrees but ideally somewhere around 16/17 degrees celsius.

  • If you live next to a busy road consider ear plugs or using white noise to avoid being disrupted by loud cars or lorries.

  • If your pets are disruptive, it might be worth keeping them out of the bedroom or at least off the bed. (I am terrible at this and let the cats sleep on me all night).

  • Try not to chug a whole pint of water right before you go to sleep or you’ll be waking up for the toilet by 2am. Instead, stay hydrated through the day and sip regularly during the evening!

  • Keep your room dark. So no night lights, certainly no overhead lights left on and get some decent curtains. Unless you want to wake up with the sunrise, keep the room dark while you sleep and then utilise that light when you wake up!

The final thing to consider is your morning/day time routine regarding sleep hygiene. One big thing here is to use your bed for sleep. Don’t work from bed - go to the sofa if you must - and avoid spending large parts of the day in bed unless you’re poorly or in desperate need of a nap.

  • Delay your caffeine intake for 60-90 minutes after you wake up. Have herbal tea, decaf or warm milk when you wake up if you enjoy the ritual of making a hot drink. By delaying your caffeine intake it allows your body to regulate cortisol effectively which will naturally give you a little boost!

  • While you’re waiting for your coffee you could have a shower (a cold one if you’re feeling wild), go for a short walk to get some sunshine, get ready for the day or just slowly get yourself going by reading a book or doing the washing up.

  • Check your diary and to-do list and add any extras that you may have missed.

  • Ensure you get sunlight (or bright light) exposure in that first 30 minutes to fully wake yourself up. This is important as it plays a role in regulating your circadian rhythm.

  • Drink plenty of water in the first 60 minutes of waking. I like to aim for one and a half pints spread over that time.

  • Eat breakfast!

  • Then enjoy that first cup of coffee or tea even more now that you’ve waited for it.

  • Don’t look at work emails, notifications or texts for AT LEAST 30 minutes from waking. Again, are you getting paid to look at emails at 7am? Probably not.

  • Stop drinking caffeinated drinks after lunch time (the latest 2pm is good for most people).

  • Try not to eat a large meal just before bed

As per the evening routine, condense your morning routine down if you need to but at least avoid emails and caffeine til you’re fully awake and get some sunlight on your skin. Just don’t look directly at the sun please.

Work is an often reported source of stress and many people feel the need to take their work home with them. Thankfully I think societal expectations surrounding this are changing, albeit slowly, and bosses should be able to respect employee time - or at least pay them more to be accessible in the evenings. Sticking to those boundaries can be difficult but the reality is you work to live. You shouldn’t be living to work. Not everyone is in the position to be able to make all these changes but even just a few could dramatically change your health and quality of life.

I’ve said this before on my social media posts but this statement really stuck with me when I heard it during a recent workshop with a sleep expert. We experience different types of stress. Some of them are good, eg. exercise, learning and some are unwanted, eg. work stress, grief etc. But we must balance these stresses with rest - most importantly, sleep.


STRESS + ________ = STRESS

A mind and body that is rested, given a chance to recover and taken care of will adapt to both wanted and unwanted stressors much more efficiently and it is our ability to manage/adapt to stressful situations that make us more successful in all aspects of life. So perhaps rather than taking endless supplements, chasing the perfect keto diet or getting expensive gut microbe analysis - look at your sleeping habits first. Something as simple as putting your phone away might make all the difference!

If you want any help with fitness or looking at your sleep hygiene, drop me an email or make a direct enquiry via my contact page. Good luck!

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