When insomniacs arrive at sleep expert Dr Sandi Mann’s clinic they usually expect her to teach them how to get eight hours of sleep every night. Instead, she shows them how to cope without.
“Some do walk away and find someone else, but those who stay with me generally benefit,” she says.
“Coping with little sleep is a valuable skill – once you learn how, you won’t be so worried about getting it – and often your sleep patterns will start to stabilise.”
For most people, not getting enough sleep leaves them feeling irritable, miserable and, well, tired. To make matters worse, we hear constantly how sleep deprivation is linked to everything from cognitive impairment and mental health issues to weight gain, increased risk of diabetes, dementia and weakened immunity.
“Certainly, studies regularly reveal an increased risk of earlier death due to chronic sleep deprivation,” admits Dr Mann.
“A review of 16 studies found that sleeping for less than six to eight hours a night increases the risk of early death by about 12% – but as with most things, when it comes to insomnia we have created a problem to some extent.
“What we are yearning for is not normal. Our natural sleep pattern is an interrupted few hours of sleep followed by a break followed by a few more interrupted hours. Yet if this is what we experience we think there is something wrong with us. There’s a whole industry built around getting the perfect night’s sleep but the quest for eight solid hours is not natural.”
Dr Mann believes people who can’t sleep probably differ from those who sleep easily thanks to one important fact: they worry about sleep more. Her most important lesson for patients is that it is this worry that results in less-good sleep, so reducing worry will improve sleep.
“It stems from false expectations about what it offers us. Ancient people did not suffer angst about sleep because they didn’t expect to get a solid block. We do, and we worry if we’re not conforming to modern expectations.
“We have bought into the belief we need a good night’s sleep to perform well, even to survive. So, we need to change our attitude so we can discover what can be achieved on little or no sleep. Then, we might be relaxed enough about it all to actually get some.
Here are Dr Mann’s tips for getting on when you haven’t had any kip.
Don’t start the day with coffee
While it’s tempting to go for a shot of caffeine first thing, this is simply “sleep inertia”, which leaves you feeling groggy when you first wake but will lift after a shower and breakfast, leaving you in a rebound state of alertness. Instead, save your morning coffee for between 10-11am to get you going when you start to slump. It can take 20–30 minutes for caffeine to kick in but it should give you an extra boost.
Natural light will help wake you by getting your circadian rhythms into day mode (particularly important if you have only recently fallen asleep). Avoid sunglasses – even if you are trying to hide dark circles. A 2006 Belgian study showed that sunlight curbs afternoon drowsiness.
If you feel you are flagging, take a brisk walk to wake you up. If you can’t physically leave work, take frequent movement breaks – a walk down the corridor, stretching etc. Make sure you drink plenty of water and suck on sugar-free mints to keep your brain alert.
Sleepy people tend to crave sugar and carbs but don’t have too much or you will have a sugar spike followed by a “crash”. Wholegrains, protein, fruit and vegetables are your friends.
Never act in haste
Lack of sleep can make you more reactive and emotional, so step back and take time to think before responding to messages and requests – especially if you are upset about something.
Do your least-favoured activities first before your concentration begins to wane. When you are running on empty, the morning will be when you are going to be at your most effective. Schedule more engaging tasks for during the post-lunch dip – things that you don’t have to work too hard at concentrating on and will hold your attention.
Minty refresh Chew gum
Researchers in 2012 discovered that chewing gum can reduce sleepiness, probably because it enhances cerebral activity. Mint flavour is the most arousing.
Take 10 (or 20)
Have a downtime session for 10 to 20 minutes mid-afternoon if at all possible. Not a nap as such, but some quiet time when you can close your eyes and let your mind wander. This will help you to recharge your batteries.
Don’t crash on the sofa as soon as you get home (it’s too late for naps now). If you haven’t managed to take any exercise, try and have a brisk walk or a run outside. Eat a healthy supper, avoid caffeine and if you are going out to socialise try to only drink a small amount of alcohol.
Be aware, there’s help out there
If you are suffering from severe sleep problems and/or work in an industry where sleep deprivation could be critical or dangerous then you may need professional help.