Insomnia is the modern malaise. But in a new book, Professor Richard Wiseman explains the simple techniques you can use to get the sleep you need. On Saturday, he revealed why some lucky individuals are ‘super-sleepers’. Today, he explains how you can become one, too . . .
We are now living in a world that never sleeps. Because of this, scientists across the world have started to examine what happens to people’s brains and bodies when they become sleep-deprived. Their results are enough to keep you up at night.
In the 1980s, a scientist from the University of Chicago conducted perhaps the best-known, and most disturbing, study into the topic.
He and his colleagues wired up a group of rats to a machine that measured their brain activity, and then placed each of the animals on a stationary disc above a bowl of water. Every time a rat’s brain activity indicated that the animal had fallen asleep, the disc would slowly rotate. This, in turn, forced the rat to wake up.
Despite having access to more than enough food, within a week these sleep-deprived rats started to lose weight and their fur developed an unhealthy yellowish tinge.
After a month, all of them had died, thus proving that sleep is essential for life. Of course, this was extreme sleep-deprivation. You might expect that losing a smaller amount of sleep — say, just an hour or so each night — would not be especially detrimental.
In fact, even a minor reduction can dramatically increase the chances of you having a serious accident in everyday life.
In 2003, Gregory Belenky and his colleagues at the Sleep And Performance Research Centre at Washington State University staged one of the world’s most comprehensive studies into sleep loss.
Volunteers who obtained nine hours’ sleep each night remained highly alert, while those spending just three or five hours in bed quickly became tired and inattentive.
However, the results from those getting seven hours’ sleep per night proved especially surprising.
Although these volunteers constantly assured the researchers that they were as wide awake as those on nine hours, the data revealed a very different story.
After just a couple of days of getting seven hours’ sleep they became significantly less alert, and remained sluggish for the remainder of the experiment.
Belenky’s study revealed the highly pernicious nature of even a small amount of sleep deprivation. Spend just a few nights sleeping for seven hours or less and your brain goes into slow motion.
To make matters worse, you will continue to feel fine and so don’t make allowances for your sluggish mind. Within just a couple of days, this level of sleep deprivation transforms you into an accident waiting to happen.
In another study, researchers from University College London spent 20 years examining the relationship between sleep patterns and life expectancy in more than 10,000 civil servants.
The results, published in 2007, revealed that participants who obtained two hours less sleep a night than they required nearly doubled their risk of early death.
In a similar study, another group of researchers analysed data from more than one million Americans and found that getting less than seven hours sleep each night was associated with an early demise.
However, there are two invaluable techniques I’d like to share with you that can offset some of the damage caused by getting too little sleep. The first is the 90-minute rule; the second is the power of taking a nap.
THE 90-MINUTE RULE EVERY SLEEPER SHOULD REMEMBER
Speak to sleep researchers and you will soon discover that most of them use a little-known trick to help them feel refreshed the next day.
This is based on the knowledge that our sleep cycle contains five distinct phases, divided into four stages of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, followed by a stage of REM sleep (in which we dream).
Each of these cycles takes roughly 90 minutes, followed by a brief interlude when we are relatively wakeful, before a new cycle starts again.
This process is repeated usually for a total of four or five cycles a night.
In other words, if we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes.
This means that you will feel most refreshed when you awake at the end of a 90-minute sleep cycle because you will be closest to your normal waking state.
To maximise the chances of this happening, work out when you want to wake up, then count back in 90-minute blocks to find a time near to when you want to go to sleep.
Let’s imagine that you want to wake at 8am and wish to go to sleep around midnight.
Counting back in 90-minute segments from 8am would look like this:
In this example, you should aim to fall asleep around either 11pm or 12.30am in order to feel especially refreshed in the morning.
SLEEP YOUR WAY TO THE TOP
When you are preparing for an important exam or interview, you might be tempted to stay up late the night before, trying to cram information into your head.
Avoid the temptation. It’s a terrible idea and you will be much better off getting an early night.
Not only will you be more refreshed when you wake up, you will also be much better able to remember what you learnt the day before.
The effect that a lack of sleep has on academic performance is far from trivial. A study a few years ago at Tel Aviv university randomly separated primary school children into two groups.
Those in one group were instructed to go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night, while those in the other group were asked to stay up 30 minutes later than usual.
Three days later researchers tested the children’s performance on various educational attainments tests.
The results revealed that the small amount of sleep loss was equivalent to the loss of two years of development.
In another study, psychologist Amy Wolfson from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts surveyed more than 3,000 high-school students, and discovered that A- and B-grade students were going to bed about 40 minutes earlier, and sleeping around 25 minutes longer than those getting lower grades.
THE POWER OF NAPPING
Napping is often seen as a form of laziness. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Hundreds of experiments have demonstrated its enormous benefits and so it is vital that you make napping part of your daily routine.
Putting your head down for just a few minutes each day will help you develop a better memory, be more alert, increase your reaction time, and boost your productivity. It may even save your life.
A recent six-year study into napping by Harvard University looked at the lives of more than 20,000 adults aged between 20 and 80.
All of the participants were asked about their dietary habits, levels of physical exercise, and the extent to which they napped.
Even after taking age and level of physical activity into account, those who took a 30-minute siesta at least three times a week had a 37 per cent lower risk of heart-related death.
Even the shortest of naps can have a surprisingly big impact on your memory. In 2008, scientists from the University of Dusseldorf asked volunteers to memorise a list of words and then randomly allocated them to one of three groups.
The first group remained awake, the second slept for about 40 minutes, and the third took a quick six-minute nap. When asked to recall the words, the Wide Awake Club did OK, the 40-minute sleepers did better, and those who nodded off for just six minutes came top of the class.
Developing a super-powered memory is not the only psychological benefit to be gained through napping.
Research by Nasa revealed that pilots who take a 25-minute nap in the cockpit — hopefully with a co-pilot taking over the controls — are subsequently 35 per cent more alert than their non-napping colleagues and twice as focused.
In 2009, sleep researcher Kimberly Cote from Brock University in Canada reviewed the vast amount of psychological work into napping, and concluded that even the shortest of snoozes causes significant improvements in people’s mood, reaction time, and alertness.
So it’s vital that you get rid of any lingering doubts about whether napping is a good use of your time.
In fact, you should start to feel guilty if you are not taking a nap during the day. But first, it is important to know the optimum time to take it. The body’s natural ‘circadian rhythms’ affect our energy levels through the day, so it’s best to time your nap for when there is a natural slump — which depends on the time you woke.
Here’s a simple table to guide you:
A handy timetable to help you work out your perfect nap time
PS: don’t worry if you don’t fall asleep. Research shows that even just lying down with the intention of napping is enough to cause a healthy reduction in your blood pressure.
And if you need to feel wide awake directly after having a short nap, drink a cup of coffee or other caffeinated drink just before dozing off.
The caffeine will start to work its magic about 25 minutes later — just as you are waking up.
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