Sleep is without doubt one of the most talked about and thought about topics in the current health arena. Whether it’s individuals trying to improve sleep habits at home, or medical professionals and organisations looking at ways to optimise sleep and well-being, there is a very heightened desire to better understand what contributes to ideal sleep. In 2021 we conducted the New Zealand Sleep Census to better understand our nation’s sleeping habits.
Research is constantly showing links between sleep and both physical and mental health so understandably there is a big interest in knowing what we can do better, and how. We asked Clinical Psychologist Dr Kimberly Falconer to analyse the Sleep Census results, give us her view and insights on the findings, and to share some of her top tips when it comes to mastering your sleeping habits and rituals.
SLEEP STARTS BEFORE BED-TIME
A good night’s sleep begins well before you get into bed. It’s widely accepted that what you do in the lead up to ‘light’s out’ can have a big impact on the quality and quantity of sleep that follows.
The findings of the NZ Sleep Census indicated that 52% of people who scroll social media and 34% of people who watch TV or Netflix in bed before sleeping, say that it has a negative impact on their sleep. In contrast, almost one in three Kiwis enjoy reading as a bed-time ritual, with 81% acknowledging this has a positive effect on their sleep overnight.
In clinical practice it is like a see-saw approach to getting sleep routines and sleep hygiene correct. While some people most certainly need to be stricter about limiting screen time in bed, reducing caffeine intake and implementing relaxation time; it’s also equally unhelpful when people become too rigid in their approach.
Aim to find the balance between doing what works to support good sleep, while not feeling slave to that routine and consequently stressed if you can’t achieve it every night or in different sleep settings away from home.
The same can be said for wearables. While these devices can offer interesting information, in sleep psychology we are all too familiar with the inaccuracy of results that so many of these wearables provide. Not only does this lead to people being told they are sleeping worse than they are; it also creates a dependence on judging your sleep according to spurious data, as opposed to how you genuinely feel.
BE REGULAR AND BUILD GOOD SLEEP DRIVE
The ability to sleep well also depends on getting our timing right. This means making our sleep and wake-up times optimal and most importantly, being consistent with these across the week.
When it comes to the amount of sleep and when you sleep, my advice is that you should aim to be regular and build a good sleep drive. The Sleep Census showed that Kiwis have irregular sleeping habits, with most of us going to bed and waking up later on the weekends than we do during the week. This can lead to something we call ‘social jetlag’ and can be particularly common and problematic in teenagers.
With an emphasis on the importance of sleep, it makes sense that people look to grab any extra hours they can get, to stock up their sleep bank. Unfortunately, where this means a sleep-in on weekends, or a shifting bed-time through the week, we are hampering our chance of a good night’s sleep by interfering with our natural circadian rhythm.
Put simply, our sleep drive relates to the number of hours that have passed since we woke up and where we are shortening this with sleep-ins or early nights, we are compromising the night ahead.
Ensure you are going to bed and getting up at the same time every day regardless of what you have scheduled, or how you slept the previous night. Even though this can feel difficult at the time, it is worth it to invest in better sleep long-term. Recent research has suggested that if you had to choose one, it’s the regular wake-up time that makes the most impact.
REPLACE THE 8-HOUR MYTH WITH A REMINDER ABOUT CORE SLEEP
While sleep-need is a very individual thing and age is also a big factor, it is generally accepted that adults up to the age of 65 need 7 – 9 hours of sleep a night, or 7 – 8-hours for those over 65. Interestingly, the census indicated that Kiwis are generally sleeping less than recommended and two-thirds of Kiwis in the study reported they often wake-up tired. Perhaps not surprisingly, three quarters of households with children wake up feeling tired.
However, a preoccupation with the 8-hour myth can cause unnecessary stress and consequent sleep loss! It’s therefore more important that people start to become educated about core sleep instead.
In sleep psychology we talk a lot about core sleep which is around 5 ½ hours a night. While this is not necessarily enough sleep to help you feel your absolute best, it is considered enough to help you function and maintain your daily living. We liken it to eating the amount you need to stay healthy, as compared to what you might choose to eat with additional treats, desserts, and favourite foods thrown in!
Try to replace the unhelpful myths around 8-hours of sleep and the idea of ‘sleep debt’ that this creates, with a focus instead on the benefits of core sleep and the individual differences we have in our need for sleep. Given that insomnia is riddled with anxiety about loss of sleep, this can go a long way in terms of helping us feel more positive and less stressed about what we are achieving!
In addition to a reduced quantity of sleep, Kiwis are also reporting issues with poor quality sleep. Almost nine in 10 New Zealanders are waking up at least once in the night with 50% of people reporting that their sleep is commonly disrupted by feeling too hot or having body aches and pains through the night. Around 1 in 4 Kiwis are also feeling restless overnight due to insomnia, stress at work, anxiety, or feeling too cold. When awake through the night, we tend to think most frequently about our lack of sleep or work stress.
It is estimated that our modern environment of artificial lighting and limited sun exposure means we only experience one hour of natural sunlight on average each day. Similarly, evening lighting, screens and devices hinder our exposure to true darkness. Given that the accumulation of our natural melatonin is related to our daily exposure to light and darkness, it is important that we optimise our circadian rhythm and keep it as regular as we can.
We can best prepare for the next night first thing in the morning by getting straight into the sunlight (opening curtains, sitting in a sunny spot). Similarly, turning off devices, limiting LED lighting or using screen filters will also best prepare us for sleep at night-time. If you struggle with falling asleep, ensure you are maximising your exposure to sunlight early in the day.
Alternatively, if you struggle with middle-of-the-night awakenings try to stay in the light as long as possible, perhaps taking a late afternoon walk and not closing curtains too early.
STAY COOL, BUT NOT UNCOMFORTABLE
Our body temperature has a daily rhythm and helping to keep this regular is important for a good night’s sleep. Getting up and exercising first thing or having a hot shower is ideal to kick-start our increase in temperature. This corresponds to us feeling alert and building up a good sleep drive for the night ahead. We are at our hottest around 6pm and the corresponding drop after this is what helps us feel sleepy. Our brain and body need to drop their core temperature to initiate sleep and most of us fall asleep more easily in a room that is slightly cooler.
It’s also important to stay cool overnight as we are typically at our coldest around 4am, which ideally corresponds to us being our most sleepy. However, as with all tips, taking this too rigidly can also cause problems. Being too cold overnight (especially in winter) will lead to discomfort that can interfere with your body falling asleep optimally.
QUALITY SLEEP IS INTEGRAL FOR MENTAL WELL-BEING
There is a strong correlation between sleep and mental well-being. Almost 50% of Kiwis believe there is a bi-directional effect between mental health and poor sleep, with 8 in 10 Kiwis directly affected the next day if they sleep poorly. For those Kiwis struggling with depression and anxiety, their mental health issues were found to have a 40% impact on their sleep. One of the most problematic impacts of poor sleep is the effect it has on our emotions and almost three quarters of Kiwis agree that they are more emotional after a poor night’s sleep.
Aside from emotional impacts, poor sleep is also affecting Kiwis’ energy levels, their propensity to irritability and their mental clarity.
Try incorporating good stress management techniques throughout your day in order to optimise your chances of falling asleep faster, and having a better quality sleep. Whether it’s taking short walks and breaks from work, scheduling activities that balance mastery and pleasure, or ensuring daily social contact and connection to friends and family, it’s important that we take responsibility for emptying our stress buckets before we try to get to sleep. Specific night-time rituals such as a warm bath, or reading or meditating before bed will also enhance our chances of a restful night’s sleep.
Another key tip is steering clear of things that can increase anxiety before bed such as caffeine in the afternoon, late night or excessive alcohol consumption and screen time, and even having emotional conversations in the twilight hours.
However, despite these crippling impacts on our mental health, less than a quarter of Kiwis say they would actually seek GP help if they couldn’t sleep. If you’re still struggling, we recommend seeking help from a professional.
AIM FOR A WORK-LIFE-SLEEP BALANCE
Many studies from around the world have shown an increase in sleep difficulties during the Covid-19 pandemic, even giving rise to a new term ‘coronasomnia’. Here in New Zealand, almost half of the Kiwis in the Sleep Census reported that they had picked up new sleep habits during lockdown.
While there is no doubt that working from home benefits a number of people, whether it’s through enabling more flexibility or autonomy in the day or reducing frustrating and time-consuming commutes; it’s pertinent that we don’t let the capacity to work around the clock merge with our sacred time for sleep.
Much like the importance of reducing screens and preparing for bed in the hours before sleep, it’s becoming essential in our current world to implement clear boundaries around time for work.
Keeping work out of the bedroom is integral and doing a contrast task prior to bed-time (even if it’s a straight-forward household chore like dishes) will even make a difference in terms of disconnecting work from the hours in bed. Likewise, waking up to do something like meditation, a warm shower, or breakfast in the sun prior to checking e-mails and switching into work-mode, is equally ideal.
Overall, there are lots of take-aways from this Sleep Census. Importantly, sleep needs to be viewed across a number of dimensions, not just as a debt calculated from the ‘8-hour myth’. Factors such a sleep hygiene, night-time rituals, use of social media and screens, timing of sleep and the comfort of the bedroom environment all play very important roles in supporting a good night’s sleep. It’s important we think broadly about sleep and consider ways to improve our sleep readiness and sleep efficiency to help optimise our sleep health.
The Sleep Census 2021, conducted by Colmar Brunton spoke to more than 500 New Zealanders across the country and was representative with respect to age, gender and region. Respondents were aged from 18 to 60+ and included households with single occupants, those with children and older occupants with no children at home.