Can you hack your sleep cycle for better quality sleep?

·9-min read
Can you hack your sleep cycle for better quality sleep?

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Dr Maja Schaedel, clinical psychologist at the Good Sleep Clinic, says to me, when I ask if we can hack our sleep cycles, seemingly halting my gleeful examination on the subject. But while she’s not wrong – technology does not currently exist to allow us to fine tune our dozing to such an extent – our knowledge is not actually far off. In truth, understanding our sleep, much like anything, is the key to tailoring it to our needs.

Schaedel is a specialist in insomnia, one of the most affecting sleep complaints. While many of us may not have this full-blown condition, 36 per cent of UK adults complain that we are not getting enough sleep on a weekly basis and 1 in 3 of us suffer from a restless night. But before we get to why this might be happening, and what we can do to help – or indeed hack – our sleep cycles, why exactly is it that sleep is so important, and what can happen if we don’t get enough?

The dangers of sleep deprivation

“We spend a third of our lives asleep and we have evolved to depend on this,” explains Schaedel. “We are one of the only mammals to have REM sleep (more on this later) which is, essentially, a higher level of sleep – one we need for emotional wellbeing as much as for the processing and restoration of our internal systems, which happens when we ‘switch off’.”

We are, therefore, like any machine that needs to be charged; we cannot function on low battery mode for very long. But, in fact, sleep deprivation is far more dangerous than merely making us feel unfocused and groggy.

“Sleep deprivation makes us high risk for so many major illnesses,” Schaedel tells me. “Our risk of cardiovascular disease is higher and there's enough evidence now to actually link it to be causal in the development of dementia. There are links to obesity – as it impacts the hormones leptin and ghrelin which moderate our weight – as well as mental health problems and even diabetes. Studies show that just one week of sleep deprivation can make you at risk of being pre-diabetic.”

Why aren't we sleeping?

Anxiety is one of the biggest triggers for not sleeping,” she tells me, as I allude to the fact that worrying about becoming pre-diabetic may actually induce feelings of sleep-destroying anxiety. “The thing is, sleep and mental health have a bi-directional relationship. Anxiety affects your sleep, but sleep deprivation feeds anxiety. The expression ‘sleep on it’ is actually a truism, because the restorative nature of sleep is actually essential for mental processing. It allows us distance from our anxieties and really does help us deal with our issues.”

If anxiety is feeding our bad sleep and bad sleep is feeding our anxiety, what can we do to break this vicious cycle? Anxiety is the main concern for the clients of Malminder Gill, an award-winning hypnotherapist and life coach and the ‘sleep concierge’ at the Belmond Cadogan hotel in London. She is famed for extending the reach of clinical hypnotherapy and led a successful anxiety programme which users could download for free during the pandemic, to help them get more shut-eye.

“Ultimately it is about taking back a sense of control,” she tells me. “It is realising that you have that power within yourself to suppress these negative thoughts or worries when you are trying to sleep.” A session with Gill involves a preliminary evaluation about your sleeping habits. Mine, it transpires, are affected largely by an over-active imagination, which decides to re-run every possible terrifying scenario before I go to sleep. I blanch when telling her it’s not exactly anxiety, more a rather infantile predilection for nightmares. “That is really common,” she says, surprising me.

Gill’s sleep concierge service is typically booked in with an accompanying night at the Cadogan. She will give you a soothing warm tea and guide you through a personally-designed meditation. It does exactly what it threatens to (send you straight to sleep) but thankfully Gill records it so you can revisit it and use the techniques on yourself. I try it subsequently for a few nights and it does have effectiveness. Largely, it serves to centre you in a space away from negative or worrying thoughts, forcing you to recognise them as unnecessary irritants rather than serious matters to be dwelled on. Dr Schaedel confirms the science behind this when she tells me that our frontal lobes – the part of our brains in charge of rational thinking – shut down in the middle of the night, meaning that anxiety keeping you up at 3am really is irrational…

How do we sleep?

Finally falling asleep is, of course, only part of the problem. If we actually want to hack our sleep cycles, we need to learn how we sleep in order to optimise it. We sleep, Dr Schaedel tells me, in stages. Falling asleep is only stage one. Next you have light non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which has more breathing, movement and dreaming, followed by deep non-REM sleep and finally REM sleep.

“We get the majority of our non-REM sleep at the beginning of the night. And then we get the majority of our REM sleep at the end of the night,” she explains. “Our bodies basically take back the bit of sleep that we need the most – the deep non-REM sleep first – and then once we've taken enough of that, it then allows us to then get the REM sleep, which is what we need for our emotional wellbeing. Each sleep phase – there can be roughly five – lasts about 90 minutes and in each one you have a portion of deep non-REM sleep and a portion of REM.”

A ‘good night’s sleep’ is therefore characterised by how many of these stages we have achieved, as each stage brings different benefits: REM sleep for emotional wellbeing, deep sleep for harnessing your learning from the day and bolstering your memories. Hacking our sleep is essentially like a video game we complete subconsciously. So, how do we do this? One way is collecting data on how much of this subconscious video game we are already winning.

A way to do this is with a sleep tracker. I opted for an Oura ring, which is one of the leading trackers in the world. A small, somewhat stylish ring that you wear to bed each night, it syncs up with an app on your phone, meaning I woke up each morning eager for my report on how much ‘good’ sleep I had received. It cleverly analyses your sleep in such a way that you learn exactly how much REM, non-REM and restless sleep you achieved that night, plus when you are most likely to wake up and at what point your sleep was the deepest. Soon, you begin to build a database which helps you see, crucially, how certain factors affect this. The time you go to bed each night, screen time, caffeine, reading before bed, how much alcohol you drank, how much exercise – all these affect the nature of your sleep. Soon I found myself essentially hacking my night time routine based on the data my Oura was giving me.

Hacking sleep

So, in some ways, it appears you can hack – or at least attempt to optimise – your sleep. It all comes down to understanding what kind of sleeper you are. Trackers like Oura are excellent for building awareness, but another way in is simply getting to grips with your circadian rhythms. As complicated as that may sound, it really comes down to this: do you feel more energetic in the morning or the evening? The idea of sky larks and night owls really is accurate and so, as much as possible, try and build your day around your body’s natural inclinations. The rise of flexible working may, in fact, help with this. Sleep expert Dr Michael Breus believes that circadian rhythms are crucial to a restful slumber. “Take a small daytime nap if you feel you need to,” he says. “It may also be a good idea to exercise outside in the sun to lower the small melatonin (the hormone which controls the sleep-wake cycle) spike between 1 and 3pm.”

Fellow sleep expert Dr Rebecca Robbins agrees, emphasising how important getting into a good routine is for sleep, as timing those sleep stages can be crucial. She advises me to pay particular attention to daylight savings time. “When that happens, add 15 minutes to your bedtime routine, and keep adding 15 minutes so that you add (hopefully) a full hour to your sleep leading up to the time change. Having extra sleep in your 'bank account' will ease the loss of the hour,” she says. “On the day of the change, get outside and get plenty of exposure to natural light. Being outdoors and gaining exposure to bright natural light provides natural energy and also helps sync circadian rhythms to the new time.”

Ultimately, hacking your sleep cycle, once armed with as much information about your own personal sleep as possible, is all about setting up good routines. Try, Dr Schaedel tells me, to go to bed and eat (ideally with several hours before bedtime) at a regular time each day to support those sleep rhythms. Reduce your exposure to blue light (screen time) right before bed, as this interrupts melatonin, but don’t worry about watching TV to relax an hour before bed, as it takes a heavy amount of blue light to make a real dent. Don’t drink coffee late in the day, and try not to drink alcohol close to bed time. Also, make sure that you exercise. “What exercise does is induce ‘sleep pressure’, which is literally the body’s desire to sleep,” she tells me. A fancy way to say ‘makes you tired’ then? “Exactly, but it’s the best kind of tired – physical as opposed to mental.”

It may not be an exact science, but improving your sleep cycle armed with tools, tips and data, is, it transpires, a very real possibility.

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