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This is Part 2 of my interview with Dr Neil Stanley, a world-renowned independent sleep expert with over 30 years experience researching sleep.
After sourcing all the essential questions on how to optimize sleep quality from Reddit community members, Dr Stanley gives his best practical advice on how to improve sleep quality.
If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 here.
It’s time to tuck yourself in and listen to his ultimate advice on how to optimize your sleep so you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world every morning.
How do parents sleep since I had children five years ago and I haven’t slept for more than eight hours uninterrupted once?
Children don’t know any better so unfortunately you can’t expect too much of them. Waking up in the dark alone may seem quite terrifying for a child so they may cry or want to come into the bed.
All you can do is try and get sleep when you can, even if it’s a 20-minute power nap. Also, routine and predictability are important.
The ‘bath, book and bed’ formula is a good option for getting kids to settle. Having a routine that is time limited is better rather than just shouting at them to get to bed. Installing a difference between day and night is essential.
Day is about happiness and fun. Night is about calm and quietness. You can’t train a child to sleep but you can give them the mindset in order to go to sleep and improve sleep quality. [See parenting expert, Commando Dad’s ‘New Dad Survival Guide‘ for more tips on being a productive dad.]
Also, keep them off their iPads and phones an hour before bed so the blue light doesn’t disturb their sleeping patterns.
Are there any good apps to track if you’re sleeping well?
Generally, apps are pretty inaccurate at measuring sleep. The worst thing you can do is trust the data they can give.
They can provide patterns over a couple of months as to roughly how you sleep but not on a night-to-night basis.
Looking at your app sleep score and thinking, ‘It’s 100 percent. Woohoo! I can now drive to Glasgow,’ is the wrong thing to do because people need to listen to their body.
Regardless to what these apps tell you, if you feel sleepy, you are sleepy.
Information from apps can be hugely inaccurate. Asking yourself, ‘Do I feel awake during the day?’ is a far more accurate way of measuring how sleepy you are.
What’s the best ways you know to optimize sleep and get by with far less? I know you can’t officially recommend it. But still, I want to treat the condition of sleep and do well with less. Let’s say I aim to become a 4-5 hour-a-nighter to start with. What’s my methodology? Polyphasic sleep? Elevated feet caffeine naps? Uberman? Modafinil? Magnesium/zinc supplements? Lower body temperature? Sleep faster?
Polyphasic napping is something that cats, babies and extreme sportsman do for very short periods of time.
There’s a claim that Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Edison, Napoleon, Tesla and Churchill all practiced polyphasic napping. There isn’t a shred of evidence that any of them did that.
Personally, I believe it’s a phase that many young men go through and is very silly. Uberman is a variation of that and doesn’t improve sleep quality.
Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting drug that is being abused. It’s designed to help people with serious conditions such as narcolepsy or Parkinson’s.
It’s a drug of abuse when trying to keep yourself awake and does have significant downsides in that situation.
Taking caffeine before a power nap is beneficial but certainly not a replacement for sleep.
The only thing you can do if you have to function on less sleep is by using blue light over 10,000 lux in the morning or evening as you so need.
That will stop the production of melatonin at night so you won’t feel as sleepy and will also help you wake up.
What amazes me after 36 years of being involved in sleep research is people want to get less sleep. If I was a nutritionist, I’d be surprised if someone asked, ‘How can I eat more unhealthily.’ If I was a fitness guru, I’d find it strange if people asked, ‘How can I be more lazy?’
Yet somehow sleep, which is the greatest tool for feeling good and important for our bodies and brains to be at our best, is somehow seen as something people want to try and get less of.
How can I train myself to move past the light phase of sleep and get straight to the deep part for more sleep efficiency?
You can’t. Your sleep is cyclical. You go to sleep in the lighter stages of sleep, you progress into the deeper stages of sleep and then after about 70-110 minutes sleep naturally lightens to a REM period where you dream and then you go back into deep sleep.
There is no way of circumventing that light sleep.
The only way you can go into deep sleep earlier is by sleep depriving yourself the night before but that seems to be a very crazy thing to do.
If I wake in the middle of the night feeling wide awake should I get up and do things or make myself lie in bed in the dark?
It depends. If you feel okay about lying there in the dark with your eyes closed then fine, but if you start resenting the time and you’re lying there thinking, ‘I must get to sleep!’ then this could be a problem.
If you’ve been awake for more than 20 minutes during the night and you still haven’t fallen back to sleep go to a different room, do something relaxing and go back to bed when you feel sleepy.
If you go to another room, switch the light on and read a book if you’ve got standard iridescent bulbs — do something quiet and relaxing.
But stay off your phone or computer because the blue light hampers the production of melatonin — the driver for starting the process of sleep.
How can we improve sleep quality by falling into REM sleep faster?
REM sleep is the state of sleep in which you have your long, story-like dreams. It happens every 90 minutes or so. The first REM period throughout the night might only be 5-10 minutes long and the latter part of the night it may be 45 minutes.
It happens naturally and is an important part of sleep that’s involved in emotional wellbeing and emotional memories.
If you get a good night’s sleep your REM will happen. You preferentially wake up during a dream in REM which is why you remember them in the morning.
The only way you can REM sleep is to improve sleep quality by eliminating anything that could potentially disturb your sleep.
By getting a good night’s sleep using the criteria mentioned previously, you preferentially wake up in REM sleep.
What is hyperbaric sleep and can this be done at home?
Hyperbaric tents simulate sleeping at altitude while increasing oxygen levels and are something professional sportsman claim is beneficial for helping them sleep better and recover quicker from injuries.
There is some evidence to support this but the only way to do this is to buy a hyperbaric tent which would require a significant amount of money and remodelling your bedroom.
Only if you’re a serious sportsman would it improve sleep quality but not for the average man on the street.
How do I get more will power to get out of bed?
A positive mental attitude.
If you want to get out of bed easier, set your alarm and get up the time you’ve set it for. Don’t snooze. Open the curtains. Get some bright light. If it’s the winter use a bright light box. Have a cup of coffee and an invigorating shower.
[See my ‘30 Day Cold Showers Challenge‘ for a stronger immune system, faster muscle repair after the gym and an increased ability to kickstart the day].
Also, if you’ve set an alarm on your phone, place it somewhere so you’re forced to get out of bed to turn it off.
When is the best time to sleep when doing shift work?
Shift work is problematical as it goes against evolution and your natural body sleep rhythms.
We know that when people work nights they sleep for about two-and-a-half hours less on average than when they work days.
The best you can do is use eye shades and ear plugs to improve sleep quality while finding what hours work for you.
Some people come off a night shift and have a sleep immediately for four hours and then they have another sleep for four hours prior to going on to their shift.
Others try and just get one period of sleep.
Unfortunately there’s no magic way, it’s just finding out how best you can cope with it.
How can I deal with ‘jet lag’ when changing time zones?
The best way to deal with ‘jet lag’ is the minute you get on the plane set your watch for the time that you’re going to and eat your meals for that correct cultural time. You have a light-dark clock and you also have a food-related clock which will impact your sleep. If it’s breakfast time in your destination then eat something.
When I fly back from America I get served dinner at 11.00pm local time.
It takes a day to a day and a half to get over the jet lag for each hour changed.
So flying from New York to London will take between five and ten days to get over the trip.
When you get to your flight destination, if it’s light, stay awake and if it’s dark, go to sleep. Adopt the local time as quickly as you can. Even if you’ve slept on the plane but you arrive local time, still try and sleep.
On planes, the issue is they ask you to put the blinds down. The reason they do that is it stops you asking for gin and tonics the whole flight.
You may have to have a flight with the stewardess but when you’re flying keep the blind up if it’s daylight outside so you can see the sunlight.
Can a person with insomnia improve sleep quality and change their patterns?
There’s a very rare of insomnia called ‘idiopathic insomnia’ which means the person is never going to have a good refreshing night’s sleep.
For most people, insomnia is eminently treatable with Cognitive Behavioral Therpay (CBT). CBT is about changing your lifestyle, attitudes and expectations around sleep.
It’s very easy to develop insomnia if you believe you must have eight hours every night and you’re only getting six.
But if you can find out you personally only need six hours you magically don’t have insomnia because you’ve changed your perception of how much sleep you require.
The effects of CBT last past the time you stop having therapy.
There are medications designed to improve sleep quality that are beneficial for many people.
Sometimes insomnia is linked to another condition such as pain, anxiety or depression. If your doctor can treat those then this should remedy your insomnia naturally.
Pillow vs. no-pillow for back-sleepers: Does it help with neck strain?
You may fall asleep or wake up on your back but that certainly doesn’t mean you sleep on your back throughout the whole night.
There’s no such thing as a person who sleeps on their back, side or stomach. You actually change position about 12 to 16 times a night.
The pillow is to your head and neck what your mattress is to your body so it’s important to get the right pillows for you in order to improve sleep quality.
The absence of pillows may be beneficial if you’re on your back but the minute you turn onto your side it could cause strain on the neck.
Find the combination of pillows that are the right height for you through trial and error.
If you’ve got a sleep question to ask, don’t forget to follow Dr Neil Stanley on Twitter where he shares all his expert knowledge.