Today is World Sleep Day, and this year’s focus is ‘Regular Sleep, Healthy Future’.
Most of us have experienced the consequences of a bad night’s sleep at some point in our lives. It can make us grumpy and agitated, emotionally reactive, and it can be hard to focus. But how much does the quality of our sleep play a role in our long-term wellbeing?
First it may be helpful to understand the two basic processes that help us to sleep. The first is our circadian rhythm, this is our body clock, it runs on approximately a 24-hour clock, and is responsible for the release of hormones that instruct our body when to initiate sleep. The second is sleep homeostasis, or rather sleep ‘pressure’. This works on the simple basis that the longer we are awake, the more pressure we build, and the easier it is to fall asleep. This pressure then dissipates over the course of the night. In order to get a good night’s sleep, the circadian rhythm should be preparing for sleep at the point in which our sleep pressure is reaching its peak.
My research examines the impact of sleep difficulties in teenagers. During our teenage years, a range of factors result in us going to bed later. This is due bioregulatory processes, i.e. changes in our circadian rhythm and homeostasis, as well as psychological and social factors such as socialising in the evening. However, this delayed bedtime is not matched with a delayed wake up time on school days, due to consistent school start-times. So whilst it is recommended that teenagers receive 8-10 hours sleep a night (Paruthi et al., xx), less than a third of teenagers worldwide actually achieve this (Eaton et al., 2010).
Whilst some teenagers can function with less sleep, or can sufficiently ‘catch up’ at the weekend, others may find that they are becoming increasingly ‘sleep deprived’ and may begin to experience consequences of a more persistent sleep problem.
Using data from the ‘Children of the 90’s’ research, otherwise known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, we were able to look at the relationship between teenage sleep and later mental health (Orchard et al., 2020). We found that total sleep time on school nights, and the quality of the sleep, at age 15, was predictive of anxiety and depression at ages 17, 21 and 24.
To add fuel to the fire, over the past year whilst we have been adjusting to life in the COVID-19 pandemic, young people are on average experiencing greater difficulties getting to sleep, and staying asleep, compared to pre-pandemic. They are also going to bed even later. At this stage it is not known whether these exaggerated sleep problems are putting young people at greater risk of mental health difficulties.
So it would appear that the slogan for this year’s World Sleep Day, ‘Regular Sleep, Healthy Future’, does carry an important message, for all of us, but perhaps particularly for our young people. So what can we do about this potential sleep crisis?
There are some really well evidenced tips and tricks for improving sleep, drawing on cognitive and behavioural techniques for treating insomnia. These are relevant to adults as well as teenagers.
Four top tips for a good night’s sleep:
1. Stick to a routine
It is helpful to maintain consistent bedtimes and waketimes across weekdays and weekends. A consistent routine will ensure that our body knows when to release our sleep hormones, as well as building up the right amount of pressure each day to be able to get to sleep more easily.
2. Avoid napping
Napping interferes with the processes that initiate sleep, particularly the build-up of sleep pressure. If we nap, some of this pressure dissipates and there is less pressure to encourage us to feel tired when we get to bedtime.
3. Wind down and switch off
It is important to dedicate time in the evening to switch off from work or study, and from electronic devices. This might include having a relaxation routine, or it might involve writing in a journal to offload any worries or stresses from the day.
4. Utilise your environment
Keeping the bedroom dark and cool during the night, and opening the curtains first thing in the morning, will support the sleeping and waking process. We also want to create a strong association between bed and sleep. This may be particularly relevant for young people who often spend a lot of time in the bedroom. It is good to avoid doing any stimulating activities in bed, such as studying or gaming, and if possible, to do these things in a different room altogether.
Dr Faith Orchard is a lecturer in Developmental and Clinical Psychology. Her research aims to understand the factors involved in adolescent depression, including negative thinking patterns and sleep disturbances.