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  • Writer's pictureMark Hill

Seven Sleep Spoilers. Spoiler 2: "I'll get an early night"

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

Our second sleep spoiler is a mistake easily made, as it appears such a sensible approach when we struggle to sleep.

My past clients have frequently cited the advice of loved ones; “an hour before is worth two hours after” and “get to bed nice and early to get plenty of rest”.

Similarly, they explained that they would go to bed early when they’d experienced a few difficult nights of sleep, to “catch up on their sleep” (more on this little beauty of an idea in blog 6), as if the body’s need for sleep is like a credit card debt that can be paid off by instalments of varying size.

However, these innocent suggestions and decisions have a number of hidden issues. Let’s firstly give this concept context, imagine you have a bed-time of 11 p.m., but for a sustained period you have been unable to sleep before 3 a.m. Our brains are designed to settle into a daily rhythm and routine, known as the circadian rhythm. This means that in this example your brain has settled into the following pattern at night:

· 8:30 p.m. – 11 p.m. (but why’s he chosen to tell us about 8:30 in this hypothetical example, oh you’ll soon see my friend) are hours your brain associates with being awake, perhaps downstairs watching television (maybe Love Island reruns, MAFS Australia (classy), or my recent personal favourite, Cobra Kai) and almost certainly browsing your smart phone (hunting for spoilers I’ll bet).

· 11 p.m. – 3 a.m. are hours the brain associates with being led in bed, wide awake, perhaps dwelling on negative events of the day or worrying about the possible stresses of tomorrow.

Let’s imagine you decide to follow the advice described earlier and “get an early night” to “catch up on your sleep”, you go to bed at 8:30 p.m. (see I told you!) more than two hours before your “usual” bed time, in crude terms there are two possible outcomes, neither of which are helpful in the long-term to your sleep patterns:

1/ The worst case scenario (and most likely unfortunately): as your brain has settled into the above circadian (daily) rhythm and routine the body’s drive for sleep during the usually wakeful period of 8:30 p.m. – 3 a.m. is poor as it’s used to being active either television watching, smartphone exploring or worrying and ruminating. Sadly, all that is therefore achieved is you extend the time you spend in bed tossing and turning to 7.5 hours instead of the usual 4 hours.

2/ The desired outcome (yet still unhelpful in the long-term): due to the exhaustion of the sleep you have missed, you fall asleep early and are able to achieve a generous number of hours’ sleep. However, rather than waking feeling refreshed it’s more likely you’ll wake groggy and lethargic. The reason for the lethargy is the shift in bed-time has a similar impact as jet-lag, as moving from 3 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. is a 6 and a half hour difference.

Imagine, trying to get to sleep at 8:30 p.m. after falling asleep at 3 a.m. the night before; essentially it is like expecting a normal night's sleep when you've just come back to the UK after a holiday in the USA (if indeed Big Mr Trump allows you in), not likely. This movement is also highly confusing for your circadian rhythm. The idea of “catching up on sleep” is also flawed, as people often seek to recover all the missed hours from previous nights at the weekend, but unfortunately a sleep debt is not one that is created and repaid with a clear and obvious interest rate (we’ll consider this in more detail in our 6th sleep spoiler “catching up with sleep”).

Additionally, and in my opinion, most importantly, one key to good sleep is for your brain to associate bed with sleep, but when going to bed early it's likely we'll lengthen the time to fall asleep. This gives us extra time to toss and turn, worry, check our phone the list goes on; leaving the brain associating bed with stress, anxiety and social media. Hence, when you go to bed you automatically feel stressed and anxious instead of relaxed and sleepy.

What can you do?

In order to promote a strong association between bed and sleep we need to minimise the amount of time we spend in bed awake (or maximise the time we spend in bed asleep, if you will).

With the above example if the individual goes to bed at 11:00 p.m. and gets to sleep at 3 a.m. before waking and getting out of bed at 7:30 a.m. then they are achieving a ratio of 4.5 hours sleep to 8.5 hours in bed or a 53% sleep efficiency rating.

(Sleep efficiency = Total Time Asleep / Total Time in Bed x 100)

53 = 4.5 / 8.5 x 100

I would suggest reversing the usual suggestion of an early night in favour of increasing this sleep efficiency rating, which in turn will increase the association your brain has between bed and sleep.

So for instance…

If Mr M goes to bed at 2 a.m. and gets to sleep at 3 a.m. before waking and getting out of bed at 7:30 a.m. then they are achieving a ratio of 4.5 hours sleep to 5.5 hours in bed or an 82% sleep efficiency. The key here is to have an anchored/fixed “rising time” i.e. to keep to a routine of getting up at 7:30 a.m. (on weekends too) and a set “threshold time” (bedtime) that increases the sleep efficiency rating, in this case 2 a.m. (*please do not restrict your sleep to less than 4/5 hours*). Research suggests that once a sleep efficiency rating of 90% is achieved you can start to move back your threshold time (bedtime) by 15 minutes (NB but keep your rising time fixed even at weekends!).

Please note, that there are other trains of thought and approaches regarding staying in bed when struggling to fall asleep, the above is based upon an evidence based approach for insomnia created by Colin Espie. For more information see:

Espie, C.A. (2010) Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems. London: Robinson

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