Lowdown on a lie down

WE spend about a third of our lives asleep, yet only a fraction of us realise the importance of good quality shut-eye. STACIA BRIGGS asks an East Anglian sleep expert everything you ever wanted to know, but were too tired to ask.

WE spend about a third of our lives asleep, yet only a fraction of us realise the importance of good quality shut-eye. STACIA BRIGGS asks an East Anglian sleep expert everything you ever wanted to know, but were too tired to ask.

NEIL Stanley sleeps well at night.

Unless there are exceptional circumstances, he finds himself in bed at 9pm and awake just before his alarm clock rings at 6.40am.

“I love sleep, it's been my life, my passion,” he said.

His bed is the largest he could find, he makes special detours to Amsterdam to buy the perfect bed linen and at night he'll often wind down by reading his collection of Victorian sleep books.

“People see sleep as a waste of time, as an inconvenience. They think that it's not important, but in fact it's probably even more important than diet or exercise,” said Neil, who until recently was running the largest sleep clinic in Europe based in Surrey, but has now taken up a new challenge at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, where he is managing the clinical research and trials unit.

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“We have forgotten the art of sleeping and lost the ability to relax. People actually pay money to be taught how to relax, they pay money to practitioners of Eastern mysticism to tell them how to chill out. What they need to do is what we always used to do in centuries gone by - go to bed and get enough sleep.”

This week is National Sleep Disturbance Week, which seeks to highlight the misery suffered by about 23 per cent in East Anglia who regularly fail to sleep soundly at night.

A survey, conducted by Crampex, revealed that women are twice as likely to suffer from disrupted sleep as men and that 34pc of those questioned believe that their bodies keep them awake at night rather than external factors such as traffic or noisy neighbours.

Stress, back pain and nocturnal cramps were listed as the most common sleep thieves.

Sleep has always fascinated Neil. He said: “We know that sleep is vital for good physical and mental health and helps us repair, recharge and sort out our memories, but what people often don't know is that it also helps us to forget,” he said.

“We do so much during the day that our brains would fill up with unnecessary information if we didn't sift useless stuff out while we sleep.

“For example, you've probably seen hundreds of sunsets in your life, but you'll only remember the ones that are important to you; the ones where you were with a loved one or when you were visiting somewhere new. If we couldn't forget, our minds would be full of sunsets and there wouldn't be space for anything new.”

Neil answers our sleep-related questions:

Q: What problems can arise if we don't get enough sleep?

A: Poor sleep is implicated in an increased risk of depression, heart disease, obesity and even cancer. It's also been shown to lead to higher levels of divorce. Children's academic performances are affected, their relationships with friends are more difficult and they may well have low self-esteem. It's easier to explain why we need to sleep well by looking at what happens when we don't get enough sleep.

Q: How much sleep can you afford to lose in a night without feeling the effects? What is a “normal” amount of sleep?

A: It's thought that losing just one hour of sleep from your normal pattern will leave you feeling as if you've had a bad night's sleep. The amount of sleep which people need varies from person to person, but is generally from three hours to 11 hours a night. This mythical eight-hour figure is simply an average. The amount of sleep you have is personal to you and you can't change it - you can ignore the need to sleep and stay up late or get up too early, but you will end up paying the price the next day.

Q: How do I know if I am getting enough sleep?

A: If you are alert and happy during the day then it's fair to assume that you have had enough sleep the night before. What your body craves is regularity - ideally you should go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Your body gets used to a regular pattern and if you change that pattern it gets confused. Occasional lie-ins will do nothing to help if you're not getting the amount of sleep you need on a daily basis most of the time.

Q: How much sleep do my children need?

A: Lots. A ten-year-old will need about ten hours, for instance. Children have a lot of memories to lay down every night - tasks they have learnt during the day need to be filed in the brain - and sleep is the only time when our bodies grow, when Human Growth Hormone is released. It's only recently that children have been allowed to stay up as late as they do today. I'm 41, and in my day we went to bed way before 9pm. There was one TV in the house, your parents controlled it and the most you could do was read under the bedclothes with a torch and that wasn't particularly exciting. We have forgotten common sense - children need sleep to be happy and healthy and letting them stay up late isn't helping them in the slightest.

Q: Why do I wake up just before my alarm clock goes off?

A: From an evolutionary point of view, sleeping is a very bad idea because it leaves you open to be eaten by wild animals. This means that the body has the ability to wake itself up. This is why you never get a good night's sleep when you know you have to get up at 3am to go and catch a flight. Your body doesn't allow itself to switch off entirely because it is aware of the fact of how important that 3am wake-up call is.

Q: My teenager plans to stay up all night cramming for an exam the next day. Is this a good idea?

A: No. There's no point studying overnight because each piece of information they take in will be like a piece of paper being placed on a desk. By the morning, there will be hundreds of pieces of paper, and if someone was to ask for a particular piece of paper you wouldn't be able to find it because you haven't given your brain enough time to process the information. The brain is a brilliant filing system, but it needs sleep to work properly.

Q: What happens to your sleep patterns as you get older?

A: As you get older, it's not the amount of time you spend in bed which counts, it's the effectiveness of the sleep you get. Past the age of 35, men's ability to sleep deeply begins to drop quite rapidly - women's ability to sleep deeply is not so badly affected - so they feel less refreshed after a night's sleep than they did when they were younger. That's why you don't see pensioners living it up in nightclubs - although they've got the time to sleep as much as they like, the sleep isn't as effective.

Q: How much time does an average person spend dreaming?

A: Most people have about five dreams every night. The first few dreams will last about five minutes, with dreams in the later part of the night lasting for up to 40 minutes each. Time bends when you're dreaming - a whole day of action can happen in a five-minute dream. Dreams help us make sense of the emotional things which happen to us in life - most people have a “stress dream” which occurs when they are feeling under pressure. Mine involves being at school and discovering I have no idea what my next lesson is or if I've done my homework. Had this happened when I had been at school, it probably would have been the worst thing ever! You can only dream to the limits of your imagination and you can only remember a dream if you wake up in the middle of it. So-called dream interpretations are rubbish - why would you need to be told by someone else what you're thinking? There's the old Freudian stuff about dreaming of a train entering a tunnel being about sex - it's more likely to be a trainspotter dreaming about a train.

Q: How can start a sleep routine?

A: I used to use a mental exercise. I'd ask people to imagine that they were sinking into a big bubble bath in a candlelit room, the water full of their favourite aromatherapy oil. Then I'd ask them to imagine relaxing in the bath before getting out, slipping into a warm fluffy towelling robe and climbing into a freshly-made bed. They'd say: “Oh, that sounds lovely!” and I'd say: “So why don't you do it?” A bath and fresh sheets don't cost much and don't take much effort; and isn't it worth it for a great night's sleep?

Rising levels of obesity could be linked to a lack of sleep in childhood.

Researcher Dr Shahrad Taheri said children and adolescents are getting fewer hours of sleep than they used to, affecting the levels of hormones that control appetite and energy expenditure. He blames shorter sleep periods on increased use of televisions, mobile phones and computers.