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What Are The Secrets To A Good Night's Sleep?

Sleep used to be something that simply happened once the day was done, and our eyes would stay open no longer. Now, the pursuit of the perfect night's sleep has become the ultimate wellness goal – and it’s not without consequence.

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The obsession with sleep

Our collective sleep obsession has given way to a rise in what’s been dubbed “orthosomnia”. Coined in 2017 by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers said the name was chosen because the preoccupation with so-called healthy sleeping mirrors the symptoms of orthorexia – the disordered eating condition that manifests as a preoccupation with “clean” or healthy foods. And is it any wonder, looking at the current sleep landscape? Silicon Valley tech bros (looking at you, Jack Dorsey) have tried to “hack” it with micro-naps, ice packs attached to their bodies and electrodes strapped to their heads.

At the other end of the spectrum, the wellness brigade remove technology from their bedrooms altogether for "clean" sleeping. Or perhaps you're more of a luxury snoozer, curling up on a Casper mattress, wearing Olivia Von Halle pyjamas in a room scented by Neom Organics candles – Cult Beauty has seen a 121 per cent spike in searches for their 'sleep' category, while overnight skin treatments have grown as a category some 320 per cent. It marks a definite shift from the rather ‘90s attitude of “work hard, play hard”, when surviving on a scant few hours was a badge of honour.

Poor sleep and its effects

Of course, poor quality sleep is nothing new (Aristotle complained of insomnia in 350BC, so don't let anyone lambast you for loving late-night Netflix), the difference is that now when a colleague tells you they slept poorly, they have the data to back it up. “Only 32 per cent quality last night,” their app will tell them. On the one hand, caring more about sleep is essentially positive. UCL Neurologist Professor Matthew Walker, who has been running a sleep clinic for 18 years, said there are positives to the movement... “We undoubtedly know that a lack of sleep is bad for your health, both in the short-term with poor judgement and memory, and also in the long-term, with potential links to Alzheimer's,” he explained. Professor Walker also noted that he's relieved people are moving away from burning the candle at both ends so often, given that a primary cause of road traffic accidents is still sleep deprivation. “Sleep deprivation can affect you in a way that essentially [is similar to putting] you over the alcohol limit,” he added.

The rise of competitive sleep

However, it also fosters a bizarrely competitive environment which, in turn, causes poor quality sleep. “People now are obsessed with having the ‘perfect’ sleep in the same way they might want the ‘perfect’ car or house,” Professor Walker added. “There is a very real thing in that people will end up lying awake worrying about their sleep quality, or will wake up in the night, check the time and then panic that they won't get enough sleep and tomorrow will be ruined,” said Professor Walker. Enter the ”sleep retreats”, the expensive oil diffusers, the weighted blankets and the smug, rested smiles of co-workers. The extreme version of this is the desire to somehow optimise sleep to be part of your “hustle” as it were – whether that's taking power naps and firing off emails in between, or using an overnight mask or treatment so that not a second of your time is wasted.

Getting the right amount of sleep for you

Essentially, our perception of sleep is wrong, according to Professor Walker. “We all have different capacities for sleep deprivation. The general rule is that most people need seven or eight hours, with some deviation from that. You may feel guilty that a friend claims that they ‘only need’ five hours, but they may catch up at the weekend - a pattern that's not always sustainable.”

Cycles of sleep

Thatcher-esque requirements aside, Professor Walker also pointed out that waking in the night is common. “Almost everybody wakes during the night around two or three times. The difference is that most of us fall asleep again, but if you're anxious, that anxiety may trigger you to stay awake longer and then not be able to sleep again.” The other factor to consider is how the cycles of sleep work, and it turns out there is a little truth in the old adage that the best sleep happens before midnight. “The deepest sleep usually happens in the first third of being asleep,” explained Professor Walker. “The two thirds that follow are generally lighter sleep and dream sleep. Quite often, people say to me that they've been awake for hours by the time they have to get up, but often, they are sleeping, just so lightly.” Essentially, anxiety can render light sleep positively featherweight, and any dreams you're having may be so mundane – or so unsettling – that it doesn't feel like rest at all.

Treating insomnia

It's also worth noting that to feel tired sometimes is normal – you are only human, and humans do not fire on all cylinders all day, every day. Hoping to remove tiredness or fatigue from your life altogether will be about as fruitful as attempting to eliminate your own hunger, or need to sneeze. “Generally, we measure tiredness not by how you feel immediately on waking, but on how difficult you find it to stay awake during the day, using something called the Epworth Scale,” said Professor Walker.

The professor's advice? “Go to bed, and get up!” he laughed, noting that attempts to return to a “caveman” style of sleeping were an unhelpful fad. His advice for treating insomnia was to get to the root of it. The NHS backs an online sleep cognitive behavioral therapy course called Sleepio, which is free in many parts of the country. Otherwise, his snoozing tips included keeping your bedroom for sleeping – and not for working nor spending idle hours scrolling on your phone – trying to maintain a regular routine, and minimising general blue light exposure before bed.

We all must sleep to live, and anything that helps you on your way, be that thousand thread count sheets or whale music, is indeed an investment in your health. As for power naps, “clean” sleeping, wearable trackers and the rest of that ilk? Sleep on it.


This article by Daniela Morosini originally appeared here:

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