The science of sleep – and why it matters

Bad sleeping patterns can have detrimental effects on your mental and physical health. Improve your sleep cycle with some simple changes and reap the rewards at work
by Bethan Rees


Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is said to have had only four hours of sleep per night and inventor Nikola Tesla just two hours, while Thomas Edison claimed sleeping was a waste of time.

The US National Sleep Foundation (NSF) would disagree with these prominent people and argue that they were not getting enough sleep. In 2015, the foundation issued recommendations in its Sleep Health journal for appropriate sleep durations. A panel of experts in fields such as sleep, anatomy, physiology and neurology reviewed over 300 sleep studies to try and find the optimum amount of time a person should sleep per night, according to their age. The panel recommends that adults aged 18 to 64 should have between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, while adults over 65 should aim to achieve a range of seven to eight hours.

A lack of sleep can have a negative impact on your working life. Why is sleep so important, and how does it work?

The science of sleep, or lack of

A person’s functionality and sleep are intimately connected. A post on US-based healthcare provider John Hopkins Medicine’s website explains why just the right amount of sleep is crucial to our performance.

“A healthy amount of sleep is vital for ‘brain plasticity’, or the brain’s ability to adapt to input. If we sleep too little, we become unable to process what we’ve learned during the day and we have more trouble remembering it in the future. Researchers also believe that sleep may promote the removal of waste products from brain cells – something that seems to occur less efficiently when the brain is awake,” the post says.

It says that lack of sleep can affect the rest of the body too, leading to increased health risks from a weakened immune system. Symptoms of seizures and migraines can also worsen.

Repeatedly sleeping too little, or too much, can also affect your cognition. An article by Holly Pevzner for Psychology Today refers to a 2018 study by Western University in Ontario that looks at the link between sleep and cognitive memory. The study of 10,000 people finds that those who slept for seven to eight hours scored the highest in terms of cognition and memory, irrespective of age or gender, and the people who consistently slept for fewer hours (or, perhaps surprisingly, more) were also impaired. Those who reported sleeping for four hours or less for an extended period of time showed declining cognitive test results, as much as if they had aged eight years.

But how does declining brain functionality manifest itself day-to-day? A BBC article says that, “with continued lack of sufficient sleep, the part of the brain that controls language, memory, planning and sense of time is severely affected, practically shutting down. In fact, 17 hours of sustained wakefulness leads to a decrease in performance equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05%(two glasses of wine)".

Writing for the UK government’s Public health matters blog, Dr Justin Varney, national strategic adviser on health and work at Public Health England, explains some of the symptoms of sleep deprivation that will directly impact your working life. These include: decreased communication; performance deterioration; greater risk-taking behaviour; inappropriate behaviour; and an inability to make necessary judgements.

Tips for a better sleep

The UK’s Sleep Council, an organisation that raises the awareness of the importance of a good night's sleep to your health, advises optimising bedroom conditions to aid a good night’s sleep, which can be done with some simple changes. Ensure your room is completely dark and at an optimal temperature of around 16–18°C. Avoid your technological devices as “LED displays are particularly troublesome when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep”.

Sticking to a sleep schedule – even on the weekends – can aid a better sleep, according to the NSF. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help regulate your body clock and can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Before going to bed, you might want to consider completing a ritual to help you sleep better, the foundation says. “A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep, get sound and deep sleep or remain asleep.”

Dr Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep expert, writing on his website, gives some tips on how to create a personal bedtime ritual. He recommends committing to being in bed and ready to sleep at a precise time. “This may be the hardest part and the first place to start in developing your ritual, but committing is the key to success,” he says. He also encourages readers to use his sleep calculator tool to determine the optimal bedtime for a good sleep. He then suggests working your way backwards to figure out how long you need for your bedtime ritual.

He gives some examples of rituals. These include having a warm bath or shower, list-making (such as writing down what you need to do the next day), meditating for anxiety and stress reduction, drinking a non-caffeinated beverage such as a herbal tea, which can be calming, and he recommends not looking at screens for 60–90 minutes before you go to bed. “If you must, then wear blue light-blocking glasses,” he suggests.

Has your work been affected by lack of sleep? How have you fixed it? Leave your comments below.

Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email
Published: 23 Aug 2019
  • Career Development
  • The Review
  • sleep
  • mental health
  • Behaviour

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