Recently I welcomed Aisha Cortoos to my People&Digital podcast. A little while back, I attended a conference Aisha was speaking at, and found her insight into the topic of sleep so fascinating that I simply had to get her on the podcast to share that wisdom.
Aisha is a clinical psychologist whose PhD centred on the subjects of sleep and stress. As well as working with the Sleep Lab at the University of Brussels (where she implemented a program for treating sleep problems without medication), she has also supported the military on projects related to sleep, stress, fatigue and performance.
Aisha now works as a family therapist, and has two daughters of her own, aged six and 10. With both girls refusing to sleep through the night from an early age, this presented quite the challenge to Aisha’s own sleep needs (as well as firmly debunking the idea that sleep experts sleep brilliantly!) But that’s why this is such an important topic – because everyone will have sleep issues at some point in their lives, and the more we can understand the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ – the science! – behind our need for sleep, the better we can overcome those issues.
Aisha jumps right in with one of her many helpful analogies… “Asking that question is a bit like asking why do we recharge a phone… When we sleep, we reboot the brain. We improve our memory. We prepare our short-term memory to learn new things and we clean up our immune system”.
Pretty important stuff, right? Ultimately we’re renewing and strengthening the connections between our brain cells, which then enable us to stay healthy and function effectively during the day.
You’d think this was a key message we taught in schools – after all, we continually teach children about the importance of eating healthily and keeping physically active. But, as Aisha explains, sleep just doesn’t get the same focus.
She goes on, “the World Health Organisation claims that there are three pillars of health: nutrition, physical activity and sleep… But no one talks about sleep. So for me, it’s a little bit like giving everyone a car, telling them to drive, but not actually teaching them to drive”.
So from an early age, it seems we’re missing that vital education into how sleep works, and why we must protect it.
According to Aisha this is mainly due to the way we are raised and the lack of focus on it. Society is obsessed with the idea that we must be ‘doing things’ in order to be productive and useful. Laziness is the enemy. Unfortunately, sleep has become connected to this idea of being lazy and so gained a negative association.
Because apparently, sleep = laziness = not being useful with your time. 😐
Here Aisha applies another helpful analogy: “It’s a bit like when you open your computer and get the message that it’s preparing for an update: ‘please don’t do anything’… You know exactly why you shouldn’t be doing anything… [Because] at that point your computer is doing something important to improve its performance”.
With sleep it’s exactly the same – unfortunately, it’s not written on our foreheads!
So we begin to think that sleep is some sort of waste of time. And that’s so far from the truth! Aisha says, “only when you become aware of the science behind it, and are conscious of its effects during the day, will you start to understand why sleep is so important”.
The first thing to understand is what Aisha calls the ‘flip-flop’ mechanism. People have rarely heard of it, but it helps to explain the difference between being asleep and being awake.
Imagine that the brain has a balance switch. On one side of this sits your stress system (which can intensify, much like going up through the gears of a car – the higher you go, the more alert and active you become). And on the other side, you have your sleep system.
Our brains developed millions of years ago when survival was our number one priority. Back then, sleep was dangerous because it made us vulnerable to outside physical threats, like dangerous animals.
Back then and now, if the gears of the stress system are activated (in other words, something is triggering your stress), it tells your sleep system that you’re in danger. So your brain stays vigilant. It remembers those evolutionary survival needs and inhibits sleep so that we don’t fall into a vulnerable state.
Nowadays, we don’t need to stay alert against lions and bears (thankfully!), but our physical worries have been replaced with mental or emotional stresses, like finances, family, work and relationships.
And the other difference, is that when we were staying alert for physical dangers all those years ago, our stress systems had time to drop (because after the lion had gone away we didn’t cling to the worry about it). Nowadays, our mental worries hang around as we wonder, will this come back tomorrow, next week, next month?
Aisha explains that our brains “don’t make the distinction between a real or an imagined threat”, and so the brain reacts the same way regardless, meaning that today’s stress systems have become “very rigid and continuously activated… And that’s a problem”.
So we need to learn to protect the ‘flip-flop’ system. Yes, stress is important to survival – it’s why we’re still here! – but in today’s world we need to understand how to manage our stress systems. To deactivate them or turn them down.
Aisha’s advice: “Learn how to use it, apply the right strategy, and the stress system is not dangerous. It’s not your enemy… It’s your friend”.
We hear so many stories of influential people and the (surprisingly little) amount of sleep they get. Some even boast at needing as little as four or five hours per night! Aisha swiftly rejects the idea that all perceived ‘successful’ people get by on just a few hours’ sleep. Her trump card?
Yep, he allegedly needed over nine hours’ sleep a night!
No wonder he was a genius!
(And that makes me feel a little better about making sure I get my precious shut-eye too!) 😊
The other crazy myth according to Aisha, is the one about each hour before midnight counting as double. She says it comes from the fact that the first few hours of night-time sleep are deeper than the later ‘REM’ sleep phase. But, deeper sleep is not better – both types of sleep are equally important.
Aisha stresses that the key factor is our biological clock, which determines when deep and ‘REM’ sleep happens – not external time!
If you were free of commitments and responsibilities, what time would you feel ready to go to bed, and then naturally wake up? A lot of night owls say they’d head up to bed at around 1-2am, then wake at around 9-10am.
Unfortunately the traditional working week isn’t suited to that, and Aisha believes this to be the major cause of society’s sleep problems. Basically, it doesn’t respect our natural biological clocks.
The consequences of that? An epidemic of disturbed, inefficient sleep.
Because many of us are going to bed earlier, we’re trying to sleep without having produced enough melatonin. Aisha described melatonin as “the hormone your internal clock will start to produce because it’s dark… And when it’s dark your internal clock assumes that you are safe in your cave. The lions are asleep, so you [can] engage in that dangerous activity of sleeping… And if we are not producing melatonin, even if we need sleep, we experience difficulties falling asleep because our brain is signalling that it’s not safe”.
Come morning, we produce a different hormone: Cortisol. This is also known as the stress hormone and usually kicks into action around two hours before we wake up.
If your internal engine has warmed up but your sleep cycle is delayed, you’ll find the alarm going off before there’s enough cortisol in the tank.
The result? Difficulty waking up.
So it becomes a vicious cycle of struggling to fall asleep and then struggling to wake. The knock-on effect? A sleep debt which “impacts memory, learning, performance, creativity and emotional stability” says Aisha.
One way is to implement structure.
Night owls who have an enforced sleep cycle will often lie in at weekends to make up for the working week. But this isn’t wise, according to Aisha. She describes it as like experiencing a ‘mini jet lag’, and instead suggests only sleeping on for a maximum of one hour beyond your usual (weekly) waking time.
Once you are awake, Aisha advises trying to stimulate the production of cortisol through exposure to light. Try a special light that comes on before your alarm, or get up and open the curtains to let the daylight in. If you can, get outside. Especially if you can fit in some physical exercise too – this is hugely beneficial to regulating our internal clocks.
The other key thing to implement is rest and recovery. We live in a performance-obsessed world, where our days consist of either being active and productive, or sleeping. But there’s a missing link that’s hugely important too.
Remember the ‘flip-flop’ system? The only way to deactivate your stress system and promote your sleep system is to let your body rest and recover. This can mean doing nothing, or engaging in activities that are totally different to your daily routine. So if you spend your days looking at a computer, find time to take part in physical exercise or hobbies.
Allow yourself moments to disconnect. It might feel very hard at first – especially if you’re out of practice at it. But we must listen to our bodies and build in that essential rest and recovery time.
Aisha says a positive mindset is paramount. “People who sleep badly often have a tendency to become overly negative about their sleep”, she explains, “and they tend to link everything to their sleep and underestimate their resilience”.
This can create a negative cycle, where we get frustrated with ourselves and with our bodies. This in turn leads to more stress, and more trouble sleeping.
You see? Another vicious cycle, right there.
Aisha’s advice is to try and stay positive, and trust you will have the necessary reserves. But also, be kind to yourself. Slow things down, take the day a little easier if you can, and spend some time outside. All of these things will help you disconnect and wind down in the evening, hopefully ready for a better night.
Yes! Aisha is all for napping – hooray! 😊 It can be incredibly restorative, especially if you suffer from weekly sleep shortages. Just make sure you follow these simple rules:
Don’t be a perfectionist, says Aisha. Aim for between seven and nine hours, but know you can’t have the perfect amount of sleep every night.
Also, evaluate how you function during the day. Yes, you might feel drowsy when you first wake up (thanks to sleep inertia, an early morning system designed to help us get back to sleep), but this should pass within an hour. As long as it does, and as long as you can function mentally and physically for the majority of the day, you’re fine.
Don’t obsess over how long it takes you to fall asleep. It’s unusual to be asleep within ten minutes. Half an hour is often much more realistic.
Lastly, remember that feeling tired is normal! It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re sleeping badly. You might just need to spend more time resting and recovering.
“How the biological clock works”. Aisha describes how at university she had a very delayed sleep cycle and frequently missed her morning lectures. After a few months, she had to do an internship and was suddenly getting up at 6am! She confesses that understanding more about her biological clock would have enabled her to adjust far quicker to this new time commitment.
“I would have used light therapy in the morning, melatonin in the evening, and I would have probably adjusted within one month instead of six”.
Such wise words… Let’s all try to spend more time understanding our natural biological clocks, and really start putting our sleep health first.
Voilà! So, so fascinating! To hear more from Aisha on the subject of sleep, check out our podcast episode.
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