Sleeping can be practiced like any other skill.
You might not even notice the effects of one poorly slept night, but staying up for weeks or months on end will affect your cognitive abilities.
Henri Tuomilehto, a doctor specialising in sleep, is here to offer the comforting thought that sleep is a human activity that can be practiced.
Tuomilehto works as a physician at the Coronaria Sleep Clinic. He also studies the health effects of sleep, helps several top athletes with their sleeping and works for the Finnish Olympic Committee as a sleep specialist.
Sleep is the most important source of energy for human beings.
As with all other learning, sleep training also takes effort.
– Sleep is the most important source of energy for human beings. Unfortunately, its significance is not fully understood. The amount and quality of sleep have been in clear decline in recent decades. These factors are clearly linked to mental well-being, Tuomilehto says.
On the other hand, sleep now has some new-found appreciation and people are beginning to talk about their sleep-related problems.
– In today's hectic working life, many are going short on their sleep to add hours to their days and to be able to exercise better, for example. I for one do not believe in quality time snatched from the early hours. These kinds of nonsense trends wash over us every now and again. Physiology dictates that if you wake up at 5 AM to go for a jog, you must be in bed soon after 8 PM the previous night.
Adequate sleep takes effort
The tempo of life has been changing significantly over the last 15 years.
Today's humans fill their daily schedules using computer programs and struggle to find the time to meet the performance-centred demands of today's work and family life and leisure activities.
– The line between one's professional and private life has also become blurred. People answer work emails before they go to sleep. Simultaneously, the share of cognitive work has grown.
Screens and other devices put stress on the brain. Few people are working regular 8–16 office hours anymore.
Tuomilehto thinks that the issue comes down to life choices similar to those people make with regard to nutrition between a carrot and a piece of chocolate cake, for example.
In the hope of instant gratification, sleep is put on the back burner and other matters take priority, even though one well knows that sleep would be the better option for one's long-term well-being.
People must put an effort into their sleeping.
– People must put an effort into their sleeping. Evenings can be very active for modern humans. When we come home we might eat and rest for a bit, but around 8 PM we realise that we still have things to do and get busy. Our conscious choices lead to our brains being fully engaged at the time when we should be going to bed. Naturally, falling asleep is impossible in such a state.
8 PM is a good limit
Tuomilehto describes himself as an evening person, which means that he has to make more of an effort than the average person to fall asleep at the right time in the evening. As a former professional athlete, exercise is quite literally a matter of the heart to him.
However, he does not perform any straining tasks after 8 PM – if he does, he cannot expect to fall asleep until one in the morning.
Sometimes the risk is worth taking, but it should not be a daily occurrence if the intention is to wake up in time in the mornings. Playing a fast-paced team sport three nights a week will begin to affect one's sleep at some point, which will in turn negatively affect other aspects of one's life. One should have their priorities figured out.
– For me, evenings are about relaxation. Food is an effective way to control your level of alertness. I eat the main meal of the day only after work, which is a way for me to consciously tire myself out towards the evening. I believe eating in the evening is frowned upon for no good reason. It has more to do with one's personal daily rhythm.
Tuomilehto reminds us that sensitivity to sleep is a personal characteristic.
Even those suffering from sleep-related problems can practice their sleeping skills and not only improve the quality of their sleep but also increase the number of hours they sleep.
The basic requirement is, of course, that one's lifestyle is in order. A sensitive sleeper knows that sleep cannot be forced.
The foundations of a good night's sleep are laid during the day. Regular meals and maintaining a high energy level help people complete their work over the course of the day. Towards the evening the agenda could include comfortable and relaxing things.
It is important to know how to end your work day. You may not have the time to do everything in one day.
– In order to practice sleeping, people must understand what kind of sleepers they are. If you wake up multiple times per night, you are likely a sensitive sleeper. Even if you cannot become the best sleeper in the world even with practice, you can always improve the quality of your sleep, says Tuomilehto comfortingly.
Make it easier for yourself to fall asleep
We can never be sure what the coming day has in store for us. Sudden new stress factors can easily take a sleep-deprived person to the doctor's office when fatigue turns their entire life upside down.
Tuomilehto is not fully against medication, but he emphasises that pills should only be used to the point where the person regains their faith in their ability to fall asleep on their own.
– Drugs are always supportive treatment. Their purpose is to help find a rhythm over a certain period of time that allows the person to sleep even without them.
The evening must be made the most comfortable time of the day. This is the starting point for adequate sleep.
Tuomilehto encourages people to bolster their sleeping pattern in advance so that every single new obstacle in life will not immediately send them to a cycle of sleeplessness. A regular lifestyle will help one overcome these situations.
– The evening must be made the most comfortable time of the day. This is the starting point for adequate sleep. You should not work at night. My own day is over once I sit down at the dining table after work. The solutions can often be found in small and simple changes to daily routines, Tuomilehto says in encouragement.
Sleeping instructions from a sleep doctor
- Sleeping is physiology. You can become a good sleeper with practice. Through repeated routines the body will learn when it is time to sleep.
- Calm your evenings in time. A sweaty workout that raises your heart rate at 8 PM or answering work emails at midnight may make it more difficult for you to fall asleep, especially if you are a sensitive sleeper. Listen to your body.
- Eating after 6 PM is allowed – it is an easy way to wind down your machinery and calm yourself down for the night. However, a good evening snack does not meaning gorging on food.
- Consider getting enough sleep to be a positive thing. A regular and well thought-out rhythm and a healthy lifestyle are the keys to a good night's sleep. One poorly slept night is not yet a disaster.
- Appreciate your night's sleep. Otherwise you will not be able to make the changes in your life that you need to make in order to improve your ability to sleep.
- Losing weight can help with sleep apnea. Two thirds of the sleep deprivation problems caused by sleep apnea have to do with being overweight. Continuous positive airway pressure treatment is the primary way of treatment in severe cases of sleep apnea or if the problems are caused by structural issues with the person's throat or bite.
- Do not cut down on the amount of sleep no matter how busy you are. Those super people who can manage with four hours of sleep per night are very rare in the real world. Sleeping forms the basis of all recovery.
- Discover the factors behind your sleeping disorder together with a specialist. There are over 80 different sleeping disorders, and one might suffer from more than one at once. All of these disorders are treatable.e