Last week, I gave my third webinar, The Power of Sleep. As with my other webinars, I’m answering the questions here, whether or not I answered them on the evening. Sometimes my answers are better after some thought!
I had lovely feedback, which I do value because I couldn’t see your faces so I had no idea how it was going! It’s very disconcerting.
The two winners of my book giveaway were Rowan and BG. And I’ve now posted all the prizes to the book and pillow spray giveaways on Facebook (Rhona M), Instagram (Alex P), and my website (Ros, Sarah-Jane and Katherine). Well done, everyone! Even though it was random and therefore luck. But you had to be in it to win it so well done for that.
Your questions in blue
An early slide mentioned mental health and REM. Can you explain this link a bit more, please?
This was a question I answered badly. This is because when I get a question like that I can’t tell (and can’t ask) for more detail as to where the question “comes from”: in other words, is the questioner worried about a particular person, themselves or a young person, and what kind of mental health problem are we talking about?
The slide was about some of the benefits of different stages/levels of sleep. And it stated that REM sleep (where our “proper” dreaming happens) seems to benefit mental health. One factor here is that for many people with depressive conditions, very early waking (and not going back to sleep) is a feature and that is the part of the night where most REM sleep usually happens. So, people who wake early and don’t fall back to sleep have less REM sleep than otherwise. The link between poor sleep and poor mental health seems to be bi-directional: depressive illness can be both a cause of and affected by poor sleep. Also, people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) seem more often to have abnormal dream sleep and there is a theory that traumatic events are healthily processed during REM sleep and that if this natural process is somehow missed there can be a negative effect. But we don’t know for sure what the causal links are, just that it seems that a healthy mental state is engendered by a healthy REM sleep pattern.
The Sleep Foundation has an article you might find helpful.
How good/bad is oversleeping? Such as lie-ins on the weekend or on holidays
This is a really tricky one because both the following are true:
- When we have genuinely not had enough sleep during the week and are really tired, we need to make that sleep up at the weekend. This seem reasonable, kind and healthy.
- But the healthiest sleep is the most regular sleep and having a very long lie-in at the weekend will break that healthy routine required for easy, deep, healthy sleep
I recommend a compromise which tries to incorporate the following guidelines:
- If you’re going to have a lie-in, just do it on Saturday morning and don’t make it too long
- Or have a short lie-in (not more than 2 hours and not later than 9.30 or 10.00) on both mornings
- OR if your normal waking time is very early (before 6am) it would seem reasonable to sleep till 8 or 9 on one or both mornings (I am making those times up, based on common sense and general understanding of both sleep and humans!)
- If you wake up, as is likely, at your useful alarm time, open your curtains before going back to bed
- Instead of a lie-in, you could have an early-mid afternoon nap (not later than 5pm and not longer than an hour)
- Try to go to bed a bit earlier so you get sleep then (though you probably won’t be able to go to sleep much earlier unless you are very tired)
- If you want to lie in for the luxurious feeling of not needing to get up, could you read (or similar) in bed with the curtains open so you are awake and daylight is helping your brain be wakeful?
The same applies to holidays but there’s more flexibility here as you have longer to get back into the swing of things. I suggest these guidelines:
- You could have 3-4 days at the start when you catch up on your sleep, followed by a regular sleep and wake time which gives you 8 hours a night
- Around 5 days before you go back to your work routine, start to shift your sleep/wake times towards what you’ll be doing then
- Focus on keeping it regular
Is it possible to sleep too much?
Yes. There are three aspects to this.
First, very long lie-ins wreck your circadian rhythms, which is the point of my previous answer. If you sleep really late some mornings, your brain won’t know what to expect and you’ll be likely to struggle to fall asleep at the necessary time next night.
Secondly, there’s the fact that there are a few conditions that are characterised by excessive sleepiness, often including falling asleep during the day. If you think this applies to you, it’s definitely worth checking with a doctor that there isn’t something that requires treatment.
However, note that when we’re ill – for example, with any kind of virus or minor illness – sleep is really important and it’s completely normal to want to sleep a lot. In fact, sleeping is then the best way to help your body heal itself. So, if you’re unwell, don’t fight sleep. But if your need to sleep doesn’t seem to be a side effect of a virus or other illness that you’re aware of, do check with a doctor.
Try not to overthink it. Our bodies do quickly get used to it and within a couple of days we’ll be feeling fine. It’s just a bit discombobulating, not just because of our internal clocks but because suddenly it’s lighter or darker than it was and we have to relearn how to have a sense of what time it is.
If you want to make it easier, you could try shifting meal-times and bedtimes by half an hour in that direction the day before the clocks change. And if you have dogs, especially Labradors, do the same for them!
Is it possible for teenagers to change their circadian rhythm given their melatonin change at this age? Or do we just have to ‘ wait it out’ until they get older and in the meantime teach good habits as best we can?
(For clarity for those not at the event, I was talking about making small gradual shifts in timing of sleep onset, not making huge changes and altering it in a profound way.)
I’m not aware of any research specifically into teenagers compared to adults but I see no reason why it wouldn’t be equally possible, in theory. It’s my understanding that anyone can shift the time they typically feel sleepy and that habits are formed in the same way and as easily in any age group. I think greater barriers to teens shifting their sleep onset are the social pressure of wanting to be online with their friends, having too much school work to do and other anxieties keeping them from starting to get ready for bed.
So, yes, teaching good habits as best you can is definitely the way to go. And modelling those habits yourself…
Are supplements like L-theanine and magnesium useful for teens to assist with sleep? Particularly those who have issues sleeping due to worries
Again, I’m not aware of research into teens specifically. However, there is some research suggesting that L-theanine may help boys diagnosed with ADHD to sleep better. And there seems to be good evidence that both L-theanine and magnesium in the diet help promote sleep. But I’d always want to get any nutrients from my diet rather than taking usually expensive supplements. And always remember that these are not medicines so they are not regulated and a safe dose isn’t necessarily known. Therefore it’s always better to try to get any nutrients from diet if possible.
I would also caution against promoting any message such as “this supplement will help you sleep” because then you can introduce a psychological dependence. Better to say “These are elements of a healthy diet and, because they could have sleep benefits, they are the foods we’re going to eat for our evening meal.” You then give young people a sense of good decision-making and good dietary patterns moving towards bedtime.
My son has bad dreams. This affects his sleep and sometimes he’s able to go back to sleep and other times he’s unable to go back to sleep
I think all you can do here is:
- Reassure him that even though bad dreams are horrible they are not harmful – and are actually helpful for processing fears. They also don’t mean anything specific. They don’t mean there’s something wrong with him in any way.
- Reassure him that we often have phases of bad dreams, especially when we are anxious.
- You might like to read about lucid dreaming – there’s a section in The Awesome Power of Sleep. It’s possible for people to get control of their dreams – literally to be aware they are dreaming and to change their dream content. I used to do this as a child. He could try telling himself, before sleep, “If I dream, I am going to be aware of it and I will be able to wake myself up if I want to.”
- Teach him techniques for getting back to sleep. And, if he’s distressed, tell him it’s OK to get up and read a funny or light book or draw a picture or something (anything other than going on a screen). It’s helpful to take his mind off the bad dream content, too.
Depending on their age, it’s very very hard (impossible?!) to force them to put their screens away. They need to want to. So I suggest a two-pronged strategy:
- Get them to research the benefits themselves – The Teenage Guide to Life Online (by me) is very balanced and geared towards them.
- Then have a family discussion about a strategy for ALL of you to follow.
They do actually know that being on their devices for too long is not good for them. But their devices are immensely tempting and it’s very hard to decide to put them down when they’re having so much fun or satisfying a huge need (to be social and not miss out).
You do need to recognise the addictive quality of these behaviours and therefore to recognise that simply saying “don’t do it” is not going to work. They have to want to change and then you can, with discussion, find ways to help.
How do you minimise the impact of jet lag? Not a current concern but hopefully we’ll be travelling again soon
I’ve had personal experience of successfully avoiding jetlag as I used to do a lot of long-distance travel and had to work at the end of it. My tips are nothing new but involve:
- Taking control of everything possible, even if each action has a small effect: sleep when possible, eat healthily, avoid too much alcohol, try to relax, get daylight in the morning
- Before take-off, set my clock to the time in the country I’m travelling to and starting to work to that routine not the one in my head
- I have never gone down the route of staying up till it’s supposed to be bedtime in the arrival country: I sleep when I feel like sleeping.
I have never taken melatonin and would never do so for this. (I would if prescribed for a medical condition.)
In lockdown has there been an increase in crazy dreams?
I realise that on the night I read this as a statement and not a question! (To be fair, there wasn’t a question mark!) Indeed, many people have reported more “crazy dreams”. This could be because:
- People may be expecting more crazy dreams and so noticing them
- People may (therefore) be talking about their dreams more and so others are then relating their “crazy” dreams
- People may be waking more (sleeping more lightly) and therefore being more aware of their dreams
- People may actually be having more “crazy” dreams!
We just don’t know. But it’s reasonable to guess that in times of stress our dreams might be wilder.
I wake up remembering the dreams and feel that I had not slept well through the night due to this. Is that ok?
It’s OK in the sense that it doesn’t signify a big problem. However, it suggests that you’re not sleeping deeply, because you’re waking a lot. This is making you believe you’re unrested. You might actually be unrested but how you feel when you wake isn’t a great indicator as many people feel groggy for a while after they wake, especially if waking to an alarm before they’re ready.
Remembering our dreams is something that happens if we wake straight form them rather than going from a dream into other levels of sleep. So, waking from a dream isn’t in itself a problem. I would focus on trying to sleep better overall, by having enough sleep and having regular sleep/wake times if possible. Of course, there are many things outside your control and current anxieties often make it hard to sleep soundly.
Yes, the NHS sleep apps page is really useful and, depending on where you live, you’ll find good quality Apps that are usually free to the user (NHS-funded).
There are basically two types of App:
- Ones that play music or stories to help you relax into sleep – if you share a bedroom this is a problem as you’ll need to wear earbuds, which I have no experience of but which I can imagine being impractical/bad for sleeping with? If you sleep alone, you could try this but make sure there’s a way for the music/story to switch off automatically. (Alexa can do this.)
- Ones that use CBT-i to create a programme for you to improve your sleep habits. This usually involves a questionnaire to ascertain your bad habits and then seeks to alter them by giving you specific routines and plans. You won’t get different advice from the advice in my book but it will be tailored for you and tell you exactly what to do, which some people need.
I need a break to finish some writing tasks/deadlines (also, breathe) but I intend that there will be two more webinars this year:
- Building resilience against tough times
- Building healthy screen use
Follow this blog if you don’t want to miss details!
Thanks, everyone. Sleep well, of course!