Article written by Dr Greg Potter ( PhD, MSc, BSc)

Greg Potter helps individuals and organisations sustainably improve their health and performance through practical lifestyle changes. He does this through coaching, public speaking, consulting, podcasting, writing articles, and developing and popularising innovative new products.

Greg’s PhD research focuses on sleep, circadian rhythms, nutrition, and metabolism, and he is co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Resilient Nutrition, a nutrition and supplement company.

The year 2023 was tough and left many of us feeling stressed, fatigued, and worried about the future. For others, 2023 had its upsides, but a few too many mince pies and glasses of mulled wine over the festive period have resulted in several additional unwanted pounds of body weight. Regardless of your reasons, in January, you might find your motivation is surging and you’re eager to get your health back on track in the new year. If that’s the case, you will surely benefit from focusing on improving your sleep.

In previous articles, we explored how different forms of sleep disruption are associated with various maladies. In this article, we’ll now turn our attention to rosier research showing that improving your sleep health can quickly and substantially improve how you feel and function. To exemplify this point, we’ll focus on the following three common sleep issues:

  • Insufficient sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Sleep apnoea

What is Sleep Extension?

Did you know that people who habitually don’t get enough sleep benefit greatly from getting more sleep? The reality is that lots of us don’t regularly get enough sleep, so if you think your sleep quality is quite good but you consistently wake to an alarm, this section is for you.

There have now been many studies assessing “sleep extension” — what happens when people who have adequate sleep quality but who are short on sleep extend their nightly sleep opportunity over a period of anywhere from a few nights to several months. Unsurprisingly, this practice prolongs sleep duration, but it also leads to some striking changes in health and performance.

First, sleep extension tends to reduce appetite, cravings for sweet and salty foods, and daily food intake, ultimately leading to a lower bodyweight. Sleep extension doesn’t just affect what people eat though — it also improves how their bodies dispose of the nutrients they consume. For example, your body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin relates to your risk of diseases such as diabetes, and sleep extension can enhance this key marker of health.

Next, sleep extension can sharpen how your brain works. It lifts feelings of wellbeing, can improve your ability to pay attention, and protects against the negative effects of later sleep loss on brain function.

Then there is the fact that sleep extension can raise exercise performance. There’s been quite a lot of research showing that longer sleep boosts athletic performance in many sports, including tennis, cycling, swimming, and basketball. If you think your sleep quality is sufficient but you know you’d sleep more if given the chance, try the following:

1. Set your alarm as late as possible and do not press snooze! If you’re prone to hitting snooze, move your alarm out of arm’s reach so that you must physically get out of bed to turn it off.

2. Reduce your exposure to bright overhead lighting in the 3 hours before bed. Such lighting can delay your body’s clock, shifting your sleep later and thereby compressing your sleep opportunity. The best type of lighting before sleep is only bright enough to let you see, is located at eye level or below, and has an amber tint — think light that mimics a firelight.

3. Go to bed 30 to 60 mins earlier than previously, provided you’re sleepy at this time.

These changes should prolong your sleep by an hour or so, which will add up to meaningful changes in how you feel as the weeks go by.

How Insomnia Can Affect Your Sleeping Schedule

Treating insomnia using cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTI) lifts mood and other aspects of wellbeing. Moving now to insomnia, this pervasive sleep disorder is characterised by some sort of daytime dysfunction (for example, low mood, fatigue) plus difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or feeling sleep wasn’t restorative, all despite an adequate sleep opportunity. To be diagnosed with chronic insomnia, these sleep-related difficulties must have occurred at least 3 nights a week for at least 12 weeks.

Chronic insomnia goes hand in hand with a range of health issues. It’s particularly strongly related to mental ill health, and the onset of insomnia often forebodes later mood problems. Encouragingly, there are excellent treatments for insomnia that durably improve sleep and other aspects of wellbeing. CBTI is arguably the most effective treatment for insomnia and typically takes the form of a 4- to the 8-week programme of therapies designed to address unhelpful sleep-related thoughts and behaviours. CBTI requires no drugs and is therefore also inexpensive. Importantly, CBTI doesn’t just improve sleep, it can also raise general health. For example, CBTI consistently eases feelings of anxiety and depression.

If you have insomnia symptoms, you will probably benefit from the tips shared in the first article in this series. These are based on interventions used in CBTI and can be very potent sleep aids. In addition to these changes to your behaviours, you might want to try making some changes that affect your body temperature during sleep. The reason is that in many cases of insomnia, the temperature of the core of the body (and therefore the brain) does not drop as much during sleep as it does in healthy sleepers. This seems to contribute to sleep difficulties.

There are a couple of simple things you can do to address this:

1. Have a 10- to 15-minute hot shower 1 to 2 hours before bed. This practice can improve sleep quality by subsequently radiating heat out from your core by increasing the flow of warm blood to your skin.

2. Keep your head cool in bed. There are devices designed to cool the forehead to support healthy sleep in insomnia, but these are expensive and require energy. Instead, just having a cooling pillow should help lower your brain temperature at night. You can find a range of Fine Bedding Company products designed to help regulate your temperature and keep you comfortably cool in bed. Discover their cooling pillows or the full Smart Temperature collection.

Sleep Apnea: Symptoms and Causes

In the first article in this series, we touched on sleep apnoea, a condition thought to now afflict about a billion adults worldwide. Common symptoms of sleep apnoea include snoring, gasping for air in the middle of sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Treating sleep apnoea meaningfully improves brain function, cardiovascular health, and metabolic health.

There are multiple forms of sleep apnoea, each of which requires different treatments. In obstructive sleep apnoea, the most common intervention is some form of positive airway pressure, a therapy in which a stream of air is delivered to the mouth via a mask. The airflow acts as a splint, keeping the upper airway open during sleep. Positive airway pressure can have remarkably positive effects on health. For example, it can reduce daytime sleepiness, traffic accidents, and blood pressure, all while raising quality of life.

So, if you’re a heavy snorer, if someone has ever seen you stop breathing at night, or if you get very sleepy during the day, follow this link to find a questionnaire that will estimate the likelihood you have sleep apnoea. If your score suggests you might have sleep apnoea, speak with your medical doctor about whether you can get tested for this condition. If you discover you have sleep apnoea and then get it treated, you’ll probably experience a dramatic improvement in how you feel — some people describe it as feeling like they’ve had a brain transplant!

Sleep well

Improving your sleep could be just the ticket to feeling great in 2024. We hope you found this article useful. If you think any of the guidance in this article applies to you, try implementing the suggested changes. And if you do, let us know how you get on @finebeddingco on Instagram or Facebook.

December 20, 2023 — Dr. Greg Potter