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The Importance of Sleep

By Tony McNicoll


My history with sleep

The clock on the wall says 9.32am and the lecturer is droning on about something to do with something else. Or something like that. The pain in my head is pounding, my mouth is dry as a bone. There was no way I could have faced breakfast even if I had woken up on time. I hate sitting in the front row but if you walk in late and are last in, you can’t exactly choose which seat you get, can you?

I glance down at my notes; they’re patchy at best. 90 minutes sleep is never enough. Ever.

My eyes glaze over momentarily. My eyelids blink shut for only a second. Suddenly it’s 9.58am and class is over!

Yes, the familiar giggles and comments from behind me are there too. Clearly, it’s been apparent that I’ve fallen asleep in class. Again.

I know what you’re thinking. Another student going out during the week. Not just out… but ‘out out’. 2-for-1s in the sort of venues where the floor hasn’t been clean since the mid-90s.

There’s always been one person in every class I’ve ever been in who just can’t keep their eyes open. Whether at school, university or work, there’s always one. The head starts to nod, and they fidget to fight the fatigue. They are immune to caffeine and meaningful elbow nudges.

The reason I know there has always been one person is because that person is me.

I’ve never slept well.

At university I may have had an excuse for being the front row sleeping beauty though. My 3rd and 4th year had a lot going on.

I was working full time with studying.

Sports coaching and running student clubs took up my evenings.

I volunteered on the sports union finance committee.

Oh, and my soon-to-be-wife and I had just welcomed our first child into the world. Incapable of sleeping longer than half an hour, and the baby wasn’t much better either.

So, if I ever looked rough in a morning lecture it had nothing to do with a hectic social life. Unless you count my increasingly extensive relationships with children’s cartoon characters…

But that was then.

Since then, I have learnt:

  • Timing, duration and quality of sleep is essential for many aspects of health such as hormonal release of growth hormone, functional immunity and cognitive function.
  • Psychiatric disease, chronic physical diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, hypertension and heart disease and even immune function influence, and are influenced by our sleeping patterns.
  • Reduced risk of suicide amongst depressed and non-depressed individuals.
  • It isn’t possible to adapt fully to night shifts unless you adapt your life fully to a night shift pattern.

(All from various British Medical Journal articles, editorials and blogs)

Yet I struggle to apply any of these lessons.

I must remind myself what a major priority it is and make time for sleep. But it’s tough. My top reason for not getting to sleep is wanting to avoid lying bored before I fall asleep. I crave entertainment right up to the last conscious second.

Does a person need to be constantly entertained and gratified like this? Probably not, no. Yet we still do. Even at the risk of scrolling through social media long enough at night to risk sleep deprivation.

We ponder why we can’t peacefully drift off as beams of blue-light information are intensely shone directly onto our retinas from a matter of inches.

We don’t value sleep

Realising you are sleep deprived can be incredibly difficult. You just feel grumpy, grotty and just about everything else that really grinds your gears. It’s work, you say. It’s just this week. I just need a coffee. I just need another coffee. It can’t be that time already. Just two more snoozes…

It’s common to disregard sleep as anything other than wasted time.

Top 5 Google searches when you start to type ‘top ten benefits of s…’

1. Social media marketing

2. Swimming

3. Sleep

4. Social media

5. Stretching

Sleep is third. Social media is in there TWICE. Now, unless social media can suddenly prevent chronic and acute, life-limiting medical conditions, it may be that we have our priorities wrong.

Any General Practitioner knows that one of man’s most important disabilities is insomnia, in fact this may well be the most frequent symptom which makes a patient consult a doctor. Much is written about rest but sleep, the most perfect form of rest, received less attention than it deserves.

(British Medical Journal, October 1954)

Read that date again.

Ignoring sleep isn’t a new thing. But it is still a thing.

How to get more sleep

So, go home right now, set your alarm and get your head down for a solid 8 hours tonight and every single night for the rest of your life.

No? Of course not…

But maybe try to get an extra 20 minutes at a time. Maybe try what I tried – a not frills approach. I tried to sleep when I didn’t feel like it. Instead of reading myself to sleep, or listening to something, I just lay there and ran through everything I had to do the next day. Which was an incredibly boring and tedious process. And that put me right into a sound sleep.

There’s always excuses for not sleeping and it can seem a badge of merit to be tired. It suggests you are busy and needed.

However, that may just be the best excuse to get your sleep. It will help you cope more effectively with being so busy and needed in the first place.

Look after you. You need rest.

And never forget the most favourite quote of them all…


You need your sleep

My Mum (Not the British Medical Journal)


Tony’s top tips for tip-top sleep

1. Do something relaxing before bed. This means no tidying/work/emails immediately before bedtime.

2. Make sure the space you sleep in is relaxing. This may mean scented pillows, eye masks and whale song. It may also mean simply clear and clean.

3. Emotional experiences spike sleep-wrecking adrenaline. Avoid ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Fortnite’ and highly emotive social media content at bedtime.

4. Less light the better. Reading a paperbook using a lamp is better than an electronic screen.

5. Bedtime is bedtime. Wake up time is wake up time.


Related Content:

Important Reminder: You Are Enough by Guest Blogger, Lena Carter 

Tackling Silly Stress: One Pizza Slice at a Time by Stuart Fenwick

Recognising Bad Habits by Tony McNicoll