Book Review: Dr Neil Stanley’s ‘How to Sleep Well’

how to sleep well
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On average, people spend as much as one third of lives sleeping. However, unfortunately, many of us have sleeping problems. About 10% of Britons reported as suffering from insomnia. And more than half of young people aged 17-23 struggled to sleep, according to an NHS survey. How to sleep well – and live better – is the question sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley wants to answer in his book How to sleep well – The science of sleeping smarter, living better and being productive.

Why we are not sleeping?

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Before searching for a solution to a problem, it’s always better to review the causes that may help us address the issues more effectively. So before giving advice on how to sleep well, Dr Stanley has looked into our sleeping problems by identifying six modern day “sleep thieves” that make human beings voluntarily forgo sleep.

Here are the six modern day sleep thieves:

There is evidence indicating that people working night shifts have higher incidences of heart attacks, depression, gastrointestinal problems and breast cancer in women. There is even data showing shift work shortens one’s life span. What Dr Stanley worries is people seem to be constructing a society that is increasing the need for people to work shifts, for example, in the service industries in call centers and supermarkets.

There is a self-perpetuating problem at work. The more people required to work shift, the more 24/7 facilities are needed. This, in turn, leads to more people to work shift! Dr Stanley is doubtful about the supposed benefits of 24/7 really worth the consequences.

Worry and stress are important causes of poor sleep. Dr Stanley asks poor sleepers to stop trying to sleep.  This is because “the harder you try to fall asleep, the less likely you are to do so.”

For many families with children, the sleep period could be a time of distress, conflict and wakefulness.

Dr Stanley finds that much of our sleep disturbance is caused by our bed partner.  He reveals that humans are actually the only animals that choose to sleep together for intimacy.

So, how can we sleep well?

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While some people may suffer from serious sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea that may require medical treatment, the vast majority, in fact, can do something themselves to improve their sleep.

However, Dr Stanley emphasizes that there isn’t any “magic scientific formula” for sleeping well. Instead, he points out three general principles: a quiet mind, a relaxed body and a bedroom conducive to sleep, with temperature, light and noise levels as well as ventilation that you feel the most comfortable.

In addition to these three principles, there is some very general guidance such as keeping awake during the day, establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine that can signal to the body it’s time to sleep and allow one to put stresses and worries aside, and having a regular wake up time.

In case you have tossed and turned for more than 30 minutes at the start of the night, or 20 minutes during the night, Dr Stanley suggests going out of bed and doing something else.  “Nothing is worse than lying in bed trying to fall asleep and getting even more frustrated that you can’t.”

All in all, there is no golden rule. Dr Stanley insists that sleep is “a very individual thing” and “any sleep advice needs personal adaptation”.

Things you don’t need to do

While there’s a load of daft advice to sleep well, Dr Stanley has listed 36 things we actually don’t have to do. Here are some of them:

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Alcohol, according to Dr Stanley, “works on the same receptors as sleeping tablets” and thus, can help sleep. However, if you drink an excessive amount – which varies from person to person, problems, such as headache due to dehydration and bathroom visit, may come later in the night.

In the UK, melatonin is only available on prescription, and as a short-term treatment for insomnia. But melatonin supplements are widely promoted as sleep aids. Dr Stanley, however, indicates that there’s little evidence showing melatonin can improve sleep patterns and its long-term safety is uncertain.  Instead, he finds any food containing protein can provide our body the building blocks for production of melatonin. So, it’s no need to eat anything specific to help sleep.

Most people believe that early birds are healthier than night owls. However, Dr Stanley states that our circadian rhythm, or our body’s internal clock, is, to a large extent, determined genetically. As a result, we are unlikely to be trained a lark or an owl. So just be yourself and do what you feel the best.

If we have a poor night’s sleep, the next night we probably would sleep like a log as our body tries to make up the missed sleep. However, it won’t be the case, according to Dr Stanley, if we have two or more disturbed nights in a row.  We cannot make up all that we have lost, even by having long sleep periods at the weekend, which, Dr Stanley says, can be beneficial only if one is sleep-deprived during the week and it is never a replacement for good sleep every night.

Studies show that blue light emitted by screens would suppress the release of melatonin and therefore, making us more difficult to get into sleep. However, Dr Stanley points out that even with blue light stripped out, as shown in recent research, there is still suppression of melatonin production. And other studies find other wavelengths of light as well as brightness are also implicated modulating our sleep/wake cycle.  As a result, he thinks we should avoid using all kinds of technology, including TV, for at least 45 minutes before we sleep.  This is because of a simple fact that we should prepare our mind for sleep.

Counting sheep doesn’t help you get to sleep, according to Dr Stanley, as he quotes the research finding of Oxford University, which claims that this act would only arouse our brain. Instead, visualising a tranquil, static scene would be far better.

Good night and sweet dreams

Sleep is so important that it affects everything, from our work and school performance to our physical and psychological well-being, as well as relation with others. Although we can’t get any magic formula in the book, but only some general advice, like reviewing your life and lifestyle to see if there’s anything causing poor sleep, Dr Stanley has helped a lot identifying those sleeping tips that are just plain daft.

As a sleep expert who has spent much of his life watching other people sleep since 1982, Dr Stanley has also shared his sleep habits and environment in the book, which, in fact, are just some ordinary things that may help someone feel relaxed and comfortable.

Sleep is something very personal, and we need to find our own way to sleep well. 

In case you are interested in more book review, here you go: Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention. This is a review of Johann Hari’s latest publication, in which, he makes a bold claim that our focus has ‘been stolen’ by factors both in and out of our control, and suggests ways to get it back. 

Or you may take a look at the Top 5 small independent bookshops in Oxford if you are interested in browsing good bedtime stories.