Many of us struggle to get a good night’s sleep (I certainly do), but even if you sleep like a baby, you may notice over the coming week that you are sleeping worse than normal — and, for that, you can blame the full moon.
It’s expected to appear on May 5, and studies suggest it really can affect sleep.
One, published a couple of years ago by Argentinian researchers, found that people fall asleep later and get around 45 minutes’ less sleep than usual in the week leading up to a full moon, possibly because exposure to the extra light from the fuller moon disrupts sleep. To combat that, you might want to wear an eye mask.
I’m particularly obsessed by sleep at the moment as I’ve just returned from Australia, where I was taking part in a new study at Flinders University in Adelaide.
The idea of the study is to take 30 people with severe sleep problems — such as chronic insomnia or parasomnia, where sufferers sleep walk or sleep talk — who haven’t responded to other treatments and see if they can be cured using a combination of new technology and established science-backed techniques, such as sleep restriction therapy (more on that in a moment).
Many of us struggle to get a good night’s sleep (I certainly do), but even if you sleep like a baby, you may notice over the coming week that you are sleeping worse than normal — and, for that, you can blame the full moon
When it pays to work less
As part of a pilot last year, 61 UK firms offered employees the option of cutting their working week from five days to four without cutting pay — and a recent report found more than 90 per cent of them continued this arrangement as the results were so positive.
People were just as productive, mainly thanks to reduced burnout and time off sick. That may be because spending less time at work boosts healthy habits.
Recently, researchers at the University of South Australia found that when people worked a four-day week, they did 13 per cent more physical activity daily and slept for 21 minutes more each night than when doing a five-day week.
The five-day week was introduced by Henry Ford at the beginning of the 20th century and is looking as old-fashioned as a Ford Model T.
The technology they’ve been using includes pills you swallow that measure your core body temperature over 24 hours.
This should rise during the day and fall at night, hitting a minimum at around 3am. If that isn’t happening, then it suggests something is wrong with your body clock which needs tweaking.
B ecause I suffer from chronic insomnia, I was keen to take part in this study. Around one in three Britons suffers from insomnia, which means we either have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning.
If it persists, it can impact almost every organ in your body — and can even affect how you speak.
Researchers at the Paris Sciences and Letters University recently trained an artificial intelligence system to detect when someone is sleep deprived, based simply on the way they sound.
That’s because sleep deprivation increases inflammation of your nose and throat, which changes the tone of your voice, so you may sound croaky or ‘rough’.
Being tired also slows your speed of thought, which changes the rhythm of your speech.
Poor sleep also has an impact on the effectiveness of your immune system. A study in Current Biology showed that after being given a vaccine, people who sleep less than six hours a night produce far fewer antibodies (a key part of your immune system) than those who sleep seven hours or more; something to bear in mind if you are having a Covid booster any time soon.
Unfortunately, some habits to counter poor sleep can make things worse. Drinking alcohol before bedtime, for example, can help put you to sleep, but the sleep you get is likely to be of poor quality.
Another strategy is to have a long lie-in on a Sunday. But that can mean you struggle to fall asleep that night, which makes getting up on Monday morning really tough.
Research has also shown that weekend lie-ins lead to a shift in your internal body clock (it’s called social jet lag), which not only means disrupted sleep, but overeating, weight gain and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
So your best bet is to ditch the lie-ins, make sure your bedroom is cool and dark — and opt for a higher protein, higher fibre diet, as there is evidence that this can help improve sleep quality.
But once you are in the grips of chronic insomnia, what can you do? I mentioned previously that, as part of the Flinders University study, I’ve been trying an approach called sleep restriction therapy.
For six weeks I’ve cut down the time I spend in bed from eight hours to more like six. The idea is you get so tired that when you go to bed, you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep.
You are trying to retrain your brain to associate being in bed, with being asleep — not with being awake, fretting. It has been tough, but it does seem to be working.
I started out going to bed at 11pm and getting up at 5am, but as the weeks have gone by I’ve slowly increased the time I’ve spent in bed by around 15 minutes a week.
I’m now going to bed at 11pm and getting up at 6am, which is seven hours a night in bed, with no naps or lie-ins. I still lie awake in the night, but usually it is only briefly, and surprisingly I feel much less sleepy during the day. The study is ongoing, but I’ll let you know more when the results are published.
Swap salt to cut blood pressure
A third of British adults have high blood pressure (hypertension), which puts them at increased risk of heart attack or stroke — yet it’s massively underdiagnosed because the symptoms are rare. That’s why it is called a silent killer.
Two close friends of mine died from undiagnosed hypertension, which is why I’d encourage you to buy a blood pressure monitor (you can get a decent one for around £20) and do something about it if the numbers are raised.
Beyond the obvious, such as eating less junk food (which is usually high in salt that raises blood pressure) and giving up smoking, there is mounting evidence that getting more potassium in your diet can make a big difference.
A third of British adults have high blood pressure (hypertension), which puts them at increased risk of heart attack or stroke — yet it’s massively underdiagnosed because the symptoms are rare. That’s why it is called a silent killer
A recent study in Nature Medicine found people with high blood pressure who swapped their usual salt (made of sodium chloride) for a salt substitute (containing 30 per cent potassium chloride), saw a significant fall in blood pressure and 14 per cent fewer heart attacks and strokes.
Potassium-containing salt substitutes cost a bit more than salt, but taste the same. You can also boost your potassium levels by eating more salmon, lentils, spinach, yoghurt, milk and bananas.
Dark chocolate can help, too — it is high in potassium and contains chemicals called flavonoids that lower blood pressure by causing blood vessels to expand.
New skills can help ageing brains
Last year, I travelled to California to learn about a study where older people were being encouraged to learn lots of new skills at once, to see what impact this had on their brains.
The results, published recently in the journal Aging And Mental Health, were remarkable. At the end of the experiment the 27 volunteers aged 60 to 80 had tripled their scores in some cognitive tests and their average scores increased to levels similar to those seen in university students, decades younger.
Volunteers spent three months learning three new skills, such as Spanish, computer skills and painting.
Volunteers spent three months learning three new skills, such as Spanish, computer skills and painting
They had cognitive tests at the start and at three months, six months and a year after. One 74-year-old participant, Jim Ryan, learned Spanish and became an avid painter — and he enjoyed the learning regimen so much that he took up additional classes, including history and poetry.
So what’s going on? Researcher Dr Rachel Wu thinks the challenge of the intense learning increased the volunteers’ confidence in their mental abilities and that helped them to think faster and perform better. She also said learning new skills can increase brain mass and brain connections.
Time, I think, to get out the paintbrush and book an online language course.
Read the full article here