Do you find it difficult to get eight hours of sleep every night? One self-proclaimed night owl, who works early morning shifts, knows your pain all too well. So she tried the eight-hour sleep challenge to see if she could find out how it helps energy levels.
I’m a natural night owl. I feel my most creative in those last few hours before midnight. I miss the days of catching up with friends for mid-week drinks and losing track of the time. And I can easily read a book or binge a series well into the early hours of the next morning. So, imagine my shock when I started a job that required me to work early morning shifts. For the last two years, my alarm has woken me up at either 5am (pre-pandemic) or 5:30am (the one perk of working from home in lockdown). Sure, I’ve gotten used to it and have found ways to make that work for me. But I do myself no favours by falling into my night owl ways throughout the week.
The challenge required me to get eight hours of sleep each night and see how this affected my mental and physical health. As I’ve recently got back into running 5Ks and am starting to venture into strength training, I was particularly keen to see if getting the recommended eight hours per night would in fact help me feel stronger.
“Quality sleep is key to boosting mood and overall mental well-being,” Strong Women trainer Emma Obayuvana tells me. “During sleep our bodies also repair and rest. This is the time when our cells are repaired in tissue including muscle. Therefore adequate sleep will really improve our training the next day. Quality sleep also improves cognitive function and focus, which makes us most alert and perform our best in our daily activities.”
She adds: “I focus on quality over the duration. Some people require less sleep than others, but the quality of sleep itself really impacts our day and our energy levels pertaining to training and health. Regarding the sleep challenge, the first step in getting that quality is the hygiene of sleep, meaning setting up conditions in your day that will ensure better sleep. For me, it’s waking up at the same time every day regardless of the schedule (but of course having a lie-in on a day off is delicious!). Limit your sleep window to nighttime only and avoid naps if you find it challenging to get quality sleep.”
- Take technology breaks: “The blue light that is emitted from the screens suppresses melatonin, a hormone that dictates your sleep pattern.”
- Avoid caffeine: “Caffeine is a stimulant that promotes alertness, which is perfect for first thing in the morning, but detrimental at night when you’re trying to drift off. Try to avoid drinking caffeinated drinks after 2pm.”
- Eat breakfast: “Breakfast helps to regulate our melatonin production – the hormone we need for a good night’s rest. Make sure you pick a breakfast dish that is rich with sleep boosting foods, such as seeds, nuts, whole grains, yoghurt and fruits – bananas and oranges in particular.”
- Take regular breaks through the day: “Our energy levels run on 90-minute cycles, so it’s very important to take a break every 60 – 90 minutes.”
All that was left to do was take on the sleep challenge for seven nights…
Today was a rest day, but I did go for a 45-minute lunchtime walk. I ate a bucket of pasta soaked in harissa butter, which of course made me feel very full and sleepy. In the evening, I had a hot bath for 1.5 hours and only quickly checked my phone once when I got out to see if I’d missed any urgent messages. I set an actual alarm for 5:30pm, rather than the alarm on my phone, and fell asleep at 9:30pm (which means I get eight hours of sleep). I wore my trusty eye mask and nodded off straight away. However, I woke up a couple of times during the night.
There is something nice about waking up to a retro alarm. But I must admit, I did feel headachey (this has happened a lot in lockdown) and wasn’t in the greatest mood. I started the day with one strong coffee, which I do most days, and went for a 5k run in my lunch hour. I then went for a two-hour wintry walk with my friend. I picked up a chip supper for my tea and started Line Of Duty when I got in. I’ve never watched it before and I got sucked in, watching three episodes in one night. Bad idea: it took me about half an hour to get to sleep at 11pm. But, I did sleep uninterrupted (I suspect the running and walking tired me out).
I woke up at 7:30am (I start later on Thursdays), which means that I went to bed later than usual and got 8.5 hours sleep. I actually felt great! I went for a quick walk and grabbed a coffee before starting work for a busy day of an interview, lots of writing and a long meeting. I really felt like I could handle it with a smile on my face. I did an online barre workout in my living room, went for a refreshing evening stroll in the rain and limited myself to just one episode of Line Of Duty when I got in. I then read for half an hour and didn’t look at my phone. I fell asleep straight away at 10pm.
Because I went to sleep at 10pm, I only got 7.5 hours sleep when my alarm went off at 5:30am. I felt OK getting up, but not exactly full of beans. A new flatmate was moving in, so this made me feel quite stressed and I had a quick 25-minute nap (sorry Emma!). After welcoming my new roomie, I met a friend for a long walk and had a couple of tins of wine – my first tipple of alcohol this week. I also looked at my phone for about 20 minutes when I got into bed. I was worried that the booze, afternoon nap and no exercise would mean a late-night, but the packed day meant I dozed off my 10pm. However, I did wake up in the middle of the night to go for a pee (damn you, fizzy wine!).
I slept through the night until 7am (I let myself just wake up naturally today), which means I slept for a whopping nine hours. However, I did something I often do – looked at my phone for about 45 minutes before even getting out of bed. No wonder I felt a bit headachey. I started work at 8am (weekend shift!) and went for a 5k run at midday. It was literally the fasted 5k I’ve done in years – hurrah! After my shift, I really wanted to just watch the reast of Line Of Duty, but I didn’t want to ruin the good feeling I had, so I used my energy to do a big food shop at Tesco instead. I also wanted to get up early the next day. I had a glass of rose, watched Pieces Of A Woman in bed and fell asleep at 11pm. Surprise, surprise: I woke up at around 1am for a pee because of the booze.
A day off! I woke up at 9am, so I had lots of sleep again. I did an 80s aerobics workout at around 10am and felt so energetic. I felt good all day and went to meet my friend for a short but sweet and icy cold walk in the blizzard. However, things took a turn when I returned home and gave in to Line Of Duty. I started season two and watched another three episodes. It left me feeling very anxious and I ended up browsing the internet for well over an hour before I went to bed. Feeling very wired, I read a book for half an hour and finally went to sleep at 12:30am.
I got eight hours of uninterrupted sleep and woke up at 8:30am. But I found it so, so difficult. I spent yet more time scrolling through my phone in bed. I decided to take Instagram off my phone’s homepage, get up, wrap up in some layers and go for an hour-long walk in the snow with a frothy coffee in hand. It made such a difference to my mental state but I didn’t feel like exercising. I watched the Leeds match at 8pm with a cheeky beer, and went to bed at around 10:30pm. I read my book for about 10 minutes and went to sleep because I was so tired.
I woke up at 5:30 (after 7.5 hours’ sleep) but really struggled, so rolled out of bed five minutes before starting work (note: this is not a good way to start the day). I just felt really tired all day, and the freezing cold weather wasn’t helping. I attempted a run in the snow, and though I’m glad I attempted it, I headed home after 2k. I had a pizza for tea, watched three episodes of The Bold Type (please do not judge me) and looked at my phone for about 20 minutes before getting into bed with a book. I was too tired to read and fell asleep at 10pm.
What did I learn from the 8-hour sleep challenge?
I started off so well! I did reap the rewards: more physical energy to run and do workouts, and more mental energy to feel good about busy days at work. The Line Of Duty binge made me realise that watching something stressful before bed isn’t the best idea (I felt really, really weird after doing this). And it makes total sense that I slept better when I didn’t look at my phone before bed. I also got to sleep much quicker and slept much deeper on the days that I did exercise or go on long walks. I’m also surprised to learn what a difference just one hour makes: the times I slept for less than eight hours really did affect me the following day. And although I have no intentions to completely cut out alcohol, it’s clear that it really does affect my quality of sleep.
But there were a couple of things I’ve been doing right all this time: I limit myself to one morning coffee a day, I always have a nourishing breaking such as porridge, and I force myself to take lunch breaks outside.
It’s worth noting that since completing this challenge, I’ve spent a couple of nights not looking at my screen before bed, instead reading my book for half an hour, then sleeping between 9:30-10pm – and I feel good (I attempted my 5k in the snow again and actually did it this time!). Obviously, going to bed at this is easier to achieve because we’re in lockdown. Things will change when I’m allowed to go see friends for drinks in the pub and take an evening trip to the cinema again. But I’m taking now as a good time to keep practicing these habits.
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…