If you’ve been feeling exhausted in lockdown, you’re not alone. Despite the fact that many of us are doing less than normal and sleeping later in the mornings now we don’t have to commute to work, we’re still finding ourselves falling asleep on the sofa earlier than we’d like to admit.
As a result, many people are looking for new ways to improve their sleep during this strange period, especially now we have more time to try and fix our sleep schedules and play around with bedtime routines.
But because there are so many sleep myths being thrown around these days, it’s often hard to know what we should believe. From the idea that you can catch up on sleep by having a lie in (false), to the recommendation that a glass of wine will help you nod off (also false), there’s a lot of misinformation and fake news floating about.
So, when we kept hearing that the hours of sleep you get before midnight are the most valuable, it’s safe to say we were slightly sceptical. Surely our body doesn’t know when the clock strikes midnight? That our sleep suddenly becomes less valuable when the time reads 00:01? We dismissed it as the sort of thing mums might tell their children if they’re refusing to stick to their 9pm bedtime. But that’s where we were wrong.
According to Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep expert and author of Tired But Wired: The Essential Sleep Toolkit, the hours of sleep we get before the clock strikes midnight is actually the most powerful phase we can get – and it’s all to do with how our bodies respond to the changing light levels in the evening.
“Every cell in the body is linked to the movements of the earth and the moon. It’s a science – there’s a synchronicity to it,” she explains. “There’s an area in the brain called the circadian timer which helps to synchronise the movement and function of every cell in the body to the levels of light and darkness in the environment. So as the light level drops below a certain limit, it sends a message to the pineal gland through the eyes, and then every cell in the body starts adjusting its functions.”
While this may not prove true the old adage that one hour of sleep before midnight is equivalent to two hours of sleep after midnight, Ramlakhan’s explanation makes a lot of sense.
Our circadian rhythm plays an essential part in the regulation of many of our bodies systems – including our blood pressure, body temperature and hormone production – so it’s only logical that sleeping in accordance with that timer helps to promote better, more rejuvenating sleep.
“The 90 minute phase before midnight is one of the most powerful phases of sleep, because it’s the period where the body is replenished,” Ramlakhan explains. “It’s rejuvenated on every level – physically, mentally, emotionally and, I believe, spiritually as well. There’s a lot of healing that takes place in that first phase of sleep.”
She continues: “It’s also a really important phase for reorganising the brain. So all the information we’re taking in during the day gets reorganised during that phase of sleep before midnight, and it’s very important for bringing adrenaline levels down – if you’re under a lot of stress, you want to make sure you get that phase before midnight.”
As many of us are facing increased levels of stress and anxiety during lockdown, it’s even more important that we give our bodies that important period of sleep before midnight to ensure that our adrenaline levels are reduced enough to provide a restful sleep.
However, as Ramlakhan previously told Stylist, it’s also important not to put too much pressure on ourselves to achieve a certain amount of sleep. While 7-9 hours may be the ‘ideal’ amount of sleep we’d all like to have, Ramlakhan is keen to stress it’s okay to get much less than that – in fact, she says, sometimes the things we think about sleep actually stand in the way of us getting it.
“If we inflexibly believe [that we need a good night’s sleep] to be the case, that stops us sleeping,” she explained. “When I’ve worked with professional athletes one of the things I say to them is ‘Don’t even think about sleep tonight – you’re playing for England tomorrow, forget it.’
“We could have three or four hours of sleep, four or five hours of sleep, which are far more nourishing than the seven or eight. It’s that depth of sleep.”