In Conversation With Dr Maja Schaedel

We all love a good night’s sleep, and as we age, become parents or take on more responsibility at work, we realise how important it is to feel rested and how lack of sleep can affect us negatively.

Today is World Sleep Day so we asked renowned sleep expert, Dr Maja Schaedel of the Good Sleep Clinic, what we can do to get the perfect night’s sleep, and why it’s so important to our health and wellbeing.

“Sleep is fundamental to our health and some argue that it is the
foundation of health.”
Dr Maja Schaedel


Dr Maja Schaedel, The Good Sleep Clinic Sleep Tips

Why is a good night's sleep so important?

Sleep is fundamental to our health and some argue that it is the foundation of health. Every aspect of our health and wellbeing is impacted by sleep. Apart from being vital for our mental and physical health, we also know that good sleep can be beneficial in other ways. Sleep contributes to learning and memory function, and it gives us a greater capacity to find creative solutions to problems. Sleep also helps us to be more physically active and make better food choices.

How does bad sleep affect us physically and mentally?

We need sleep to protect us from poor health, such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, obesity, cancer and mental health problems. Sleep is also fundamental to our emotional wellbeing and there is a strong relationship between sleep problems and anxiety, depression and suicidality. We now understand that the relationship between these mental health issues is bidirectional, meaning that sleep problems can cause anxiety and low mood, as well as anxiety and low mood causing sleep problems.

How can you plan ahead for a good night’s sleep?

There are lots of things we can do to promote sleep. In order to go to sleep we need several physical changes to occur. We need a drop in our core body temperature of 35-37 degrees Celsius. We need to slow down our heart rate and our muscles to relax. This usually happens naturally during the evening when our levels of the sleepy hormone melatonin start to rise; however, we often ‘fight’ this natural winding down process, especially if our minds are alert and engaged.

We can help our minds and bodies to relax by ensuring we follow a nice wind-down routine before bed, such as a warm bath, listening to relaxing music or reading, and putting away the ever-engaging smartphones with their social media and news apps. It also helps to stop drinking caffeine around lunchtime (caffeine stays in your system for a really long time) and to limit your alcohol intake (alcohol inhibits our REM or Rapid Eye Movement Sleep which is responsible for recalibrating the emotional centres of the brain). It can also be helpful to put aside 15-20 minutes earlier in the evening to write down and ‘pre-empt’ any thoughts and concerns that might come up at night time. This way we can start to teach ourselves that night-time is not for engaging in our thoughts and that this is a daytime activity.

What is the worst thing you can do before bedtime that affects sleep
and why?

Work is just about the worst thing you can do before bedtime. This is because in order to fall asleep it is vital for our bodies to enter into a state of relaxation. We evolved in this way; we can’t go to sleep if our lives are in danger, rather we can only go to sleep when we know that the coast is clear and we are safe. The problem with work is that even if you enjoy it and it does not make you feel stressed or anxious it encourages you to remain alert and engaged in something stimulating. This has a similar effect on your body to stress. Your heart rate and core body temperature start to increase, your breathing quickens and your body and brain interpret this to mean that it is not safe to go to sleep. This is why it is so important to make sure that you are not over-stimulated at bedtime.

Is there a miracle quick fix for getting a good night’s sleep?

If you are someone who tends to usually sleep quite well then I would say
the main things you can do to improve your sleep are;

  • Increase your daily activity and exercise. Physical activity is a great way of increasing your sleep pressure - a kind of ‘sleep fuel’ we need in order to sleep.
  • Put your phone out of reach in the bedroom to prevent you from looking at it once it’s bedtime.
  • Set your wake time for the same time each day, no matter how well you slept the night before. Even if you have one day where you feel a little more tired, this will help to prevent you spiralling into a period of difficult sleep.

If you are one of the 16 million people in the UK suffering from Insomnia
there is not an easy quick sleep fix. If this is a problem which has been
going on for more than 3 months then it is important to speak to your GP
and seek help in the form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia.
This is the gold standard treatment recommended by the Department of
Health and it works by addressing the unhelpful things we do and ways we
think which get in the way of going to sleep.

What is your number #1 sleep tip?

My number one sleep tip is only go to bed when you are really sleepy and about to drop off to sleep, not before and not after. If you go to bed too early when you are not really sleepy then there is a good chance that you will struggle to fall asleep. This is partly due to not building up enough ‘sleep pressure’. We build up a pressure to sleep from the moment we wake up and we need enough by bedtime to get us to sleep easily and to see us through the night. If you go to bed too early then you may not have quite enough sleep pressure to have a good quality sleep. The other difficulty which can occur is that if we find it more difficult to fall asleep, our minds may become more engaged and we are at risk of starting to worry about struggling to sleep. Once we start to worry about not sleeping then
it makes it doubly hard to fall asleep.

If you are someone who tends to fall asleep on the sofa whilst watching TV then it is worth bearing in mind that this can have a massive impact on your sleep when you do go to bed. Instead, try to keep awake and alert when you are watching TV and then take yourself to bed when you can’t keep your eyes open anymore. If this is early on in the evening and you do not feel quite ready to go to bed, try stretching your body or walking around a little bit to ensure you don’t fall asleep on the sofa.