Science of Sleep

How to Sleep Well: the science of sleeping smarter, living better and being productive by Dr Neil Stanley

For many of us living hectic lifestyles in our 24/7 world, sleep is the missing link.

We are so busy, so stressed, so overstimulated that when our head hits the pillow, we can’t fall asleep. Then, once asleep, we suffer all manner of sleep problems. Sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome, bruxism, night cramps, insomnia and more. What a nightmare!

To make matters worse, there is an information overload when it comes to sleep as one of our most vital needs. Sleep myths become confused with the stream of new research about sleep.

And every day we hear claims about new products that aim to improve our sleep. What would our ancestors say about all the apps, blue lights, tips and techniques we have these days? Just go to sleep, or something like that, probably.

Dr Neil Stanley, the author of this book is a UK-based sleep researcher. He notes that he is not a medical doctor, but he has significant credentials in directing sleep centres in Europe and more.

The blurb for How to Sleep Well says it is a guide to sleeping well. But it is not presented a step-by-step guide to getting a great night’s sleep. Rather, the author covers a vast range of sleep-related issues, in a very readable way.

For some, this might be too general. There are no magic solutions to improving your sleep. Instead, the author debunks a range of myths about sleep. In doing this, he demystifies some of the wilder claims made in the name of sleep science.

Dr Stanley challenges the idea that we are in the middle of a major sleep crisis in our society. He points out that, while we might not all need more sleep, we would benefit from better quality sleep.

If you’ve ever wanted to understand REM sleep, Stanley does a good job of explaining the sleep stages. He provides handy information about circadian rhythms and how much sleep we all need. He debunks the idea that we all need eight hours each night. His belief is that sleep is an individual thing.

His advice about children and sleep is probably not new to any parent who has trawled the internet in the wee hours. But he has a relaxed and sensible approach to getting babies to sleep; and is not opposed to co-sleeping.

The discussion of the differences in how men and women sleep is interesting. It seems women are hard-wired to be vigilant and aware of others’ sleep. This means they tend to compromise their own sleep. Biologically, this would be to care for their babies. But women who share a bed with their partner can be at a disadvantage when it comes getting enough sleep.

Sociologists at the University of Surrey found that women actually prioritise their partner’s sleep above their own.

Stanley suggests that a lot of sleep disturbance is caused by sleeping with a partner. He talks about how bed-sharing between partners is actually a Victorian ‘invention’.

Stanley explains all the major sleep disorders, as well as the treatment options. For all the medical conditions, such as sleep apnoea, he cuts to the chase and advises talking to your doctor.

When sleep problems are due to stress or just modern living, his approach is very practical.

Stanley’s tips to getting a better sleep comes down to three things: a quiet mind, a relaxed body and a bedroom conducive to sleep. Pretty practical, and apart from the recommendation to update your bed, pretty inexpensive.

He concludes his book with a list of 303 things you ‘really do not have to do’ to get good sleep. Some of these are pretty funny, like ‘lay a sock over your eyes’ or ‘take five to six times longer to undress’.

But some of the claims are commonly seen in the media, particularly the diet-related ones. With this list, Stanley shows that so many sleep-related claims are pure guff, and have nothing to do with sleep science.

As a yoga-lover myself, I tend to think he is a bit dismissive of some of the mind-body techniques, like mindfulness and yoga. But he does say, that if a technique feels good, and it works for you, then go for it.

If you’re looking to read something totally new in sleep science, this book may not appeal. The book is aimed at a general audience, from the perspective of a sleep expert. But for clear explanations of sleep science, and advice from someone who knows what he’s talking about, this little book is a pleasant read and a handy reference.

How to Sleep Well: The science of sleeping smarter, living better and being productive by Dr Neil Stanley (Wiley, 2018).

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