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The Awesome Power of Sleep

Five Questions Adults Should Ask Nicola Morgan About Sleep

By Nicola Morgan

1.  Why did a long night-time sleep evolve? After all, that must have been dangerous for people living in caves or out in the open?

Exactly. So, there must be an enormous benefit. And it turns out that sleep benefits every cell and process in our body and brain: repair, growth, mental health, memory, learning, immune system, energy, appetite, hormones, cardio-vascular health and brain function. All animals sleep and all have evolved types and times and cycles of sleep that work for their physiology and environment. We have evolved to have our main sleep at night. And anyone who works nights or shifts knows how lousy you feel when you don’t.


2.  How can we manage on less sleep?

The most shocking question I was ever asked was at a parent event in Indonesia. I’d just spent an hour explaining that brains work best when we look after our health and a mother asked, “How can I get my daughter to manage on less sleep so she can do more work?” Such an aim is horrendously misguided.


Scientists have tried to find a way to allow us to function well on less sleep, without negative consequences. The benefits would be huge for the armed forces, people working in emergency medicine and parents of babies. And, of course, there are pills but all these do is keep people alert for a time, after which inevitable loss of function and health occurs.


Sleep is about far, far more than alertness. We can’t bypass it. It’s not a waste of time. And you will not do better work on less of it!


3.  But didn’t Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan only sleep 4-5 hours a night?


So they said. We have no proof of this. Perhaps they were among the tiny (estimated at closer to 0% than 0.5%) number of people with a mutation in the gene DEC2, who are the only people known to be able to function optimally after a routine 4-6 hours.


But I don’t believe they were. In any case, both developed Alzheimer’s, known to be more common amongst people who sleep very little.


Routinely having very little sleep is not a goal: it’s something to avoid.

4.  So, Nicola, you must sleep brilliantly?


Not always! You can do everything right and still have a bad night. Anxiety is the most common and powerful sleep-wrecker and I am no stranger to anxiety. This year, 2020, many people have reported more trouble sleeping than usual and this year most of us have had a lot to be anxious about.


But I’ve learnt to do two things when sleeplessness strikes: a) Don’t panic because I will be fine the next day. And b) continue directing my mind onto topics that are boring, useful or nice.)


The most important and practical thing you can do to build good sleep is develop a strong routine leading up to your light going off. Choose some of the things I call “sleep positives” and build them into a routine which will become a brain habit. And avoid all the sleep negatives, of course. See The Awesome Power of Sleep for the lists of both or rummage around on my website and you’ll find the information.  


5.  Hang on, you write for teenagers so how come you’re lecturing me?


Because sleep is sleep is sleep. When I go to schools, before I’ve even got to the teenage audience I’ve usually been asked for advice by the librarian. Many a time (naming no names!) I’ve had school librarians or teachers reveal that they go to sleep fully clothed on the sofa when they get home from work and then get up and eat and watch TV before going to bed again at 11.30 after two glasses of wine. Naughty adults!


Yes, so, teenagers need more sleep and have different patterns but everyone needs exactly the same advice about a healthy sleep behaviour. And it’s as important for you as it is for them.


You need this book. If you don’t read it quickly, you’ll find your teenagers will start lecturing you. I have given them permission!

Sleep well. And may 2021 not be quite such a challenge to our anxiety levels!

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Click here for a review of The Awesome Power of Sleep.

Nicola Morgan, The Teenage Brain Woman, is a multi-award-winning author and speaker whose work on young brains, psychology and mental health is loved by teenagers, schools and families around the world. For someone whose last school science report said, ‘Nicola has no aptitude for science subjects’, she’s written a lot of science-based books and gained the respect of real scientists. She has been a YA novelist, English teacher and dyslexia specialist and the mother of two teenage (now grown-up) daughters. Now, when not writing and dreaming in a garden office over a valley, she keeps herself physically and mentally healthy as a passionate vegetable gardener, decent cook and determined runner.


Nicola also does talks, online or in-person, for conferences, schools, parents and public audiences. She has created unique teaching materials, including videos: terrific value for schools, with all the benefits of repeated visits from Nicola at a fraction of the cost of one!


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