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Ade Williams: a vital necessity

Ade Williams, lead pharmacist at Bedminster Pharmacy, was recently honoured with an MBE for his services to the NHS and to the community in South Bristol, particularly during Covid-19. Here, he shares his knowledge on the importance of sleep.

Here is a Latin quiz: who wrote the text De somno et vigilia and what was it about? A clue: the time span of the subject matter provides us with an insight into the lives of some of history’s most significant figures including Einstein, who managed 10 hours; Churchill, Napoleon and Newton, who scraped only four hours; and Shakespeare and Van Gogh, who got so little it was a problem.

The answer to the quiz is Aristotle, the text translates to “On Sleep and Sleeplessness”, and the message was clear from the outset: sleep is a vital necessity. If I had mentioned that Margaret Thatcher only got four hours, that might have given it all away. Humans are the only mammals that can delay sleep. Yet, while scientists are still working to better understand its functions, we know conclusively that it is critical to our well-being.

You are not alone if you have lain awake at night, staring at the clock wondering why you cannot sleep. The NHS reports that up to a third of UK adults – particularly the older population, and some children – experience sleeping problems. Some may notice occasional episodes of insomnia that come and go without causing any serious issues, but others may suffer from sleepless nights for months or even years at a time.

Regular episodes of poor sleep can impact emotional, physical, and mental health, putting people at risk of serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also increses the risk of accidents and injury. The think-tank Rand Europe has estimated that poor sleeping habits cost the UK economy around £40bn a year, with tired employees being less productive and more likely to be absent from work.

Unsurprisingly, recent restrictions and lockdowns have adversely affected people’s sleep. Although alcohol has sedative properties, helping you fall asleep initially, it ultimately robs you of quality and quantity. Interrupted sleep produces feelings of sluggishness during the day ­– and that is before we consider all the broader, well-documented health impacts of excessive alcohol consumption.

Some simple lifestyle changes can make a world of difference to your sleep quality. For a restful night’s sleep, the NHS suggests:

Getting into a routine
Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day will programme your body to sleep better. Choose a time when you’re likely to feel tired and sleepy.

Creating a restful sleeping environment
Your bedroom should be a peaceful place for rest and sleep. Avoid looking at screens before bedtime and make sure your space is cool, dark and quiet.

Exercising regularly
Moderate exercise on a regular basis, such as swimming or walking, can help relieve some of the tensions built up during the day. However, vigorous exercise, such as running or weight training, can keep you up at night if they’re done too late in the evening.

Cutting down on caffeine
Cut down on caffeine in tea, coffee, energy drinks and fizzy drinks, especially in the evening. Caffeine interferes with the process of falling asleep and prevents deep sleep. Instead, try a warm herbal tea.

Not going to bed full, hungry or thirsty
Too much food, especially late at night, can interrupt your sleep pattern. Conversely, being hungry or thirsty at night can increase the chances of waking up.

Writing away your worries
If you tend to lie in bed thinking about everything you must do tomorrow, set aside time before you go to bed to make plans for the next day. The aim is to avoid doing these things when you are trying to sleep.

Moving around
Don’t lie there worrying about how you are not sleeping. Get up and do something you find relaxing until you feel sleepy again.

Community pharmacy teams can help with self-care measures that can, in turn, help with sleep difficulty. However, if you or your child are regularly finding it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep, please speak with a GP.

Finally, if while reading this you nod off, it is hopefully welcome – I will certainly attribute this effect solely to the subject matter!

Follow Ade on Twitter: @adewilliamsnhs; and keep up to date with Bedminster Pharmacy: @bedminsterpharm