Sleeping is no mean art," said Friedrich Nietzsche. "For its sake one must stay awake all day." Indeed, maximising slumber duration can be a complex process. Today's anxiety-ridden, deadline-heavy world can steal away our eight hours of heavenly rest and replace it with a night frustratedly gnawing our pillows.
One professional intent on helping us snooze is Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, the author of Tired But Wired, a book released last month that advises taking naps, relaxing and exercising to hibernate effectively and wake up zinging and refreshed.
"I was frustrated about the lack of information out there," says the sleep and energy coach. "Someone once asked me to recommend a good book on sleep and I couldn't find one. I wanted to debunk many myths about sleep. I've had sleep problems myself for many years and I know what it's like. It's awful to wake up not rested and have to face the day."
Britain is an insomniac nation: the NHS spent almost £36m on sleeping pills in 2008-2009, the most recent figures available. That was a 20 per cent increase on the previous year. Medics put the increase down to people's worries over the credit crunch and unemployment. Modern sleeping pills are less addictive, meaning doctors are more likely to prescribe them.
"The biggest myths are that we need seven or eight hours a day, or that we shouldn't wake up in the night," continues Ramlakhan. "But waking early in the morning is perfectly normal. Students can still function well in an exam if they don't sleep the previous night. I sometimes professionally advise football players and I tell them not to worry about sleep before a big game. Even if they don't manage to sleep perfectly they will still perform well." So what's the key to an effective slumber? Ramlakhan explains the dos and don'ts of catching Z's.
Not eating pre-bedtime is less important than you would believe: what is pivotal is breakfast. Eating at the right time conditions your body's metabolism to wake up and wind down. "There are these fallacies swirling around that not eating before bed, or not eating lettuce or tuna, can help you sleep," says Ramlakhan. "But it's more crucial that you eat breakfast first thing in the morning, in what I call a 'metabolic window'. It's a timeframe in which you can give your body an important message. It tells it that in your world there is an adequate supply of food, it can relax, and that it can fall into sleep mode when it needs to."
Margaret Thatcher famously boasted she only needed four hours of shut-eye. Such "role models" perpetuate the myth that there is a one-size-fits-all rule. "In my experience it's all about being attuned to your requirements at different times," continues the expert. Professional footballers training twice a day might need to rest more than sedentary types. "There may be times you need four hours," adds the sleep expert. "At other points that could increase to seven or eight. It's about awareness of your needs."
Winston Churchill scrimped on sleep, but liked napping. "You're better well rested than well briefed," was his maxim, and that means taking the odd power nap – it helps us relax, even if we aren't descending into the deep sleep. It has a restorative effect on the body and can help us settle down when it is time to turn in.
Dreams have an important role in categorising memories. If we're going through a rough patch we can fear our nightmares – but maybe we should embrace them. They can give us clues about problems we need to address. "I encourage people to look on dreams as friends," says the expert. "I have a lot of clients in the 42 to 49 age bracket who are experiencing crisis of meaning in their lives and are dreaming a lot. It's their subconscious trying to tell them about the next direction their life should take. Sometimes that ca n be useful."
Humans are hunter-gatherers and instinctively need to feel safe before nodding off. "The nut and bolts aren't so important unless you're a sensitive sleeper," says Ramlakhan. "But if that's the case then there are various options. Some people benefit from white noise, or fans. Make sure you have effective blinds, or earplugs, if they help. It's all about reducing distractions and sending a message to your brain about your safety."
Get the balance right. If you over-rest you can become lethargic, if you overexercise you could cause muscle strain and burn-out. While spending eight hours staring at a computer monitor can wear out your brain, exercise can make sure your body is ready to wind down when the moment comes. Exercise also produces mood-lightening endorphins. "It aids the production of the complex concoction of hormones – like adenosine and melatonins – which help us bed down and fall asleep at the end of a difficult day," concludes Dr Ramlakhan.