Book Summary: Sleep by Nick Littlehales

A book summary of the key ideas from Sleep: Redefine Your Rest, for Success in Work, Sport and Life by Nick Littlehales, along with the view from the blog.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

  1. Sleep knowledge is power: Developing knowledge of circadian rhythms and chronotypes is the first step in developing a sleep program that works for you.
  2. Think in cycles, not hours: The traditional obsession with 8 hours is unhelpful. Instead, we should think about and plan our sleep according to blocks of 90-minute sleep cycles.
  3. The magic of napping: Naps can have potent effects on memory, performance and mood, and should ideally form part of our recovery schedule.
  4. Enhance your recovery environment: The items in our bedrooms should be limited to the things that we associate with recovery, free from blue-light emitting devices. Our beds should be right for our body type.
  5. Plan your recovery schedule: It’s vital to plan recovery schedules in advance with the appropriate number of cycles and naps each week.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

Premise of the Book

  • We have taken sleep – and its role in mental and physical recovery – for granted in recent decades.
  • Littlehales has worked with some of world’s biggest sporting figures to try to give them a performance edge through improved recovery.
  • The book focuses on Littlehales’ R90 Sleep Recovery Program, underpinned by 7 elements which Littlehales calls Key Sleep Recovery Indicators (KSRIs).
  • These 7 KSRIs and some of their implications in practice form the basis for the book. By focusing on these areas, Littlehales suggests we can transform our recovery and wellbeing.

Key Idea #1: Sleep knowledge is power

  • By understanding our circadian rhythms and chronotype, we can take the first step to optimising our sleep and recovery.
  • The term circadian rhythms refers to our 24-hour internal cycle managed by our body clock. They are the product of millions of years of evolution.
  • We tend to reach optimal sleeping around 2-3 am, which is mirrored 12 hours later in our afternoon slump.
  • Circadian rhythms are heavily guided by light. Melatonin secretion builds in darkness and is suppressed in daylight, instead overridden by serotonin production during daylight exposure.
  • Blue light for technology is fine during the day but can suppress melatonin production in the night.
  • We need to get outside in the day to set our body clock with daylight. We should, ultimately, picture ourselves as our ancestors slept: by the fire, with a sleeping routine mostly guided by daylight. Our ambition should be to get as close to that as possible, recognising the constraints in the real world.
  • The term chronotype refers to our sleeping characteristic – i.e. whether we are morning or evening people, or inbetweeners.
  • By understanding chronotypes, we can manipulate our days to be at our best, e.g. evening people benefit from daylight lamps.
  • We should work in harmony with partners of different chronotypes, by supporting based on when we are at our best.
  • Night owls should avoid lying in on weekends and should stick to a consistent wake-up time.
  • Caffeine is a useful strategic performance enhancer, but consumption shouldn’t exceed 400mg, nor should it be done out of habit.

Key Idea #2: Sleeping in cycles, not hours

  • We need to stop obsessing about hours and start thinking in cycles.
  • One sleep cycle, on average, is generally around 90 minutes.
  • This is the time required to pass through the stages of sleep:
    • Dosing Off: Initial stage
    • Light Sleep: Associated with information consolidation and improved motor skills
    • Deep Sleep: Brain produces delta waves and physical restoration takes place
    • REM: Dreaming stage with temporary paralysis.
  • A consistent wake-up time improves recovery. Alongside this, we should also have a consistent bedtime (if possible) based on counting back in 90-minute cycles, e.g. if my fixed wake-up time was 6:30 am and I wanted 5 cycles, I’d count back 7 hours and 30 minutes until a bed time of 11 pm.
  • One might aim for a 35-cycle week, but we should aim for at least 4 nights of ideal cycles each week.
  • We should consider pre- and post-sleep routines in 90-minute slots before and after sleep.
  • Among the pre-sleep tips suggested are:
    • Technology shutdown: We should be conscious of using technology 90 minutes before sleeping because of blue light and stress impact.
    • Temperature: Room should be a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house.
    • From light to dark: Pre-sleep routine should offer a transition from light to dark to stimulate melatonin creation.
    • Manage distractions: Get distracting tasks done before sleeping
    • Download your day: Informal to-do lists for the next day can be useful for some.
  • Among the post-sleep tips suggested are:
    • Avoid technology for a while: Cortisol levels are highest when we wake so we shouldn’t push higher by checking devices right away.
    • Exercise, such as a light walk in daylight.
    • Do a gentle mental challenge, e.g. a podcast or news.
    • Know your chronotype – evening people may need other tools, e.g. daylight lamps.
  • Littlehales emphasises that we should stick to these pre- and post-sleep routines but there is nothing wrong with doing the routine and then having a duvet day.

Key Idea #3: The magic of napping

  • Littlehales sees naps as Controlled Recovery Periods (CRPs).
  • Studies have shown that even short naps enhance memory processing and improve performance, alertness and mood.
  • The best times for CRPs, based on typical circadian rhythms, are 1-3pm and 5-7pm.
  • To introduce CRPs as a broadly accepted concept in the western world, we must move beyond the preconceptions of daytime sleepers being lazy.
  • Where possible, if we have not achieved our ideal number of cycles at night, we should try to schedule CRPs of 30 minutes or 90 minutes at the optimal times.

Key Idea #4: Enhance your recovery environment

  • Body types: Ideally, our beds should take account of our body types: ectomorph (lean with narrow hips and long limbs), mesomorph (medium build) and endomorph (larger build with broad shoulders and hips).
  • Sleeping position: The ideal sleeping position is on our non-dominant side in a foetal position, allowing the feeling of protection from our dominant side. Lying on our front or back can bring other problems like narrowed air passageways and back pain.
  • Mattress: We shouldn’t take the one-size-fits-all approach to our mattresses. A ‘double’ bed is a bed for one person – it’s only 50% bigger than a single bed. The correct profile of a mattress should keep the spine straight in the foetal position and parallel across the bed (such that you should only need a thin pillow, or maybe no pillow at all!).
  • We should create a bedroom that is only associated with recovery and sleep, ideally only including items related to rest, recovery and relaxation.
  • Littlehales recommends dawn-wake simulator alarms, maximum cleanliness, minimised mental stimuli, and controlled technology use (e.g. reducing standby lights).
  • Diet: We should eat our last meal 2 cycles (3 hours) before sleep and avoid foods that undermine sleep.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise tends to improve sleep quality, provided it is not right before our sleeping time.
  • Environment over tracking: We would be far better off focusing on improving sleep environment and scheduling than using sleep trackers, which tend to have questionable accuracy.

Key Idea #5: Plan your recovery schedule

  • Scheduling recoveries: It’s vital to plan recovery schedules in advance with the appropriate number of cycles and CRPs each week.
  • Addressing sleep problems:
    • Broken sleep – sleep restriction can help (temporarily reducing our number of cycles to increase our quality of sleep).
    • Insomnia – For chronic insomnia, see a medical professional. For other insomnia, use R90 techniques.
    • Drugs aren’t the answer – Wide-ranging evidence of only moderate efficacy and adverse side effects (e.g. on memory, balance etc.
    • Jet lag – Regulate daylight exposure to phase in changes.
    • Night shifts – Imitate daylight at night, complete blackout in day. Capitalise on CRP windows. Rotating between night and day shifts worse than constant night shifts.
    • Winter blues – Use daylight lamps, get outside in daylight when you can.
    • Mental health – Sleep and mental illness inextricably linked so recovery must be prioritised.
  • Planning around family life:
    • After stress and worry, partner disturbance is the most common sleep disrupter.
    • Ideally, we’d have a pre-sleep routine and then sleep in different rooms.
    • For those of us with new-born babies, we should try to mimic the baby’s sleeping routine – e.g. using CRPs.
    • Parents should look out for children’s chronotypes.
    • Adolescents’, in particular, have delayed body clocks and they generally need more sleep. This is one of the key cases for later school times for adolescents.

View from the Blog

The central premise of Nick Littlehales’ R90 recovery program is that we should identify our sleeping profile, optimise our sleeping environment and rethink our recovery in terms of cycles and not hours. Having read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, which is filled with insinuations of causality from correlation, it was refreshing to read something that wasn’t intended to terrify the reader into action.

Instead, Littlehales provides a buffet of practical options for readers to pick up and apply to their own lives. While he recommends taking on as many of these suggestions as possible, the book clearly recognises the limitations that modern life imposes. We cannot and never will return to sleeping beside a fire, but that ambition sets the scene for the ideas that follow.

I’ll be putting some of these ideas into practice and I’ll judge them on their results. I have purchased a dawn-simulator light to wake me gently and begin to shut down melatonin and stimulate serotonin creation. I will experiment with my sleeping position and schedule. Heck, I may even incorporate some CRPs (naps) into that schedule.

But to begin with, I’ll start with the central premise of Littlehales’ program. While 90 minutes is just an average, I’ll set a fixed wake-up time, count back five 90-minute cycles, and set a standard bed time. Good things so often start with a plan.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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