Member Spotlight: Why Sleep Is Essential To Performance And Wellbeing

Blog post written by FL Premium Member – Rowena Wood, Transformational Burnout Coach. Meet Rowena here

Let’s get straight to it. There’s good scientific data (and enough tired faces on Zoom – and on the daily commute pre-Covid) to confirm that many of us don’t get enough sleep. More to the point we don’t get quality sleep:

  • It’s estimated that up to two-thirds of us don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis (Source: The World Health Organisation).
  • In the UK the cost to the economy per annum from sleep loss each year is estimated at 1.86% of total GDP (Source: Rand). Put that into currency and it comes in at an eye-watering £30+ billion and around 200,000 working days lost.

As a coach, my approach with clients is what I call person-centred, in that we look at all the factors influencing a person’s current state and how it can currently impact where they want to be. Without exception, there is always a conversation that comes up around sleep!

So, how good is your sleep?

Good sleep isn’t just about getting the right number of hours. It’s also about the quality of your sleep and how well your body recovers overnight.

As part of the work that I do with clients it can help to get extra insights how good or bad your sleep is in terms of recovery, and this is where wearable tech comes in as part of the coaching process.

As a licenced provider of the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment, I’m able to take a measurement of your heart rate variability (that’s the time in milliseconds) between each heartbeat) over 3 days. All done through wearable tech. Along with a personal daily journal, the graphical outputs from the assessment help you to visualise where your key physical and emotional stressors are, the quality of your sleep and your recovery, and what you can do to find a better life balance. It’s a system that’s originated in Scandinavia and is also used by sports teams such as the US Olympic team.

One personal example from this was when I tested the system during a house move a few years ago. After an exhausting day I fell into bed and slept for a good 7 hours but woke feeling terrible. When I saw the results of my assessment, I realised that that night I had slept for 7 hours but it hadn’t been good quality sleep and there was precious little recovery in that time!

Why the right amount and quality of sleep is essential for performance and health

Let me ask you a question, do you leap out of bed energised and ready for the day? Or are you thinking ‘have I actually slept?’ and head semi-comatose to the coffee machine?

If you’re getting 8 hours of good quality sleep per night, well done you! For many of us undisturbed good quality sleep is merely a dream (pardon the pun), or worse, your mindset is that surviving without sleep is something to be proud of akin to having a superpower!

Getting the right amount of good quality sleep on a regular basis shouldn’t be aspirational or denied. Yes, we all have moments in life where great sleep just won’t happen, at least for a short period of time – I’m looking at you busy mum, or you super businesswoman, with a looming project deadline.

But make no mistake in thinking that regular good quality sleep is something you can do without long term. You can’t. It’s essential and here are the top 3 reasons why:

Your body physically recovers during sleep.

Good quality sleep provides the optimal conditions in which your body can recover from the day. During sleep your sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) nervous system gets an opportunity to relax as your body enters a parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’) state:

  • Your body responses start to power down.
  • Muscles lose their tension and relax.
  • Your blood pressure lowers and
  • Your body gets to work releasing essential hormones and proteins that support repair and growth and keep your immune system in good shape.

As you sleep your brain gets busy – really!  

It sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? Most of us are familiar with the concept of our brains ‘switching off’ as we go to sleep. But it really doesn’t. Whilst you’re in slumber it gets to work sorting, storing and consolidating information from your daily activities.

Not getting ‘quality sleep’ regularly can negatively impact your health, performance, and lifestyle.

It should come as no surprise that if you don’t sleep long enough or well enough on a regular basis it can take its toll on you.

There’s a growing body of evidence that sleep deprivation can have a significant adverse effect on:

  • Your performance and productivity.
  • Your memory and decision-making abilities.
  • Your creativity and
  • Your physical and emotional health. 

Recent studies show for example, that if you sleep less than 7 blissful hours per night your risk of gaining weight is higher than someone who does get their quota of good quality sleep.

The belief is that when you’re sleep deprived your levels of leptin (the hormone that makes you feel full) decrease, whilst the level of ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone) increases (Source: NHS).

It’s worth bearing in mind that because your decision making can also be affected, it can also influence the type of foods that you choose to eat. Cake for breakfast seems suddenly so appetising….

Women and Sleep Disturbance: Why it happens.

Clearly, though there are also times when no matter what strategies you put in place, your natural sleep pattern may be affected. So apart from those sleep-disrupting deadlines one of the things I’ve noticed as a coach is that women can have it particularly tough when it comes to sleep. Here are the top 5 reasons for sleep disruption that I see as a coach:

  • Menopause:  This can be a major disruptor of sleep! From perimenopause to post-menopause, the hormonal changes that are a part of this life phase can play havoc with sleep, performance, and health. 

Fluctuating oestrogen levels for example can result in sleep-disrupting hot flushes, and reduced progesterone can result in an upshift in anxiety levels. These aren’t the only ways in which changing and ever-diminishing hormone levels can disrupt sleep, but they are two of the more common symptoms that women express during conversation!

  • Menstrual Health: Menstrual pain and heavy bleeding are something that many women experience along with other gynaecological conditions such as the debilitating effects of endometriosis.  Not getting to sleep or waking up with and managing pain, as well as having to deal with a ‘menstrual flood’ frequently can start to take its toll on sleep quality, as well as your general health.
  • Career Fatigue and Burnout: Urgent deadlines aside, career fatigue and burnout can have a big impact on sleep and the quality of sleep. I work a lot with women who are at burnout point and without exception, all of them at some point has expressed the frustration they have at feeling tired all the time, and the subsequent inability to ‘think straight’.
  • Financial Stress: There’s a lot of media interest right now on the financial impact for women because of Covid-19. But even pre-Covid financial stress is a biggie when it comes to sleep disruption. The pressures of having enough financial stability to feed, clothe and provide a home for oneself and family can be immense, even if you’re on a good salary.
  • Parent and Child Stress: It’s natural to worry about the ones that we love, but sometimes the balance can be lost completely as you struggle to balance your own self-care with the care of others. Caring for ageing parents and managing the needs of your teenagers heading for university can be exhausting combination as can caring for younger children as they experience their own sleepless nights through things like teething.

Positive Habits, Regular Routines and Micro Steps: The Essentials of Good Sleep

You can’t always avoid external obligations, but you can put in place strategies that can help you sleep better and stay healthy and well. Based on cognitive behavioural therapy the approach I use in coaching looks at replacing negative habits with positive and sustainable habits and behaviours and making change one small step at a time. This is a process that takes time and too much to cover in this article but here are my top 5 micro-steps to make a start on change:

  1. Establish a sleep routine, with a regular time for going to bed and getting up.
  2. Get the negative out of your head before bed! It’s essential to chuck out anything that’s felt negative, draining, or toxic before you go to bed.
  3. Create a ‘device free’ relaxing haven in your bedroom. If you like to read before sleep and use your device, switch it to ‘night’ mode.
  4. Introduce a ‘cut off’ time for reading and replying to e-mails. My personal time is 7 p.m.
  5. Leave a reasonable space of time between eating and going to bed, ideally at least 2-3 hours and try to keep your evening meal light.

And if you do fail to catch your ‘sleep train’ and you’re left standing at the platform try the following

  1. This is a simple relaxation exercise aimed at decreasing anxiety and helping you to sleep. Lying on your back or however is comfortable, starting at your toes put each part of your body back to sleep. Breathe steadily, wiggle your toes until you feel them relaxing, and continue to make micro-movements, tensing and relaxing through each part of your body visualising it falling asleep. It takes a bit of practice but is very effective!
  2. Visualisation is a technique that takes practice but worth considering. Basically, your brain can’t tell the difference if you’re telling it a lie. So, if you need to relax to help you get to sleep visualise yourself doing something you love. Don’t just imagine it but visualise in your mind that you’re there. With me for example, I will visualise being on a warm terrace in Italy as the sun goes down, closing my eyes and breathing in the floral night scents as I sip on a chilled glass of wine. Works every time!

If those things don’t work for you and you find yourself in your living room reaching for the TV remote distraction therapy can help. Read a favourite book but limit yourself to a chapter, listen to soothing music or try listening to a soothing podcast. The Calm App is also worth exploring Calm – The #1 App for Meditation and Sleep

Rowena Wood, Burnout Coach

When should you get further help?

It’s not possible to cover everything about sleep in one article but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t highlight that this article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. If your sleep is disturbed over a prolonged period, either through anxiety or physical health problems it’s essential that you talk to someone about it. Your GP or a health professional is a good place to start. So, whether it’s snoring, effects of menopause, pain, anxiety or low mood, or something else that’s concerning you don’t delay seeking further advice.

For more information on coaching with me please drop me a line at 

Thanks, and sleep well!