How to Sleep Better – Nick Littlehales interview
Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on March 19, 2019
Expert Content This article contains content contributed by an expert in their field.

What can you do to sleep better?

If you’re anything like us, you’ll have noticed that it seems to have become increasingly difficult to get regular restful sleep in this hectic modern-day culture.

We spoke to the world-renowned elite sport sleep coach Nick Littlehales, who has been redefining and innovating a new human sleep approach, to learn more about things such as the importance of our relationship with light, and how we should be using Caffeine like pro sports stars.

During the last 22 years, Nick has worked with the likes of Manchester United Football Club, Liverpool Football Club and British Cycling to help with mental and physical recovery for elite sports stars.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to Human Window, Nick. Could you tell us a little bit about how you first got interested in sleep improvement?

I loved sport as a teenager and I tried my best to create a professional career but didn’t make it. But that was a long, long time ago, back in the late 70s, early 80s. I fell into the sleep industry when trying to build a family. It wasn’t really by choice, it was just about paying the bills.

Along that route, I became an international sales and marketing director with a large brand called Slumberland. I collaborated with certain partners in the industry to create the first UK Sleep Council, which I was the chairman of for a while. We knew sleep was important – and everybody just took it for granted.

One of the final things I did before potentially going off in a different direction was to contact people in sport. That happened to be Manchester United Football Club, who were just down the road from my UK office. I contacted them to ask them what they did about sleep. It just happened to be Alex Ferguson in charge at the time. I got a response and we started talking.

Twenty years later, I work with some large organisations and elite athletes who compete in the Olympic Games and all sorts of other things, as well as British Cycling and other teams all around the world. That culminated around 2012, when we did a hell of a lot of work around that area for British Cycling and Team Sky. In the subsequent years, I got asked to write a book about my journey. That was published in 2016 and it’s now gone around the world in 15 different languages.

I spend most of my time these days running international workshops, going into schools and working with athletes. Sleep has now become the real issue for a global population. But over the last twenty two years it’s been a hard slog for me because that wasn’t the case up until most recently.

Do you think that our modern-day culture has taken away some of the fundamentals needed for good sleep?

We are driven by the circadian rhythms of the day, which is the sun-up and sun-down process, our relationship with light and dark and temperature shifts. But we keep wandering away from it.

It [the circadian rhythm] very much controls hormones, bodily functions and things that happen at certain times of the day. Testosterone, blood pressure and mental awareness… things like that basically just went with the flow. As the sun set, we would build a fire. And that would be about it.

The Industrial Revolution was when we created electric lights, and that’s one key point. Up until that point, humans very much slept in what’s called a ‘polyphasic’ manner. It was shorter periods, more often, dominated by those circadian rhythms.

The electric light then started prolonging our evenings. Then, in certain countries, we adopted Daylight Saving Time, which again shifted us away from our natural rhythm.

Then, in the last couple of decades, technology has taken over our lives. We live in a twenty-four-seven culture, occupations are changing, lifestyles are changing and we definitely find ourselves in a period of time where you simply cannot just go ‘get your eight hours at night’.

Nick Littlehales is an elite sports sleep coach (Photo: Sport Sleep Coach)
Nick Littlehales is an elite sports sleep coach (Photo: Sport Sleep Coach)

What is the circadian rhythm?

Obviously there are differences depending on where the human being is on the planet, whether you’re in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere and hot or cold parts.

But in general terms, it is nothing more than the sun going around our planet. We put a clock on it called ’24 hours’.

Because we were outdoors developing into human beings, we have internal clocks that are completely linked to that [sun-up, sun-down] process.

So there are things like the pineal gland inside of our brain, which creates hormones called melatonin and serotonin, which are both triggered by light and dark.

We would have had around 12 hours worth of daylight, peaking at midday and diminishing towards sunset. We would have had around four hours in diminished light in the first part of the day and at the end of the day, such as light from a fire. Then we would have been in around eight hours’ worth of darkness. That gives you 24 hours.

But we don’t talk about circadian rhythms. Our parents don’t talk to us about them and we don’t learn about it at school.

If you type ‘circadian rhythms’ into your browser, you’ll see some images and suddenly realize how important it is to have some sort of relationship with the sun – and most importantly, light.

In your book, you introduce the concept of people being either an ‘AMer’ or a ‘PMer’. Could you explain what you mean by this?

When I first started in elite sport 22 years ago, things were changing quite dramatically. I’d only just got a mobile phone, never mind a laptop or a computer. We’ve shifted gears almost in a paradigm way since then.

Along that 22-year period, there was always the question of how could we could get an athlete, a player or an organization to increase their performance.

We would start to talk about circadian rhythms and light and how that process works.

Then we started talking about how I can spot ‘chronotypes’ just sat here in this room. People asked, ‘what’s that?’ And I said, ‘well you don’t like the mornings do you?’ They would say no.

Then someone else would like to get up really early in the morning and couldn’t wait to get going. Well, that’s a chronotype.

Now we understand that it’s a genetic twist. It’s your relationship with light and your relationship with the two hormones serotonin and melatonin which puts you on a phase delay.

Have you noticed that 70 per cent of the population are nighttime chronotypes, with only 25-30 per cent being morning chronotypes? But we all adopt very much an AMer’s routine. Get to work, go to school…

If you wake up in the morning and are hungry and want to get going like me, because I’m a morning chronotype, and then, as the day progresses, you seem to want to do other things that are a bit more creative or muck about, then you are an AMer.

Then there is the other person in the room, who would quite happily do their business accounts at midnight because they feel more awake and more aware in the evening, and not first thing in the morning. They are a PMer.

It was only when you had that type of conversation that suddenly it started to change attitude towards what we do and why.

We have to do things in periods of time when we could be exposing this chronotype. Is there something we could do to minimize its impact? Or could we actually do something to switch it around a bit to make us more productive and more aware of it? Performance then just comes as a consequence.

Have you got any tips for a PMer trying to adapt in what seems like an AMer’s world?

Principally, the one thing you need to understand is that the only way you get yourself going in the morning properly is exposure to light.

Some of the work that we’ve been doing recently is around circadian lighting and trying to get a better understanding of how our internal body clock in our brain works.

We’ve got the little clocks in all of our organs and cells which should be linked to that circadian rhythm outside.

AMers do need a bit of stimulus in the morning from light because a lot of us spend so much time indoors these days.

The PMer definitely needs light to wake them effectively and start getting all the bodily functions going.

The biggest key for everyone is to open up your relationship with light.

It’s important to understand that the light that we have around us indoors – even the bright lights in the gym and around your home – is way below the strength of light that’s outside, even on a gloomy winter’s day like today.

Nick Littlehales
Nick Littlehales has worked closely with British Cycling to help improve recovery

In your book, you suggest that the general public should consider using Caffeine like elite athletes – as a performance enhancer. Could you explain what you mean by this?

It’s from when I started to work around cyclists. It’s part of the culture to have an espresso when you’re going cycling in the mountains around France, Italy and Spain. But what I noticed was that they used it specifically as a performance enhancer. When you get into professional sport, that’s how it was used.

You can choose to have no caffeine, but you have to be careful because even decaffeinated products have caffeine in them. Caffeine can find itself in all sorts of places so it can be very difficult to be completely caffeine free. We live in a culture of having some coffee in the morning to stimulate us and get us going.

But the right level of light would be much better than downing espressos or any other variants of caffeine.

If you load yourself up with caffeine in the first half of the day to get you going and then stop, it’s like coming down off a hard drug.

Caffeine has a half-life of six to seven hours. A half-life means that if I take 100mg of caffeine, in three hours’ time it’ll be 50mg in my system, and by six hours it will have gone.

If I wake up in the morning and I take on 100mg of caffeine, in three hours time it’s down to 50mg. So maybe I can top myself up again with 100mg or 150mg. In three hours’ time it’s dropped again.

Caffeine, like light, can help to get the PMer going.

If I’ve been going through this caffeine process, then I just plan to take on some caffeine to raise my level just before I’m being asked to do something when I know I will be put under pressure.

It’s used in things like time trials, where you take a little bit of caffeine on to raise alertness levels. It kicks in in around 15 minutes for most people. So you could start a time trial with a bit more focus.

If you go through your day like that, whether it’s with 100mg or 200mg in the morning, and you keep working on that three-hour process, you’re always just keeping it nicely in the body and nicely topped up.

Caffeine and Coffee
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

That way you can actually plan your intake at certain points when you know that fatigue is likely to kick in.

It’s not a science behind this but we’ve been adopting these things with a lot of people. So it’s a case of either don’t do it at all, or have a much better relationship with the whole process.

I see too many people who can be up to 1000mg-1500mg before they get to lunchtime. You could have a Grande in a very well-known coffee house and it could contain 300mg in one go. These people are at very high levels and then they stop their intake. That’s not the way you treat caffeine.

It should be a nice, balanced thing that’s in the system. It’s about knowing how it’s going in and out and just keeping it nice and level, with no big ups and downs. Then you can actually position it to help you with certain things at certain times.

Where’s the best place for someone to find out more about you and your work?

I wrote a book called Sleep, published by Penguin Random House. You get it online. It’s a very simple read. It’s a great place to raise your awareness on these seven key sleep recovery every areas so you can start making little changes.

We’re on all of the social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and we’re always posting our stuff around sleep.

We’ve got lots of blogs on our website – https://www.sportsleepcoach.com – and our product store called https://www.R90sleepkit.com, where we’ve got products that elite athletes use.

There are a few videos on YouTube knocking around. There must be in the hundreds of podcasts now in all different areas around the world that you can access. Or you could just e-mail us and say hi!