Nick Littlehales is one of the world’s leading sleep experts.
He has worked with some of the biggest names in elite sport to help improve their sleep and recovery, and his best-selling book, Sleep, was published in 2016.
Nick is also the founder of Sport Sleep Coach, which offers coaching and advice to help people improve their sleep and performance.
In this interview, Nick dispels some of the myths about the dangers of blue light, and explains how fundamental it is for us to improve our relationship with sunlight if we want to step up our sleep game.
He also covers some of the basics about the human circadian rhythm and explains why camping is one of the ultimate body clock resets.
Nick also shares his view that preparation for a good night’s sleep actually starts the moment you wake up, and not just a couple of hours before going to bed.
It was really great to speak to Nick and hear some of his advice about how to set yourself up for better sleep!
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Thanks for taking the time to speak to HumanWindow, Nick. Could you give a brief background about your story for anyone who’s not familiar with it?
I was involved with the sleep industry purely by accident. I loved sport as a teenager and tried to get into it, but my path moved me into the sleep industry.
I was an international salesman and marketing director for a big company called Slumberland. I’d research sleep all around the world and spent quite a lot of time with professors of sleep and looking at the whole area.
I got involved in elite sport and it happened to be with a football club called Manchester United, which was close to my office. We started some dialogue and that turned into doing things for the world of football.
And some 22 years later, I’m still here. We work with elite athletes, male or female, all across the board and all sorts of different demographics and age-groups. Elite sport just really means somebody who’s professional.
Sleep has become a big subject, simply because we’re in a new era with new challenges and new demands. We’re all learning but we’re also suffering from a lack of awareness and lack of education about sleep. Everything I do in elite sport translates to absolutely anybody.
I was asked to write a book and it’s now in 14 languages across the world, so it’s certainly not centric to any particular population or group. And it’s exposed me to anybody from nurses, to surgeons, to pilots, to students – they’ve been trying to get a little bit of a better approach to how they get from A to B in the modern world.
I wanted to hone in on blue light as an issue in this day and age. Could you give us an explanation about the roles that blue and red light play in the human circadian rhythm?
I’ve just recently been coaching some Under-15s and Under-12s at a Premier League football club and that particular generation does get hammered with this ‘blue light is bad for you and will keep you awake’ message. I think it’s about the context of trying to get younger people to go to sleep, because they don’t want to.
We are giving this advice about how bad blue light is. But hang on a minute, what do you know about light? Blue light is not bad, light is not bad – it’s just about when you get it and why. The first thing you have to understand is the circadian rhythm.
The sun goes around our planet every day – we cannot change that. It’s a whole process of light and dark and temperature shifts. We are human beings with bodily functions that are completely synchronised to that process. That has not changed. So whilst everything else changes around us, that process has always been in place.
Principally, as human beings living outside, we would have been driven by that light/dark cycle. There’s a little bit of blue light in daylight and there is also some now hopping around in artificial lights and now the focus is on technology.
But what I try to do is to emphasise that it’s really important as a human being to make sure that you’re exposed to daylight at the start of the day. Because without that, you don’t create all the bodily functions properly. This is about producing serotonin in your brain that tells you to unsuppress everything and become active. As we all know, the sun rises and gets to midday when it’s at its strongest, and then it starts to diminish towards the sunset.
Really, what you want every day is around 12 hours of daylight, about four hours of diminished light and eight hours in darkness.
How that pans out in your 24 hours is something to define, but that’s principally how your 24 hours looks.
The first thing everybody should understand is that in the first part of the day, seeing daylight is really critical to get you going.
If you live in part of the world where you have daylight saving time, which is where we shift the clocks in winter, our relationship with light changes again and that’s why we get Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s because we move down to around eight hours of daylight, eight hours of diminished light and eight hours of darkness.
The challenge through all the seasons is to make sure that your exposure to light is balanced, and that you don’t get too much of one and too little of another.
When we start looking at the evenings, if we’ve not got a balanced approach to the light we see during the day, then we’re not performing at our best in terms of mood and motivation. So we can do something about that by increasing blue light – because we might be spending too much time indoors instead of outdoors.
When we get to the back-end quarter of the 24 hours, when we are in the evening process and moving towards nocturnal sleep, it’s really important to remember that’s about diminished light. You can still be active and doing things, but you want to make sure that you’re not overloading with serotonin, which is triggered by light and blue light. The melatonin should be taking over from the serotonin and telling the body to suppress everything and move you down towards a place where you can go to sleep.
The big thing about blue light and technology is that the blue light is quite focused inside a small space. So whether it’s just a mobile, desktop or laptop, you’re quite focused on it. That does a number of things. It intensifies the light because you’re much closer to it. It can get quite uncomfortable. You can get blue light shields on all of your devices now. Wearing blue blocking glasses or things like that can be beneficial, but principally you can just remove the blue light.
So you can still be active with technology, but you’ve taken the blue light out of your system, whether it’s with the glasses or a shield on the device.
The other thing, as I’m standing here looking at you, is how close you are to these things. Just by going back a few millimetres, the impact can be significantly dropped.
With blue light, it’s just about understanding that you do want to use it throughout the 24 hours to be at your best in the serotonin mode, but then you also want to make sure that you don’t overload it like in the summer.
We might have to increase it in the winter months because there is less of it in daylight.
The light outside is so much stronger than any light inside. So rather than just focusing on ‘blue light is bad’, you should have a little bit of an understanding about when you should use it and why.
Just trying to block blue light on devices before you go to sleep is really just a last-ditch attempt to try and rectify something that should have been going on from the point of wake.
If you’re in a diminished light for most of the day, then when you start getting towards the back end of your day and you’re still looking at devices and computers with blue light, then they can have a far greater effect on you than if you have a more balanced approach.
For example, I love the mornings. I wake up at 6am and am ready to go. Only up until a certain point of the year will I shut my curtains, because the sun rises at 5am, puts sun into my bedroom, releases serotonin and I’m ready to go. I only shut the curtains when the sun is rising before 5am.
If you’re a PMer, you don’t want to be affected by sunrise, so you keep the curtains shut. Waking in darkness is not natural to us. If I’m shutting the curtains, I put a lamp in my bedroom that replicates sunrise and puts 10,000 lux worth of daylight to wake me up.
Blue light is not bad. It’s fundamental to make you go and do stuff and throughout the day you want to keep those levels up. We don’t want a generation of people thinking that blue light is bad for us, it’s just our lack of knowledge. Because it’s been so uninvestigated, there are a lot of fear-factors coming out around a sleep which are not based on good education.
It’s more important to get a better approach from the moment you wake throughout your day. We can’t all be outside, but we should know how much we’re not exposed to light to see if we can increase it with lamps or other stuff.
You can’t really put blue blocking glasses on an hour before you go to sleep with you still looking at your device. The information overload is still happening and that’s going to keep your brain going. I’m more interested in asking what you’re doing on your device in the last few hours before bed. Is it good stuff, such as mindfulness, medication and sounds?
Nobody’s arguing about the power of blue light. But once you understand it and how to use it, it’s not a problem.
Do you advise getting some natural daylight outdoors as soon as you wake up?
Light outside is much, much stronger than indoors. Whilst we’re moving around and being active, we get a balance of light. If you’re outside all the time, it’s normally around 10,000-20,000 lux. Most of the light therapy lamps will emit 10,000 lux.
I took a bunch of athletes and instead of sleeping in a hotel, we slept outside camping. Not everyone likes going camping, but they all understand the principles.
If I go away with a group of people and we’re only protected from the outside world by a little bit of plastic, we tend to eat breakfast well, start the day, be active, have lunch, enjoy the evenings and sleep well. We seem to have a really nice time.
Why, when there’s a lot of things missing? It’s because of the circadian rhythm. It’s having an impact on how we feel and how we’re processing information.
We’re not sleeping on a fancy mattress in a fancy bedroom with air conditioning. I do it because the tent protect them from the sunrise. Immediately, they get impacted and realize that it’s 5am and that they never get up at that time.
Make sunrise part of your thing. Ask yourself, what time is the sun rising next week? If it’s rising at 5am and you normally get up at 6am, then open those curtains up and let it in.
The light therapy tool gives you an option if you can’t get the natural stuff, so you can replicate it.
How do you advise your athletes to set up their bedrooms?
It’s very rare that you ever walk out of your home onto a playing pitch. Being a sportsperson always means travel. You’re always going to be sleeping in different environments. With professional mountaineers, they’re hanging off the side of a cliff in a sack on a hook.
The first concept is that you can sleep anywhere on anything at any time. You can sleep on the floor, on a plane or on a sofa. When the emphasis in on the bedroom, I say to the athletes to strip everything out and then put back what is about mental and physical recovery as a human being. Of course, the room has to be multifunctional.
But if you principally look at it as a recovery room, you think about whether there is anything you can do to put things somewhere else. With curtains, are you trying to protect yourself from the light or expose yourself to it? If you’re trying to protect yourself, make sure you’re protected – don’t leave little gaps under the door.
For anyone watching this who wants to keep up to date with your work, where’s the best place for them to stay up to date?
The website is sportsleepcoach.com. We have a range of little things that people can use to get going, like a little kick-starter for £5.
They can access the book, Sleep, through all good bookshops and on Amazon.
We’ve also got a few toolkits where people can raise their awareness in a straightforward way.
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