Meet sleep expert who says light is key to success
Nick Littlehales is a sleep coach who advises top athletes – including the British cycling team – on how to improve their performance by maximising their mental and physical recovery from sleep. If you think this depends on expensive gadgetry or arcane procedures, you would be wrong. It can be something as simple as sticking black tape along the bottom of a door or over a television standby indicator to cut out light.
People who sleep badly just don’t get it, Littlehales says. ‘Forget melatonin supplements, sleep trackers and all that. These things have got no chance. As long as you’ve got the wrong light in your bedroom, the wrong light in your bathroom, as long as you don’t know your chronotype and you’ve got everything out of sync, everything you do in isolation is a complete waste of time. Who relates the light in their home or bedroom to the process of sleep? Miles away, isn’t it? But it’s fundamental to helping athletes win gold medals.’
In much the same way as Dave Brailsford transformed British cycling through the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, Littlehales’s R90 recovery programme implements practical, achievable ways to restore sleep habits to a more natural pattern in harmony with the body’s circadian rhythm. In addition to simple measures like selecting the right mattress, one of the most important factors is controlling the amount and quality of light in the bedroom.
Understanding circadian rhythms and the cues that affect our body clocks is so fundamental to our wellbeing, he says, that it should be taught in schools. ‘The relationship between human beings and light is so logical it’s ridiculous we don’t do anything about it. It’s fundamental to weight gain, obesity, all the things this generation is now suffering from – all because we didn’t talk to them about how important light is to human beings. If only you had five minutes in a biology class for the teacher to just wander through circadian rhythms and chronotypes, then you’d know about that relationship.’
Among other things we would grow up understanding that sleeping in a single eight-hour block is an unnatural habit imposed on us by the invention of the light bulb. Exposure to artificial light, not to mention the shifting goalpost that is daylight saving time, has messed us up. Unnatural sleep affects the brain’s ability to function properly on waking, Littlehales explains, and it is his mission to help elite athletes – and the rest of us – to ‘recreate the natural circadian process of the day’, bringing our brains back into sync with our bodies.
For example, in order for the hormone melatonin to do its job, complete darkness is required during sleep. The sleep kit Littlehales has developed for travelling athletes contains endearingly practical measures such as black bin liners and tape ‘to try and get rid of light in a disposable, portable way.’ Since the body is not designed to awake in total darkness, a dawn wake simulator is included – effectively recreating sunrise in the bedroom to bring the individual out of sleep as naturally as possible.
Generally, Littlehales believes the lighting industry has a way to go before it is routinely delivering the kind of lit environments that harmonise with human circadian rhythms and promote beneficial sleep cycles. While the importance of biocentric lighting is well understood in sectors such as healthcare, he says he has found little understanding of the benefits in domestic settings. Much more could be done, such as restful night lighting in bathrooms to encourage the body to wind down.
This, he claims, would be more useful than trying to convince the younger generation to eschew their blue-lit gadgets at night. ‘Can you give me some evidence that by closing your laptop down for an hour, that is going to reset a whole day of light exposure?’ he demands rhetorically. Kids should be telling their parents to provide lighting that wakes them up and gets them to exams on time, not stressing them out by yelling at them to shut down their phones. Circadian lighting that does its job without the occupants even being aware would, he says, be ‘perfect technology’.
He does have hopes that the hotel industry is – ahem – waking up to the possibilities, led by the needs of high-profile athletes whose success depends on a good night’s sleep. Visiting teams and talent will be looking for the right facilities, he says, ‘and one of them will most definitely be circadian lighting. And what is good for them is good for everyone.’