We all want to know how to be healthy, and few people are more qualified to tell us how to sleep better, move freer and feel happier than a GP. Dr Zoe Williams is probably one of the best known doctors in the UK, and she’s all about looking at health from a holistic point of view and empowering women to live their best lives.
A life-long exerciser, Dr Williams has plenty of personal as well as professional experience of recovering well, exercising effectively and using tech to track and maximise health. So, here’s what we’ve learned from her about sleep, stress and exercise.
You can brain-train yourself to sleep better
We’re obsessed with sleep these days – mainly because most of us never get enough of it. And when you’ve had a few interrupted nights on the trot, it can be easy to catastrophise over whether you’ll ever sleep well again. In fact, according to YouGov, 75% of Brits get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep – with Dr Williams noting that most people average five to six hours and that the quality of that sleep is often poor.
She says she sees many patients coming in with sleep issues, whether it’s dealing with insomnia or staying asleep.
“A lot of the advice for sleeping better is around sleep hygiene. You can’t just tell your brain to switch off and go to sleep,” she explains. While you could eat more plants or do more squats to make your body stronger, sleep is the one part of health that you can’t really intervene in. “You need your brain to do it on its own,” says Dr Williams. But, she also flags, you can train your brain to get better at going to sleep – and it’s all about having a routine around going to bed.
Dr Williams sets out three key brain-training tips for sleeping better:
Form a non-negotiable pre-bed habit
Reducing screen exposure before bed and avoiding eating anything heavy a couple of hours before you want to sleep are two fairly common and obvious tactics, but Dr Williams also says that in the 30 minutes before sleep, we need to have an activity that our brain recognises and associates with sleep.
“That could be having a bath, lighting your favourite candle, reading your book, saying your prayers, having a certain milky drink,” she says. For me, it’s writing my diary. I’ve kept a diary since I was in primary school and have always written it just before sleep – and it can take me longer to drift off if I’ve not written it that day.
Reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex
When it comes to spatial hygiene, Dr Williams says: “The bedroom should only be used for two things: sleep and sex. And the main reason sex is in there is because people won’t stop doing it there!”
That means setting serious boundaries against working from bed if you’re not in the office, watching Netflix in bed or taking stressful phone calls in the bedroom. If you rent a room and your bedroom is your only space, try to keep the bed itself limited to the two Ss and use your desk for everything else.
If you’re lucky enough to have enough living space that you can work elsewhere and watch TV in a living room, then keeping your bedroom free from work and stimulation allows the brain to recognise it as the place to sleep.
Make your bedroom like a cave
“You want to keep your bedroom at about 18°C, as dark as possible with blackout blinds and as quiet as you can. Anything that you’d do for a little baby to make their room compatible with sleep, we should do for our own rooms as well,” says Dr Zoe.
Sleep tracking can help you recover, even if you’ve spent the night in the pub
We know that alcohol can impact our sleep quality, but it’s unrealistic (and boring) to expect us to sack off our social lives in favour of recovery. Dr Williams suggests that sleep tracking can help us plan for the days when we’re out late or drinking with our mates.
“Knowledge is power. If you’re tracking your sleep quality and activities throughout the day, you can start to track the impact different lifestyle factors have on your sleep – and you can do something about it.” She says that she recently started tracking her body battery, which normally charges up when you’re asleep.
“But if I’d been out and had quite a few drinks, I’d be waking up in the morning with a reduced body battery. I’d go to sleep with a body battery of 30 and wake up at 27. That means that the quality of my sleep when I’ve had a substantial amount to drink is so bad that it’s not refreshing me at all.”
While Dr Williams is open about the fact that she’s not going to let her body battery put her off having a drinking session with her friends, it has impacted how she socialises during the week. “I might forgo the alcohol at a mid-week event (most of us drink to be social, not because we want to) or if I’m having a glass of wine at dinner with my partner, I might just keep it to one glass because I know it’ll impact my sleep and if I’ve got a meeting the next day,” she says.
GPs swear by mindfulness for free, effective stress-relief
While stress is a natural response that has enabled humans to run away from lions and survive all sorts of other dangerous events, it’s fair to say that most of us have too much exposure to stress these days. “Our bodies are designed to feel that stress response on very rare occasions, but these days, we have lots of mini doses of stress most days. We’re not equipped to deal with stress in that way.” From mental health to digestion, stress can be crippling.
So, how can we reduce chronic stress? Well, Dr Williams says that first off, we need to do our own self-assessment, labelling stress and noticing how it affects our emotional health (ie does it leave you feeling anxious or down), physical health (headaches, poor sleep, palpitations) and social health (less productive, negative relationships). “You’ve got to do that homework first before working out how to change it,” she says.
“There’s something we can all do about our stress,” Dr Williams says. “We definitely all have 10 minutes a week when we can do something to relax, calm and acknowledge our stress. But one thing I often recommend is breathing exercises. If you can identify when you’re stressed, you want to move back into your rest and digest mode – activate the parasynthetic nervous system. And the quickest way to do that is to change your breathing.”
She recommends trying box breathing as a quick, effective way of calming the body. It’s a technique used by Navy Seals in the US for calming down. Have a go now (it’s desk-friendly, don’t worry!):
- Breathe in for four seconds
- Hold that breath for four seconds
- Breathe out for four seconds
- Hold the breath again for four seconds
- Repeat as many times as you need
It might come as a surprise to learn that NHS GPs prescribe and recommend mindfulness for reducing stress too. Dr Williams recommends looking out of the window and focusing on a tree: “There’s something about looking at the thousands of leaves on a tree and noticing the shapes and patterns that has a calming effect on the brain.”
She also recommends tapping into the five senses, by noting:
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can hear
- Three things you can feel (like your toes in your shoes, the air going past you)
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
“That’s going to bring you into the moment,” she says. And while mindfulness might not have made it on the syllabus when Dr Williams was at medical school, the medical world has cottoned on to mindfulness as a powerful resource now because, as she explains: “There’s a lot of evidence and data that supports the idea of mindfulness being effective.”
Every bit of movement counts – you don’t have to go to the gym
This might sound a little odd coming from us, but sometimes, fitness has to come second to other things in your life. Dr Williams, for example, has a baby and works as a GP, so she has less time to train now than she probably did five years ago. And that’s totally fine.
“Since I had a baby, my exercise levels have been at the lowest they’ve ever been. Even when I do get the opportunity to do some exercise, I just want to have a cup of tea and put my feet up. Sometimes it’s just really easy not to put it up at the top of your priorities list.”
To combat that, Dr Williams has been tweaking her own expectations of herself. Previously, unless she’d done at least 30 minutes of sweaty exercise, she didn’t count it as such. These days, she’s “resetting the expectations” and exercise means “moving [her] body in any way possible for a minimum of 10 minutes – from a YouTube Zumba workout to a quick walk around the block. By making it achievable, you don’t need to have a lot of motivation.”
She also recommends changing goals from performance to looking after yourself. “Your goals always have to adapt and what you can expect from yourself is always changing. There’ll be points in your life when you’ll feel your strongest, but there’ll also be points when you need to dial that down.”