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An interview with sleep expert Dr. Els van der Helm

We spend around 1/3 of our lives sleeping. Crazy, right? Sleep is extremely important and has tremendous infuence on how we feel—physically as well as mentally. But despite how essential it is, we have a long way to go when it comes to learning about quality sleep. We sit down with Dr. Els van der Helm, one of the founders of the sleep app Shleep, to get some advice and change this.


As a sleep expert and consultant, Van der Helm visits companies to tell them about how sleep can contribute to their employees’ productivity and health. She also acts as an advisor, informing them of the ways they can improve their sleep quality. 


An interview with sleep expert Dr. Els van der Helm

In your opinion, what are the dangers associated with poor sleep?

When you sleep poorly, there is almost nothing in your body that doesn’t suffer. It affects your immune system, making you vulnerable to disease. For example, we know that not sleeping well carries a higher risk of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Additionally, people who sleep less tend to eat more: they’re focused on carbohydrates. Not sleeping enough also impacts your blood sugar. I’m not saying that it leads to diabetes, but that is a possibility. Your mental health is also affected: when you don’t sleep enough, you have a (bigger) chance of developing anxiety disorders and depression.

If you wake up grumpy, this is usually because you haven’t slept well. A good night’s sleep gives your mood a much-needed boost. That’s why my general advice is to make sure you prioritise sleep, just like training and nutrition. People mostly are conscious about working out, healthy eating and mindfulness, but they often forget about sleep. You don’t need to sleep the same amount of hours every day, but you do need to be aware of the trade-off. Try to keep your sleep times as consistent as possible: your body thrives on regularity and routine.

Being stressed is an enemy of sleep. The more mindful you are during the day, the better you’ll sleep. When you run around the whole day completely stressed, you’ll notice that you don’t sleep well that night. You can’t expect to fall asleep within 30 minutes. You need to ask yourself, “what happens to me when I don’t sleep enough?” Everybody has their own alarm; you have to pick up on the signals in order to do something about it.


People mostly are conscious about working out, healthy eating and mindfulness, but they often forget about sleep.

You are quite involved with informing companies and people about the general importance of sleep. You do that in a very accessible way, especially for somebody with a scientific background. Why?

I think that it’s very good that scientists are working more and more with companies and the media to translate their way of thinking for a larger public. When I read scientific articles, I still think, “ok, what now?” What you actually want is a scientist that also gives you some real advice. That is what we’re doing now and it’s something I really enjoy: standing with one foot in academia and translating it for the rest of the world.  


How do sleep problems affect society as a whole?

It is important to know there are two groups of people. On one side, you have the people who just don’t prioritise sleep enough. This means that their day is so full that in the evening they don’t even think about going to sleep, they just stay active—be it working or watching Netflix. It’s possible that they don’t notice the consequences of not sleeping enough—and that is dangerous. If you wake up grumpy and don’t connect that to the fact that you slept too little, nothing will change. Incidentally, it’s not just about how much you sleep, it’s also about the quality of the sleep you get.

The other group of people, around 15% of the population, is conscious of the fact that they have sleep problems. For example, they have trouble falling asleep, wake up in the middle of the night or they simply wake up much too early. You need to approach these people differently. You want to tell them something else, like: if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.


Young people seem to be much more aware of their sleep and why it’s important. Why do you suppose that is?

This group is a lot more conscious of their health; they’re more open-minded when it comes to different ways to improve it. For example, they’ve just started a new job and they feel they still have a lot to learn, which gives them a different mindset. More than that, this group is simply more involved with their health and they find it important to take care of themselves properly. Young people experience more stress than average—because of things like new jobs and a very busy social life, for example. Therefore, sleep can be really challenging.


Do you have an evening routine to prepare body and mind for sleep?

I don’t just think about sleep at night, I also think about it during the day. I try to work out first thing in the morning and I think about how late I’m going to eat, so that I don’t do it too soon before bed. As much as possible, I try to reserve the most intellectually demanding tasks for the morning, so that I don’t have to do many complicated things in the evening. In this way, I’m always preparing myself to sleep well.


In your opinion, what is the optimal sleeping environment? Do you have some “bedroom advice” to ensure a good night’s sleep?

Your bedroom should be cool—around 17 or 18 degrees—with a window open whenever possible. You might need a thicker blanket, but that’s better than keeping the window closed. It should also be quiet, but if it’s not, you can always use earplugs or a white noise machine (editor’s note: a device that makes all kinds of different yet subtle noises, like waterfalls or the sound of wind) as background. This blocks out other noises that can distract you from sleep. It also helps to dedicate your bedroom to sleep only, which means not having anything in it that reminds you of work. For example, avoid bringing your laptop to bed.


Finally, what do you see yourself doing in the next few years?

We are—with Shleep—still continuously in development. Our mission is to help the world sleep better, and we’re very motivated. Not only do we want to help people become more conscious, we also want to tell them how everything works, so that they can make the necessary changes themselves.


The more mindful you are during the day, the better you’ll sleep.