Twelve hours’ sleep a night is what Claudia Schiffer always insisted she needed to look good (although that does pre-date motherhood…!) Fortunately, most of us can get by on rather less, or we wouldn’t get much done. But it isn’t called ‘beauty sleep’ for nothing; cut down your sleep rations for just a few nights and you will soon see that your skin looks drab and grey circles develop under the eyes.
This much we understand. Yet sleep remains one of the great medical mysteries, and its effect on our complexions is just beginning to be understood. According to dermatologist Robert A. Weiss of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, ‘The release of growth hormone [while we sleep] is likely to influence specific skin-growth factors: collagen and keratin production may be stepped up, and skin cells may replicate faster.’ Studies have shown that hormone levels fluctuate when sleep patterns are interfered with, and may be linked to acne flare-ups and excessively dry skin. That hollow-eyed look, which identifies the sleep-deprived, is due to circulation changes; when the body struggles to fight fatigue, blood is diverted to the major organs – draining the face of colour and highlighting under-eye circles. In the quest for health and beauty, it really is best to sleep on it…

The so-called ‘average’ amount of sleep we need is just a statistic. Sixty-six per cent of us regularly sleep for between six and a half and eight and a half hours a night. Some 16 per cent sleep for longer, and 18 per cent skimp on under six and a half. Professor Jim Horne, of the sleep laboratory at Loughborough University, says: ‘The acid test for insufficient sleep is whether you have trouble staying awake during the day.’ But it’s quality of sleep, not merely quantity, that is emerging as a chief factor in the sleep/health/beauty equation.

Just what does constitute perfect sleep? Dr Deepak Chopra, bestselling health author (whose works include Restful Sleep) observes: ‘It seems to happen by itself. You don’t have to fight for it against restlessness or anxiety, or take drugs of any kind to experience it. You rarely wake up in the middle of the night from good sleep, but if you do, you get back to sleep quickly without worrying about it. You wake up naturally in the morning. You’re neither sluggish and groggy nor anxious and hyperalert. Finally, good sleep provides you with a sense of vitality that lasts through the day. You don’t feel you’ve been deprived of rest during the preceding night, and you don’t feel anxious about what’s going to happen the next time you try to fall asleep.’

Achieving perfect sleep

Aim for a regular wake-up time and bedtime. If establishing a bedtime pattern is a problem, make a point of always getting up at the same time.

•  Avoid napping; instead, a relaxation technique – meditation, Alexander Technique or yoga (see Directory) will give you the benefits of a nap without disturbing your sleep/wake cycle.

•  Try not to harbour tension, anger or resentment. If sleep is elusive, try to relax (using deep breathing techniques, for instance), and don’t worry about not sleeping. Unless there’s a medical problem, everyone gets the amount of sleep they need, in the end.

•  Try to fit in at least half an hour of exercise a day; walking is fine. It’s often stress hormones that keep us tossing and turning, but exercise helps to stop their build-up in the system. Avoid vigorous exercise in the evening, although an after-dinner stroll can help digestion.

•  Keep the bedroom warm but not stuffy; allow fresh air to circulate.

•  Caffeine interferes with sleep. It isn’t just an after-dinner espresso that will disturb sleep patterns; caffeine consumed at two in the afternoon can still have an effect. N.B. there is some caffeine in cola, tea, chocolate, and even in decaffeinated drinks.

•  Try herbs as an alternative to prescription pills.  Valerian and passiflora have long been popular insomnia cures. They are now available as Valerina, Natrasleep and Natural Sleep tablets, which are non-addictive alternatives to sleeping pills. Kava, another herb, is also a sleep remedy. Look for all of these in health stores.

•  Heavy alcohol drinkers may fall asleep quickly but suffer a disturbed pattern of sleep later and wake up – unable to doze off again – in the small hours.

•  Your sleep environment matters.  Where you sleep, and the furniture arrangements, may also be a factor in optimising sleep quality. Alternative therapists sometimes suggest that sleeping with the head facing magnetic north will enhance sleep. (It works for Terence Stamp.)

Tips from the top

•  Legendary French beauty Catherine Deneuve says: ‘I try to respect my basic needs; eight hours of sleep at a minimum. Rest is the unassailable beauty treatment.’

•  Katie Boyle keeps a bottle of Dr Bach’s Rescue Remedy by her bedside. ‘It stops the mind whirling. If I wake up at 5.30 and take a few drops on the tongue, I go straight back to sleep and don’t feel groggy when the alarm goes off.’

•  Veteran supermodel Paulina Porizkova says: ‘I try always to get eight hours’ sleep a night, even though I consider sleep a total waste of time: I’d rather be playing the piano, listening to classical music or painting. But my mother always told me that I’d age more quickly if I don’t sleep a lot – and since she’s absolutely stunning, I take her advice!’