ELK-Health produce programmes for many companies, organisations and public health bodies to help control some of the most widespread and stubborn challenges the developed world faces regarding its overall health.
But, the co-founders of ELK-Health, the not-for-profit organisation which provides clinics and preventative better-health programmes and currently campaigns to make Emotional-wellbeing programmes local, easy-to-access and affordable – Ray Iles, Tadhg Ó Séaghdha, Steve Smith and Nick Vyas – all agree that if they ever had to reduce the 8Ways down to one, they would choose the Maximising your Sleep Programme. Why?
Their backgrounds are very different – Ray is an ex-policeman who went on to be an innovator in endocrinology at Barts, and a professor of biomedical science at universities in London and Cambridge. He now leads one of the most innovative commercial biomedical teams in the world. Tadhg learnt his clinical trade working with perpetrators and targets (never, he emphasises “victims”) of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland, then went on to work with lawyers, politicians and bankers who had what he describes as ’emotionally very unwell lives’. He is one of the increasingly popular breed of “new therapists” who are moving the profession away from clinicians identifying themselves by which modularity they happen to be trained in – and much more towards being specialists treating particular conditions – so like medics, really. Steve Smith and Nick Vyas share a long-time interest in the effects the mind has on oral health. These four men spend their work-days in very different ways – but are passionate about their purpose – which is to bring about change. ‘Reforming,’ says Steve, ‘is all about how to increase cognitive efficiency’ (which, they patiently explain, is thinking more clearly and more effectively) ’emotional wellbeing’ (or not being a slave to how you happen to feel at the moment) and…’ (Yes, neither of them is shy of the H-word!) ‘bringing “more happiness” to our clients – and ourselves.’ Ray and Tadhg are currently collaborating on a book called “The Mindful Way to Health and Happiness” with their colleague Karen Asprey.
Nick looks a little like a man who thinks the conversation may have started to go off-piste: ‘Sleep is critically important to everyone, of course. Our emotional-wellbeing is the first thing to go missing if our sleep pattern doesn’t suit us – and people soon find themselves struggling to cope.’
‘But sleep’s something else too,’ says Ray. ‘And, to my mind, this is even more important: Sleep patterns tell people like us so much about what could go wrong later. The connection with – and importance of – sleep to some of the ELK-Health “8Way” programmes – like Dementia Prevention and Mood Change is obvious. But sleep is of serious relevance to controlling our Size and Weight too. Any size and weight loss programme that doesn’t monitor sleep patterns and biomedical levels is, in my opinion, lacking an essential ingredient – so to speak.
‘The way that sleep regulates hormonal and metabolic rhythms – so called circadian cycles – cannot be underestimated,’ continues Ray, getting into full biomedical scientist mode. ‘We know that cortisol, often called ‘the stress hormone’, increases dramatically when you wake up, and then it drops to its lowest when you fall asleep. Well, that’s not just to get the old brain alert and functioning – it also gets the body metabolism working. When you eat your breakfast, cortisol is part of the system that makes sure that the food is not put into store (in other words laid down as fat), but is made available for work.
‘We know about this, not surprisingly because if someone is forced to eat at night, when they are on shift work, we can measure their body chemicals and show that their body is screaming “you should be asleep!!! – so I am going to put as many of these calories as I can into store”. We are hard-wired to be active during daylight hours and asleep during dark hours – our alertness, mental acuity and metabolism is fine-tuned to this rhythm…
‘I’ve experienced my share of sleep difficulties,’ Steve chips in. ‘Let’s not forget that stress and anxieties and just life in general can make us not sleep… It’s not a deliberate action on our part to stick two fingers up at our body’s metabolism.’ Nick nods. They all quickly confirm that sleep has, at some time or another, been a difficulty for all of them – and something they’re keen to address effectively with the 8Way Sleep Programme.
I ask Ray to explain a little more about circadian rhythms – and he’s obviously delighted to do so.
‘There is a lot of molecular biology and studies in chronobiology trying to isolate the exact genes and understand how they are switched on and off to make these circadian cycles of metabolic and hormonal modulator molecules. What makes me laugh is how when we knock one of the regulator genes out we find some other systems compensate for them and keeps the basic diurnal cycle of wake and sleep. We usually have what is termed Zeitgebers (time givers) that constantly correct our internal metabolic clock and the most important of these is sunlight.
‘Having said that, there are conditions in which sleep cycles are badly interrupted; for example this occurs in people who also have cognitive developmental challenges such as Down’s and Williams’ syndromes. So we come back again to emotional-wellbeing – the sleep and body metabolism. Is it “I think therefore I am” or “I think therefore I interact with the sun”?’
Nick wants to change the direction a little. ‘I’m worried about the people we don’t reach. That’s often men over 30 and women who struggle a bit with English and leave their homes infrequently. Another aspect of focusing on sleep is that many people traditionally reluctant to declare that they are experiencing an issue with depression, stress or anxiety, are very happy to admit to a stranger that their sleep isn’t all that it might be. I’m particularly thinking that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 and many women who lead relatively isolated lives within a family unit, and only infrequently speak the first language of the country in which they live, don’t get a chance to talk to emotional-wellbeing professionals.’
They seem to agree and go quiet. Then, remembering me, Ray explains: ‘Running the 8Way Maximising your Sleep Programme is a big plus for an organisation like ELK-Health – we believe that our role is to provide easy-to-access, local and affordable prevention programmes that will turn around the current situation regarding emotional-wellbeing – that it is the Cinderella of health – at a time when almost every type of healthcare is under financial pressure.
‘The important thing for us to keep in mind at ELK-Health, as creators, with many experts, of a unique sleep health programme, is that not having sleep has effects on our metabolism and not just our emotional-wellbeing. They are intimately linked and that can be incredibly useful when we are finding out about why people are not functioning as well as they might.’ Ray takes a step back and grins at the other three. ‘Mind and body cannot be treated separately, you know.’ Then there’s a lot of grinning going on. Nick, Steve and Tadhg are obviously highly amused at the former professor’s coupling of the words ‘mind’ and ‘body’ – it’s clearly not something that happens everyday. Normally the ‘psycho-speak’ is done by the others – particularly psychotherapist Tadhg. ‘All right – OK I’m becoming more of an new-age hippy than you, Tadhg.’
They begin to disperse back to their very different work. ‘I think you’ll find I’m an old-age hippy’ says Tadhg. And the other three quietly nod in agreement.