How To Sleep Better
Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting the right kind? And if not, what can be done about it?
Anyone who has lain in bed listening to the foxes and burglars going about their nocturnal activities, all the while urging sleep to descend, will know all about the power of insomnia. This silent foe can leave you with a muddled mind and deep dark circles under your eyes. It can kill your sex drive and spike your hunger, and if left long enough, it can even kill you. For some, the bedroom is a battleground, as the routine rigmarole of attempting to dupe your mind into switching off becomes an Everest of a challenge.
Almost as frustrating as the failure to fall asleep itself can be the well-meaning advice of others when you reveal your predicament, especially if they recommend dubious herbal tonics to solve your sleep issues. Sleep problems can vary hugely from person to person, so there’s no single remedy that will work for everyone.
However, there are some well-established methods of luring the Sandman to your door that are worth trying if you are having trouble in the bedroom. Not that kind of trouble, although one piece of advice does involve sex. That’s a promise. So read on for the finest in advice to combat sleep issues, and at least one mention of sex.
Don’t Watch The Clock
The idea of getting eight hours of rest has been drilled into us, but focusing so closely on hitting an exact number with something as capricious as sleep can be counterproductive.
“Putting a number on how many hours of sleep we should be getting can exacerbate anxiety about not being able to get enough,” says Dr Petra Simic, clinical director of Bupa Health Clinics (opens in new tab).
“If you are someone who struggles to nod off, or you find yourself waking up during the night, don’t be tempted to check the time. This immediately causes your brain to calculate how many hours of sleep you’ve clocked and stimulates it with light, making it less likely that you’ll fall asleep again quickly.”
Prep For Bed Before Winding Down
“In the evening we naturally start to relax and feel sleepy, whether it’s in front of the TV or elsewhere,” says Simic. “When we realise it’s time for bed we rush to prepare. Then adrenaline stimulates our bodies and makes it harder to drop off.”
“I’d encourage people to do all the necessary preparation to go to bed before they sit down to relax. Get your pyjamas on and brush your teeth before chilling out. Once you feel sleepy, just take yourself straight to bed.”
Keep Your Sleep Time Regular
One well recognized thing you need to do to improve your sleep is set a regular time for going to sleep and waking up. Clearly, life will often get in the way of this good intention – especially at weekends, or when an especially bingeworthy show is added to Netflix – but if you have a time you do stick to as much as possible, your internal body clock will adjust and sleep should come more easily.
Form A Relaxing Routine
Going above and beyond setting a regular bedtime, creating a nightly pre-bed routine also helps the body prepare to snooze. Winding down with a warm bath or shower, a hot milky drink (non-caffeinated, obviously) and a book or the radio will help to see you off to dreamland.
Get The Environment Right
Light, noise and temperature are all factors that can affect your sleep greatly. The temperature of the room should be between 18° and 24°C, and you want it as quiet and dark as possible. Blackout curtains, ear plugs and an eye mask are all options if you can’t change the outside world to suit your sleep needs.
Take A Screen Break
“Cutting back on screen use at night is the best thing you can do to improve sleep quantity and quality immediately,” says Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies To Sleep Your Way To A Better Body, Better Health And Bigger Success (opens in new tab).
“Consumer electronics with screens such as TVs, tablets and phones emit a sleep-sucking artificial blue light that triggers your body to produce more daytime hormones, such as cortisol, and produce less melatonin, the primary hormone behind sleep.”
Try Some Breathing Exercises
Focusing on your breathing can help you relax whenever you need to, including when attempting to go to sleep. By using a breathing technique in which you exhale for longer than you inhale, you can put your body into a parasympathetic state, also known as rest-and-digest mode.
One such exercise is the 4-7-8 method in which you inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, then exhale for eight seconds; you can also try this technique from performance coach Richie Norton.
Another advantage of using breathing exercises when trying to drop off is that counting your breaths in this way forces you into the present and can help take your mind off any troublesome thoughts that might prevent you from sleeping.
Track What Helps You Sleep Better
Either with old-fashioned pen and paper or using a newfangled sleep tracker (without a screen – blue light is the enemy, remember?), try jotting down a few notes on what you did in the day and then how you slept. You could discover patterns indicating what helps and hinders your rest. For example, you might always get eight hours on days where you exercise, but always struggle when you go out boozing. Then you can adjust your daily routines to suit your sleep.
Exercise Regularly, But Not Last Thing
Studies have shown that regular exercise improves both sleep quality and duration, but try to keep your vigorous workouts for earlier in the day. Before you protest, sex is excluded from the late-night vigorous activity ban because, unlike other heart-raising exercise, it makes you sleepy. We have evolution to thank for that one. Thanks evolution!
Alcohol Is Not A Sleep Aid
You might drop off quickly on nights when you’ve hit the bottle, but the overall quality of your sleep nosedives after boozing. Alcohol disrupts sleep cycles, affects breathing (that’s why many non-snorers turn into buzzsaws after a night on the tiles) and has a diuretic effect, so you’ll have to get up and use the toilet. It all adds up to a terrible night’s sleep.
Give Naps A Chance
You don’t have to confine sleep to the night – your natural circadian rhythms mean your body is receptive to the benefits of a nap in the early afternoon and early evening . Grabbing a 15- to 30-minute nap between the natural sleep zones of 1-3pm or 5-7pm will help you get some sleep in the bank and reduce the pressure on getting all eight hours at night. Stress is one of the biggest killers of a good night’s sleep, and that includes the stress of not being able to fall asleep. If you can reduce that stress by catching 40 winks earlier in the day it could help you sleep better at night too.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.