I love to sleep as much as the next person but I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in longer than I can remember and I’ve developed all sorts of sleeping problems. Sleeping is like a curse for me: Insomnia, early waking, sleep anxiety, nightmares. On average I sleep just 5 hours of the recommended 8, and that’s if I’m lucky – it can be just 1 or 2 some nights. It’s as if the universe doesn’t want me to sleep!
Unfortunately the human body needs rest to function properly, otherwise I’d probably just forgo sleep altogether and keep working 24 hours a day. I’m not alone either: Sleep problems affect a massive number of people and reports suggest that over 30% of adults in the UK are severely sleep deprived and an estimated 50-70 million Americans have a sleep or wakefulness disorder.
So what happens if you don’t sleep enough? Unfortunately it’s bad news:
- Lack of alertness: Research suggests missing even as little as 1.5 hours of your recommended can have a serious impact on your concentration and cognition. You’ll be walking around in a daze, unable to offer your full attention to conversations, work, your hobbies or even driving.
- Unwillingness to exercise (or do anything): Exhaustion makes you sluggish, and in turn that means you’ll experience a lack of motivation and energy, feeling like you want to sit down all day when you should be making the most of the daylight hours.
- Relationship stress: As well losing motivation for socialising with friends, you get moody when you’re tired. You might get snappy (like I do) or perhaps just blow others off, and you’ll probably get lazy with romance; It’s hard to explain to people that you’re ‘just tired’ when it happens, because that makes you sound like an ass.
- Memory loss: One of the primary reasons for sleep is memory processing. When we sleep at night, our brains sort through the days events and knowledge and convert short term memories into long term ones. That’s the real reason babies need to sleep so much; they’re learning constantly and they need time to process and store it all. You’ll find you have a harder time remembering anything and your ability to think is severely impaired when you’re exhausted.
There’s endless debate over whether 8 hours is right for everyone, whether more than that is bad for you and whether some people need significantly less sleep but even without the research to back it up, we all know sleep deprivation is a bad thing. We can feel it in our bodies.
Luckily, the internet is overspilling with advice on how to sleep better. Great news! If they work, we should all be sleeping better within a week. Unfortunately loads of the things that I’ve read, I’ve already tried. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I’m already doing, that you should be too:
Sleep environment – temperature, light, noise
Research shows that we are still responsive to external stimuli during sleep. The best, most peaceful environment for sleep is:
- Pitch black
- Cool temperatures
- Weight on your body (from blankets)
- Silence or white noise (for those of us with negative associations with silence)
I sleep with all lights off including any blue lights – aka TV, phones, computers – and I have no streetlights outside my window. I keep the window open for air, a fan going for white noise and temperature regulation, and a heavy quilt.
Comfort – the right mattress and pillow
It’s not surprising if you sleep better in nice hotels; your mattress and pillow have a big impact on comfort. Everyone’s needs are unique: My other half sleeps with one firm pillow and I sleep with two soft ones, and we have a hard mattress with a soft topper to compromise because we both have back problems. You’ve got to work out what’s most comfortable for you and if needs be, speak to an osteopath about what bedding you should be using.
Sleep routine – sleeping and waking at regular times
This breaks down to no daytime naps (10 minutes if you’re desperate, but never longer), waking at the same time on your days off as you do on work days, and sleeping around the same time each night. When you’ve got insomnia, trying to keep a routine like this blows. However I’m always awake by 7.30am even on the days I manage to sleep past 4, and I try to be in bed by 11.30pm every night (with no promise of sleep before 3, haha.)
Don’t drink alcohol
Alcohol consumption has all kinds of nasty effects on the body, not just on sleep. It disrupts melatonin production, growth hormones and symptoms of sleep apnea. As a teenager, I used to drink heavily but not anymore – I do from time to time drink alcohol, but since I had major surgery last year, it’s very rarely. I find wine the most disruptive drink – it can have me reeling for hours. Whiskey or cider tends to go down a little better if I do want to have a drink but most of the time I just avoid it.
If you’re not working those four things into your sleep routine yet, give them a go for sure because I hate to think how poorly I’d sleep if I didn’t. But obviously those tricks alone aren’t working for me so here’s 8 of the best and most common tips I’ve found around the web – I’m going to be trying them all out to see if they can do anything for me in the next two weeks, and hopefully in turn, you:
1. Reserve the bed solely for sleep and sex
Reading in bed is relaxing right? Not if you’re suffering sleep deprivation five ways from Sunday. I work from home and when I’m tired it’s very easy to drag my laptop into my lap and spend the day working in bed rather than in my office, but all work should be banished from the bedroom for the sake of all our sanities. The same goes for watching movies and TV, playing video games, writing essays, or anything else that mentally stimulates you and blurs the definition of your bed being the place where you rest.
2. Turn off all tech at least an hour before sleep
I am a serial culprit of using my phone in bed or using my laptop when I can’t sleep. Bright and blue light is one of the biggest triggers to our brains to be awake and alert, so it takes some time for our bodies to ‘power down’ after we’ve powered down the tech. Not using your laptop, tablet, computer or TV for 1 to 2 hours before bed should be long enough to switch off before you sleep.
3. Create a bedtime ritual
Setting yourself a ritual of tasks to complete before bed helps suggest to your body it’s time to sleep. This can include skincare rituals, yoga, meditation, reading, deep breathing, taking a warm bath or shower, listening to soothing music, progressive muscle relaxation or anything you want.
4. Exercise in the morning (but not at night)
Exercise improves every area of your health – but exercising before bed has a negative impact on your sleep pattern because it increases alertness and hormones like epinephrine and adrenaline, which will keep you awake. Sleep deprivation can drop your motivation to exercise to zero but try starting with 10-15 minutes in the morning to boost your energy levels through the day and increasing it from there.
5. Limit caffeine consumption – none after 2pm
It’s hard to keep track of whether people say caffeine is good or bad for you these days, but I like to lean on the evidence that says it’s got huge health benefits because I don’t think I could survive a day without drinking coffee. However, that caffeine jolt from an afternoon coffee stays with you longer than you’d expect, so it’s best to cut off drinking it 7 or 8 hours before you sleep for the best chances at rest. Be wary of caffeine in other foods and drinks too, including tea.
6. Eat light and early in the evening
Western society has become infatuated with the idea that breakfast should be a light meal and dinner should be a heavy one when it should be the other way around. My father was forever phrasing it as:
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and sup like a pauper.
Eating your big meal in the morning gives your body time to work off that energy during the day whereas eating it at night means you’re digesting it whilst you sleep. Eat light at night and take your supper as early as you can so you’re not sleeping on a full stomach.
Don’t go to bed hungry though. If your stomach is rumbling after supper, try a Snooze Food – foods that reduce alertness and boost seratonin and melatonin levels, such as bananas, honey, turkey, warm milk, marmite, almonds, oatcakes and camomile tea.
7. Keep a Thought Journal
If you find yourself lying awake at night, your mind racing with stress, anxieties or even creativity, keeping a thought journal to write it all down in is key. I am an advocate of journaling for mental health because writing it all out on paper gets it out of your head and alleviates the pressure on your mind that comes hand in hand with stress. There are arguments for and against keeping this journal at your bedside but it’s probably better to have easy access to it when you’re tossing in the sheets at night. If you’re not sure what to write, writing to-do lists for the next day is a great starting point.
8. Let go of the rope
Sleeplessness is a tug-of-war and can cause unwanted stress. Relying too heavily on rules and routine can make your obsessive and dependent, which in turn can make it harder to sleep – especially when you’re out of your usual environment. Concentrate on relaxing rather than sleeping. Living a mindful life and focusing on calming your non-sleep related stresses can bring you to peace and in turn, naturally-induced sleep.
That’s it – those are the top 8 tips that I’ve found. When I put this list together I was mildly disappointed to find it all sounded so easy – could I really have been sleeping better this whole time? Let the investigation commence – I’m going to spend a couple of weeks working these tricks into my sleep routine. If I can sleep better after a lifetime of struggling with it then so can you. Be sure to subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss the results!
Do you have any tricks for sleeping I may have missed off the list? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your social channels – you can tag me on Twitter @paperstorms 🙂