Sleep. We all need it; some more than others, but for those of us who have ever struggled to get to sleep or stay asleep – and let’s face it, that’s probably the majority of us at some point in our lives – learning how to reach a state of peaceful slumber quickly and easily is a useful skill to master.
How much sleep do we need?
So how much sleep do we actually need to be healthy and to function at our best? Most people assume that anything less than eight consecutive hours is too little, or that broken sleep is always bad sleep.
The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, famously survived on just four hours’ sleep per night, while recent studies suggest that sleep should – and historically did – occur over ten or eleven hours as a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep’, with a long break in between for smoking, eating and sex (not necessarily in that order).
Research shows that the number of hours of shut-eye we actually need varies significantly between individuals, with some people benefitting from a solid eight hours and others managing just fine on considerably fewer.
Realistic sleep patterns
Our sleep patterns change dramatically during different stages of life. Teenagers are notoriously good at lying in bed for hours on end in the morning, while older people often rise early and nap in the daytime.
Ask any new parent how they are sleeping, and (after a few strong words) they’ll probably tell you that while they felt tired out initially, they are gradually adapting to having shorter, more broken sleeps, sleep patterns which some parents never overcome, even long after their babies have grown up and flown the nest.
We scoured a range of sources to find out how natural, restorative sleep can be achieved, and to learn the secret to catching the optimum number of winks. So here it is, possibly the most comprehensive list of sleep tips and tricks available on the internet. Enjoy and sweet dreams…
Prepare the bedroom
Neat, clean, stress-free
Take a look around where you sleep. Or try to sleep. Is it a relaxing haven of tranquillity? Is it amass with blinking LEDs and tangled electrical cables? Is it just a total mess? While it might be obvious that noises (electrical humming, ticking clocks, a snoring partner) need to be kept to a minimum (use earplugs or a white noise machine when necessary), people often forget about reducing the visual chaos that surrounds them where they sleep.
Ditch the laptop
But if your eyes are shut, why does it matter what your bedroom looks like? It matters because the key to sleeping well is in preparing the mind, as well as the body for night time, so it’s crucial to create a space which your brain associates with calmness. Try to remove anything which might distract you from sleep, such as TVs, computers, mobile phones, and anything work-related. Having your mobile or laptop to hand will only encourage you to check emails and run errands when you should be relaxing.
Have a good tidy up before you even think about trying to sleep in your bedroom. When it’s clutter free, clean and neat, and when you’re surrounded by just a few select objects which make you feel relaxed, you should feel more mentally prepared to switch off your brain whenever you enter that space.
Make the bed
The Sleep Foundation studies show that you are 19% more likely to have a good night’s sleep in a freshly made bed. Don’t forget to flip your mattress each time you change the sheets so that it wears evenly and doesn’t dip in one place.
Ban the beasts
Don’t let pets share your bedroom. However cuddly your furry feline or cute canine might be, their presence can disturb your sleep. It’s best to give them their own bedtime routine of curling up in a separate room from you – and they’ll be extra happy to see you in the morning.
Cool and comfortable
Cool it down
You need to ensure that the temperature of the room is correct – ideally quite a cool 16-20 degrees Celsius (get yourself a colour-changing baby thermometer to be able to see, at a glance, whether a window needs opening or a heater needs turning on before you try to sleep).
Check your bedding
To help with your ‘thermoregulation’ (that is, staying at the right temperature while you sleep) ensure you have the correct ‘tog’ of duvet or number of sheets for the season.
Give your toes a wiggle when you get into bed. Are they cold? If so, get some socks on, as evidence suggests that cold feet can keep you awake, even when the rest of your body is the right temperature.
Are your PJs comfy and not too thick or thin? Consider sleeping in your birthday suit if that’s comfier for you. Even if you have to keep your socks on!
A comfy bed
If your bed isn’t comfortable you don’t stand a chance of a decent night’s sleep. Research by The Sleep Council suggests that a good-quality bed and mattress can provide an extra hour’s sleep each night . If you can’t afford to invest in a new mattress, get yourself a mattress topper – memory foam ones are great. These will add an extra layer of comfort and smooth over any lumps or saggy spots in your mattress.
Are you using your pillow(s) correctly? Try out different types of pillow to find one that suits you, and consider using pillows under other body parts as well as your head. Sometimes, placing a pillow between your knees if you’re side-sleeping, or using a body pillow can make you much more comfortable.
Light and shade
Sort our your circadian rhythms
So you’ve prepared your bedroom for sleep, now to prepare yourself. A good tip is to correctly balance the levels of daylight and darkness that you’re exposed to in any 24 hour period. Daylight helps to get your circadian rhythms in order. During the daytime get as much natural daylight as possible. Use a light box in winter if you spend a lot of time indoors.
Be gone, goggle-box
Electrical items and anything else which emits light will slow down melatonin production, which is vital for promoting sleep. Switch off, cover or, ideally, remove from the room anything that blinks, glows or flashes. Use a nightlight or dim torch for bathroom trips in the night to avoid having to turn on bright lights.
Dim the lights
Lower the lights during the evening and for at least two hours before bed. You can even try using candlelight (safely!) for some activities, such as having a bath or brushing your teeth.
Prepare your body and mind
Regularly exercising during the day for a minimum of half an hour will promote sleep by night time, but make sure you don’t do vigorous exercise just before bed as this will get endorphins and other wakeful hormones flowing. If you can do this in the fresh air, even better.
There are different opinions about whether a warm or hot bath is recommended pre-sleep. Some sources claim that a hot bath will raise the heartrate and create a feeling of wakefulness, whereas others suggest that the heat leaving your body after a nice hot, rather than just warm bath, sends you into a sleepy state. Try out both and see what works best for you.
Watch what you eat
While cheese before bed has long been suggested as something to avoid if you don’t want nightmares, what you eat and drink during the day can have a significant effect on how you sleep.
Try not to eat big meals before bed, but also try not to go to bed hungry. A light evening meal a few hours before bed, and a small snack if needed before sleep is often a good rule of thumb. Foods which contain tryptophan, especially when combined with carbohydrates, help to calm the body and brain. These foods include bananas, milk, avocados, almonds, peanuts and figs.
Stimulants and alcohol
Cigarettes contain nicotine, and coffee, tea, chocolate and some soft drinks contain caffeine, both of which are stimulants and can keep you awake. Alcohol also promotes poor sleep, so avoid going to bed after a skin-full. You might drift off to sleep easily but you’ll wake feeling exhausted.
Make a list
Write down your worries before bed to get them out of your head. Anxiously rehearsing worries or the next day’s tasks will prevent your brain from switching off. Writing them down is cathartic and allows you to forget about anxious thoughts until morning.
Establish a good routine
Regulate sleep patterns
Sleep and wake times
Try to go to bed and rise at similar times every day to get into healthy sleep patterns. Avoid the temptation of long lie-ins at the weekend, as this will throw your body clock out of sync. Keeping regular sleep hours will also help you to recognise how much sleep you really need –if you’re still tired when keeping regular sleep hours you may need a little longer asleep than you’re allowing yourself, and if you find you’re waking early you may need a little less.
Missed some sleep and feel like napping? This is another subject about which opinion differs. Some experts suggest that avoiding naps is the best policy to ensure that all sleep happens at night, however, others believe that sleep promotes sleep, and being over-tired can actually be detrimental to falling asleep easily at night. Again, this is a case of trial and error to find what works best for you.
Write it down
Keep a sleep diary to help you to recognise what helps or hinders your quality of sleep. Note down the time you go to bed and wake up, whether you performed a successful pre-bed routine (see below) and whether you used any other sleep techniques and the type of sleep you achieved.
Your wind-down routine
Get into the habit of carrying out calm and relaxing activities before bed, such as reading, or listening to music. Avoid staring at a backlit screen (computer, TV), as this stimulates the brain and discourages the production of melatonin, which is needed for sleep.
Take the time to properly get ready for bed. A bedtime ritual helps you to wind down and means you’re more likely to feel comfortable and ready for bed, rather than rushed. This might include having a bath or shower, brushing teeth, removing makeup, applying body lotion etc.
When you’re still not sleeping
Calm the mind
Find that you’re spending less time counting sheep and more counting the minutes until your alarm goes off? Meditation is a way of slowing anxious thoughts, often by acknowledging them and allowing them to dissipate. It can be a big help for reducing stress and promoting restful sleep. For tips on how to meditate to reach a state of slumber, click here.
Self-hypnosis isn’t about making your body do things that your brain isn’t aware of, or about trying to fall asleep instantaneously. It’s simply about training the mind to focus its thoughts in positive ways, aiding relaxation. This website has some great tips for self-hypnosis which can help to refocus a buzzing brain, ready for sleep.
Find a mantra
Repetition of a sound, word or phrase – in your head – can be useful as a means of relaxation. Counting also works well, as it distracts you from external thoughts without you having to think too much about what you’re doing. This is where the idea of counting sheep comes from. Find a mantra that works for you, such as ‘sleepy and calm’ or ‘falling deeply asleep’.
Bore yourself to sleep
Sammy Margo, author of The Good Sleep Guide recommends mentally revisiting all the mundane details of the day in reverse order to help clear your mind.
Avoid cyclical thoughts
Worrying about not sleeping when you can’t sleep is the worst thing you can do. Remember not to watch the clock, this only enhances anxiety when you can’t sleep.
Try to remember that a) you’re not going to die from lack of sleep and b) resting is still good, even if you’re not fully asleep. If you’ve been trying to get to sleep for a while and feel yourself getting anxious or frustrated, try attempting not to fall asleep – this reverse psychology sometimes does the trick. Alternatively, get up, make a hot drink or read a few pages of a book for 20 minutes to distract yourself from trying to sleep.
Relax the body
There are a number of breathing techniques which are said to induce sleepiness, however the most popular and arguably most effective is the ‘4-7-8’ technique, which involves breathing in through your nose quietly for a count of 4, holding your breath for a count of seven, and breathing out through your mouth for a count of 8. You can learn how to do it and how it works here.
Muscle relaxation techniques are a good way of setting up the body for a great night’s sleep. Try systematically tensing and releasing all of your muscles, starting with your face and working down to your toes. Once you’ve done this, work through each body part again relaxing it further, by imagining it sinking deep into the bed with every exhaling breath. You can find some tips on how to relax your muscles in this article.
Acupressure has long been credited with helping insomniacs achieve restfulness. It is said to work by stimulating specific areas of the body which help organise the energy channels in your body to induce sleepiness. Learn how to do it here.
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