We’re all pretty great at feeling sleepy, but actually sleeping well is a totally different matter! Do you struggle from time to time? Read this post to see just how important sleep is, as well as get some advice on how to do it better.
It’s no secret that you feel better when you’re not massively sleep deprived, but it’s also been proven that people don’t realise how much their lack of sleep is affecting them. On average in the UK, we get only 6.8h of sleep a night, rather than the recommended 8h for optimum health. The figures in the US and Australia are similar, reflecting a culture that shrugs off sleep as an irritating waste of time, rather than the necessity it actually is. The National Sleep Foundation found that for adults older than 18 years of age, between 7 and 9 hours of sleep on average is optimal for health.
When you think of risk factors for diseases, what do you think of? Poor diet? Smoking? Bad genes? I’m sure sleep pattern is not something that comes high up on the list, but poor sleep patterns have been linked to negative short term effects, such as depression, lost concentration and anxiety, as well as longer term impacts including increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. The reason is simple: sleep provides time for your body to repair damage. Without this time, damage accumulates, causes poor life decisions (such as over eating and lack of exercise) and eventually can lead to negative long-term outcomes.
Sleep also gives us time to consolidate memories, strengthen neural pathways and process information – it’s why our dreams often involve events from the day, mushed together into some sort of weird nonsensical mess. There’s a theory that freeing our brains from the constraints of reality allows us to make connections we might not have made before, and process information that would have taken too long when awake. So those times you stay up until 3am revising for a test? Don’t. You’re far better working up until you sleep, then picking it up again in the morning. In my mind, it’s all very cool.
So how do we sleep? As someone who used to suffer from insomnia, I know how frustrating it can be when you are just unable to stop your mind from whirring. Sleep experts call good sleep practices ‘sleep hygiene’ – getting into a good bedtime ritual to prime our bodies for deep, restful sleep. Here are some of my top tips for a good nights sleep.
Take a hot bath
Weirdly, it’s not the heating that actually makes you sleepy – it’s the rapid cooling that follows a hot bath that makes you tired. Our bodies naturally cool off about 2h before sleep until around 4-5am, meaning that artificially inducing the cooling before you sleep can help send signals to your body that it’s time to sleep.
Have a hot drink
For the same reasons as a hot bath, having a hot drink before bed can make you sleepy. Certain herbal drinks, such as camomile and lavender are thought to help sleep. This is thought to be because they contain compounds that reduces anxiety and promote relaxation, slowing the nervous system and promoting deep sleep. Try not to drink too much before bed though! Getting up through the night can disrupt your sleep patterns. I usually have a tea in the hour before bed and swear by it to help me sleep!
Avoid blue light
The blue light emitted from your phone and laptop signals to your brain that it’s still daytime. This delays your natural body clock making it harder to fall asleep. Stop using your phone, laptop and TV at least an hour before you want to sleep. If you need to, consider adding a filter using an app like f.lux that reduces blue light on your screen after sunset.
Limit yourself to 9 hours max
Plenty of people struggle to even stay asleep for this long, but I would easily sleep for 10h a night if I let myself. However, staying in bed for over 9 hours can actually harm your sleep in the long run. Forcing yourself to get up in the morning means that your body clock stays in check – if you allow yourself to sleep until you’re not tired anymore, you will end up going to bed later and later, meaning that when you do have to get up early you’ve restricted your sleep even further. Try to wake up on your first alarm – snoozing it only leads to more sluggishness. Winter may be a time of hibernation, but sleeping for too long won’t do you any favours. If you need to nap during the day, limit it to 20 minutes. Longer can affect nighttime sleep.
Don’t expect to be able to catch up on lost sleep in a night
A lot of people think that a bad night’s sleep can be recovered by sleeping more the next night, and while the evidence is not conclusive, studies suggest that this isn’t the case. The damage done by one bad night cannot be undone by one good night, and it often takes a few days to get back to normal. In addition, going to bed later disrupts your circadian rhythm (your internal body clock that tells you when to sleep and wake up), so it’s best to avoid significant amounts of lost sleep.
As anyone who has stopped exercising for an injury will know, exercise and sleep go hand in hand. Cut out exercising and a good night’s sleep goes too. Exercising tires out the body enough that falling into bed after a hard workout earlier in the day is just one of the nicest things. It also promotes the same cooling effect as having a bath and drinking tea does, but has the added benefit of decreasing the anxiety and stress that often keep us awake. However, avoid working out late in the evening – placing stress on the body late in the day can delay your natural body clock, making it harder to sleep, so try to end exercising at least 3h before bed.
Get a good mattress and a pillow that’s not too high. Nighttime discomfort can lead to light sleep. If you’re in a rented flat or a student where you didn’t choose the mattress, consider buying a good mattress topper (and take it with you when you leave!).
Linked to exercise, getting outside and some fresh air during the day can help get that ‘flop onto the bed’ feel at the end of the day (in a good way). I actually don’t know why this is, but it’s likely a mixture of getting exercise and getting natural light. Natural light inhibits melatonin (the hormone that sends us to sleep), meaning that when you go back inside, there is more of the hormone before bed to make you feel tired. This is especially useful in winter, when it is dark for a lot of the day.
A little in the morning shouldn’t be an issue for most people, but avoid any caffeine past 3pm. The effects are long lasting – even if you don’t feel wired, the stimulant will keep on powering your body far past the point when you would like to sleep. Also bear in mind that caffeine can be hidden in lots of drinks that aren’t coffee, such as teas and fizzy drinks.
While alcohol may help you get to sleep, sleep quality is poorer and once it wears off you’re more likely to wake up. Dehydration can also be a cause of waking through the night, and alcohol makes this far worse.
Ironically, overthinking sleep can be one major cause for struggling to fall asleep and sleeping lightly. Try to get into a good routine early in life so that when you are under pressure, sleep is one thing that comes naturally to you. Sadly, for one of the most natural of behaviours, sleep is sometimes difficult to find, but hopefully with the information of how important it is, as well as some of the tips above, you’ll start prioritising it over another episode of Game of Thrones (other series available).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post and tips for a good night’s sleep! Head to my instagram or comment below to let me know.