Sleep is essential to our health and wellbeing, yet it is problematic for many of us. How often do you wake up after a restless night feeling just as tired as when you went to bed? Or lie awake in the early hours worrying about things you can't control? Whether you need 8 full hours or a short, sweet 6, these tips will help you get a good night's sleep, and wake up feeling refreshed.
It's important to understand a bit about the science of sleep. During sleep our heart rate reduces, our body temperature drops and our brain activity changes. We go through three stages of non-REM sleep, and one stage of REM sleep during which we dream and are not easily woken. Each cycle of three stages lasts around 1.5 hours and we need to finish a whole cycle in order to feel fully rested. A good night's sleep should consist of around 5 or 6 of these cycles, but if our cycles are disturbed we experience far fewer.
Sleep is controlled by our circadian rhythm, or body clock, which is driven by hormones, tryptophan and melatonin. When our body clock gets disrupted - by shift work, jet lag, small children or insomnia - it can have profound effects on our health. Studies have shown links between poor sleep and type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity, ulcers and depression. So what can you do to make sure you get some good quality, restorative sleep?
Keep your bedroom clutter free, quiet and as dark as possible. Banish screens if you can, as the lights in the displays on tablets, phones, laptops and TVs all suppress melatonin, the chemical that induces sleep. Use blackout lining or a sleep mask to prevent any light encroaching from outside and minimise internal light, from clocks for example. Keep the room well ventilated (unless you have a young baby or are elderly) to keep the temperature comfortable and allow fresh air to circulate .
Keep to regular sleeping hours. Avoid long weekend lie-ins (sorry!), which although tempting can disrupt your sleep in the days ahead. Just like children respond well to bedtime routines, try to instigate your own: perhaps a bath, a foot rub and a few minutes reading. Anything that helps you unwind.
To get a good night's sleep you need a decent mattress that offers enough support but also shapes itself to the contours of your body. Natural fibres will keep you cool, and new technologies like Smart Fibres can help relieve dust mite allergies. Your bedding is vital too. Again, natural fibres will help regulate your body temperature, so you don't wake up hot and sweaty. Linen sheets and duvet covers, in particular, will keep you cool in summer and cosy in winter, and will also draw moisture away from your skin. Invest in some good quality bedlinen and you will feel the benefits as soon as you tuck yourself in. Wash bedding weekly at the highest possible temperature (consult your manufacturer's instructions) and choose a duvet that suits the season.
4. Food & Drink
Some of us may turn to alcohol to help us sleep, but this is a mistake. Although it might initially make us nod off, we have poorer quality sleep and can become dehydrated. Anything containing caffeine should also be avoided in the evening. It is best to eat a few hours before going to bed, to give your body time to digest, but some foods do help us sleep. In particular, proteins combined with carbohydrates increase levels of tryptophan - a substance that promotes good sleep. A turkey sandwich or bowl of pumpkin seeds with yoghurt may be helpful if you are struggling to get to sleep.
Regular exercise is beneficial in so many ways, including aiding good sleep. It makes us feel better, fitter and less anxious and can help reduce our body temperature (which signals that it's sleep time) if done at least 3 hours before bed.
6. Dealing with stress
Sometimes the nighttime is when all our worries and anxieties come to the fore. We lie awake, tossing and turning, going over things in our head. The longer we are awake the more worried we become, fearing that we won't be able to cope with the coming day. Try to address any concerns during the day time, and seek professional help if you are really struggling. Talking things through with a friend may be enough, or allot a fixed time as 'worry time' - make a list, write down things that are worrying you - anything to get the thoughts out of your head before it hits the pillow. Relaxation techniques and meditation apps or CDs can be really helpful. If you can't sleep after trying for 20 minutes, get up and go into a different room until you feel drowsy, then go back to bed.
We wish you hours of delicious slumber and peaceful nights. Can someone just switch off the light?