This week I received a message from a friend who had watched Matt Walker’s TED talk, Sleep is your Superpower, which I shared in the Ideas Community a few weeks ago. If you’ve seen the talk, you’ll know that it focuses on the harmful effects of not getting enough sleep. However, as my friend pointed out, many people know they’re not getting enough sleep – but that doesn’t help them to fix the problem. In fact, the anxiety provoked by knowing you need more sleep but aren’t managing to get it can be yet another cause of insomnia.
So I offered to see what I could find out about practical ways we can help ourselves sleep better. What makes it easier to drift off in the first place – and how can we get back to sleep when we find ourselves unexpectedly awake, minds racing? Here’s what I found:
Doing moderate- or high-intensity aerobic or resistance exercise during the day can help to improve quality of sleep in people who are experiencing sleep problems. Even regular episodes of low-intensity exercise (such as walking) can make a significant difference to someone’s ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep they get. Exercise can also help us to feel better psychologically, meaning that we’re less likely to find ourselves awake as a result of anxiety.
The timing seems to be important. Exercising can elevate body temperature for up to 90 minutes afterwards, signalling to the brain that it’s time to be awake. The endorphin-release we get can also make some people feel livelier (and less sleepy) for a while afterwards too. So best to finish particularly vigorous workouts at least a couple of hours before heading off to bed. (Related info here and here)
We often focus on the amount of night-time sleep we’re getting and forget that daytime sleep counts too. Napping can be a great way to boost our sleep levels. Research findings suggest that 10-20 minutes during the early afternoon works best for most people. Some swear by the ‘nappuccino’ or ‘coffee nap’, which involves drinking coffee before taking a short nap, so that the caffeine is kicking in just as you wake. However, napping isn’t for everyone and can be counterproductive for some. (To find out more, here’s a great article on the subject, plus a blog post I wrote exploring the topic in more detail.)
Having regular times for going to bed and getting up not only makes it easier for our bodies to know what to expect and respond accordingly but also helps us to do better work when we’re awake. Occasional lie-ins to make up for lost sleep can be useful for some, but where possible it is best to get up at the same time each day, so as to avoid confusing our circadian rhythm (or internal clock).
Creating a pre-bedtime routine that helps us to wind down and adjust to sleep mode can be helpful. This might involve setting aside time for listening to music, reading, meditation, breathing exercises, physical relaxation techniques such as body scanning, or taking a bath or shower. Beforehand, it can help to make a note of anything on your mind that feels unfinished or worrying. By writing down everything you need to remember and reassuring yourself that you will look at what you’ve written first thing in the morning and take care of it then, you can help to bypass the Zeigarnik effect. I wrote a blog post on the subject here.
Our circadian rhythms are easily affected by light exposure – specifically, how much light we encounter, what kind and when. Living in an artifically-lit environment can affect our production of melatonin (a sleep hormone) and confuse our internal body clocks, which are still evolutionarily primed to work best in natural light. In order to sleep well, it helps to:
- get plenty of bright daylight, especially during the morning and early afternoon (which can be supplemented by light from a light box during the darker months if necessary).
- avoid anything that generates blue light (such as phones, TVs and computer screens) for a couple of hours before going to bed. Blue light is proven to stimulate brain activity and wakefulness -which is great during the day, but not so great when you’re wanting to switch off.
- keep the bedroom dark (by using blackout blinds if necessary, or replacing digital alarm clocks with analogue ones).
Our behaviour is sensitive to environmental cues and we can help ourselves to sleep better by ‘nudging’ ourselves in the direction we want to go. For example, if we want to sleep when we’re in bed (rather than lying awake, thinking), we can help to form that association by keeping mentally stimulating activities out of the bedroom. Watching TV in bed may feel like a relaxing thing to do, but it can easily compromise the quality of the subsequent night’s sleep. If there’s a phone by the bed, we can find ourselves checking for messages out of habit when we stir during the night, and then finding ourselves wide awake, even though it’s still 3am. So keeping it in a different room overnight – or at the very least, putting it so far away from the bed that you can’t reach it without some considerable effort – can help.
Dim bedside lighting, a cool temperature (ideally around 65-70° F or 18-20° C), good ventilation, a comfortable mattress and pillows, and a quiet environment (or earplugs) can all help too. (More on how to create the optimum conditions for sleep here.)
Food and drink:
What we eat and drink, particularly in the hours before bed, can have a significant effect on how well we sleep. The general recommendations seem to be:
- avoid going to bed hungry
- don’t eat heavily immediately before bed
- don’t drink so much that you’ll need to get up in the night
- avoid caffeinated drinks in the six hours before bedtime
- take care with alcohol, as it can help you to get to sleep but has a detrimental effect on overall sleep quality
- try snacking on melatonin-containing foods such as almonds, walnuts and bananas or relaxing with warm milky drinks or herbal teas if you’re in need of a little something before bed
If you find yourself awake in the night and can’t get back to sleep, the advice is to get up and go into another room for a little while. Keep the lighting low. Do something gentle and not-too-stimulating. Perhaps make a warm drink and cuddle up on the sofa with a blanket and a book or some relaxing music. If you have worries on your mind, write them down and reassure yourself that you’ll tackle them in the morning, when you’re fully awake again. If you find yourself starting to feel sleepy – go back to bed and let yourself focus simply on relaxing. Who knows, you might just get a little more sleep – but even if you don’t, you’ve taken good care of yourself and allowed your body to rest.
There are so many more ideas I could include. But for now, I’d love to know – what helps you to sleep? How do you cope with night-time waking? Do you have any tips to share? If so, it would be great to hear from you!