If you are one of the quarter of Brits that can survive on 4 or less hours of sleep a night, then you may not be interested in this article. However if you are one of the many who do struggle to nod off at the end of the day, then read on for some useful tips to help you catch those Z’s.
The following information is a simple guideline but if you want to some hard core medical advice about sleep and your circadian rhythm then I would recommend you speak to your doctor and take a look here at Doctor Myhills website where you will find a more detailed approach.
I have suffered with sleep disturbances for the last 5 years or so and have tried a number of different techniques but have never managed to overcome it. When I first went to see a private specialist about a health condition I have, I never expected to be asked about my sleep pattens let alone to be told that there was a solution. Its been over 5 months since that consultation and after following the doctors suggestions I am able to sleep most nights, usually waking up only 1-2 times (instead of waking up every hour), am usually asleep by midnight (before I would still be awake at 2- 3am). Due to my other health problems, I’m still a far cry away from waking up in the morning feeling like I’ve had a good sleep, but being able to at least sleep most of the night, is a vast improvement for me. I have found that when I don’t stick to the routine, I notice a big difference in the quality and quantity of my sleep.
So, what is the secret of a good nights sleep?
The short answer, is that there is no ‘secret’ or ‘magic touch’ to making sleep happen, but if I had to pick one thing that you need for this to work, I’d say you need to be dedicated. If you don’t put any effort in then don’t expect it to work. Like any kind of habit, routine or healthy approach, you will need to put time aside to establish a routine and then STICK to it. Now let me tell you, when i began my own routine It was hard to make the adjustments but its already starting to pay off. However, don’t make the same mistake as i did and slacking/ ‘loosening’ your routine the minute sleep returns because you may find that your disturbances will start again. So, if you want to make this happen, you need to give your body plenty of time to adapt and become second nature. I still have to make an effort and stick to the routine and I am 5 months in. However, this is because i suffer from a number of other problems which are linked to sleep disturbances, so it will take me a lot longer to adjust.
The body has a natural rhythm (called the Circadian Rhythm) for detecting what time of day it is and when its time for us to sleep. However if this rhythm is lost (due to diet, illness, changes in lifestyle) it can have an impact on your sleep such as waking a lot during the night, struggling to fall asleep or poor quality of sleep. In order to get the circadian rhythm back you will need to follow a routine every night to help the body get back into a patten. This will include waking up at regular times each morning, even on the weekends. You will need to be prepared to go to bed at the same time each night and change the things you currently do before you go to bed. So, to find out what time to go to bed, you will need to work out when you get your first sleep wave.
Have you ever noticed that you tend to yawn and feel sleepy at a particular time during the evening, say 8.30pm. Well, this is your sleep wave, It’s the body’s way of telling you that it’s time for bed and these waves occur in 90 minute sequences. Most people ignore their sleep wave, struggling to stay awake until much later in the evening. However, if you work with this wave, it can help you get back your natural rhythm. So, if your sleep wave occurs at 8.30pm, the next one would be 10pm. If you want to catch the 10pm wave you need to be lying in bed with your head on the pillow and the light off at 10 o’clock. If you continue you this each night, your body will get used to the patten, eventually becoming second nature and restoring your circadian rhythm.
Once you have worked out your sleep wave and what time you should be in bed for, you need to establish a routine before going to bed to help the body ‘prepare’ for sleep. The reason for this, is because certain tasks or choices before bed can hinder you falling asleep. For example, what you eat, the temperature of your room, and whether you watch telly in bed can all eafect sleep. All of these ‘preparations’ are described by doctors as sleep hygiene.
Sleep Hygiene Includes:-
Light is important because it’s how our body ‘naturally’ tells the time. Before electricity the body would know that evening was upon us by the level of light, when it got dark, the body would start to produce melatonin (the ‘sleep’ hormone) helping the body to prepare for sleep. The problem these days, is the amount of artificial light such as lamps on around the house, maybe a television in the bedroom and most commonly now, using laptops, iPads or mobile phones. The body detects the light from these devices and thinks its daytime, prohibiting the production of melatonin.
The way to overcome this problem, is to help the body to detect the time of day. On the evening, when preparing for bed, turn off most the lights using just a lamp/ low light bulb when necessary, make your bedroom as dark as possible (using black out blinds or thick curtains) and make it a rule not to have TVs or electronic devices in the bedroom and ideally, avoid watching the TV/ using computers etc an hour/ half an hour before going to bed. This should help the body to detect that its getting darker, allowing production of melatonin.
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the body, but can decrease with age. When struggling with sleep, there are two other ways to help the body to produce melatonin. One is to take a supplement (although i would recommend talking to a doctor or a supplement specialist first, especially if you’re already on medication) or two, increase the foods high in melatonin. Conscious Life News suggest that the best melatonin foods are :- pineapple, banana, oranges, oats, sweetcorn, rice, tomatoes and barley.
Food and Drink
Its important to be aware of when and what you eat and drink. Try to avoid caffeine before bedtime as it’s a stimulant, this includes tea, coffee and chocolate. Everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine is different, so you may need to work this out yourself. I personally don’t drink caffeinated drinks anyway, but if i have the odd cup of coffee I don’t drink it after 5pm. Some of the literature I’ve read on sleep even recommends not drinking caffeine after 3pm, if your very sensitive, and that’s based on a 11pm bedtime. Alcohol can also affect your sleep, although it may make you feel sleepy, it can cause more frequent awakenings and a lighter, less restful sleep, so avoid drinking it to excess up to an hour before bed.
With foods, its advisable to avoid large meals before bed as that too can cause you to stay awake. Ideally, try to eat your last meal at least 3 hours before bed. If you are still peckish before bed, you can still eat, just have something light, ideally low in protein and high in carbs as those food types will help to promote sleep.
If you are someone who wakes in the night needing to go to the toilet, try to avoid drinking anything up to 90 minutes before you go to bed, as it takes this long for your body to process any type of liquid.
Establishing a Routine
Once you have considered all of the hygiene factors and made any changes that you need to, you can begin to establish a bedtime routine. Plan to go to bed between an hour – half an hour before your sleep wave, allowing yourself time to relax and get settled. If you’re rushing around sorting things out, making memos or checking your social media, you’re not giving yourself time to ‘switch off’. I allow myself an hour to ‘wind down’ before my sleep wave, so that i can slowly potter about, changing into my PJs, then when I get into bed, I have time left over to get comfy. However, It’s all about finding what works for you, so it may take you a bit of trial and error before you find out what works for you .
Below I have listed a number of items and techniques that may be useful to you :-
Ive used a number of natural sleep tablets and find they really do work, when combined with a good routine. I would highly recommend Melissa dream and Natura Sleep (both available from Holland and Barrett/ health shops). If you’re thinking of taking over the counter sleep tables, I would suggest you visit your doctor first. From experience, I have found that the tablets they prescribe are stronger and work a lot faster, meaning you may only need to take them for a few days. However, dont rely on any kinds of sleep tablets to get you back into the swing of sleep, if your having sleeping problems, you really need to target your habit rather that reaching for the sleeping pills.
Making your room ‘sleep proof’ can be a good start. Having it the right temperature, using dark curtains or a black out blind and removing devices that can distract you (including bright alarm clocks!) can be beneficial. The ideal room temperature for sleeping in, is between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit (check put Web MD for more details). Try turning your radiator down and having an extra blanket on the bed, that way, if you wake at anytime feeling cold, you can pull up the extra blanket. If you don’t have a black out blind (Ikea sell them at a reasonable price) then you could opt for an eye mask. For those of you who are noise sensitive, invest in some ear plugs (available from chemists or Boots).
Some people benefit from a nice warm bath before bed (says Health Magazine), the reason being is that the body needs to cool down before sleep. Having a warm bath artificially raises the body temperature allowing it to cool rapidly, helping induce sleep. It can also help the body to relax, adding the right essential oils can aid this further. Essential oils can help promote relaxation as well as ‘sleep’, you can find pulse point oils/ balms, or pillow drops/ sprays that all help you to relax and unwind. Just be aware of what oils you use as some help to relax, where as others can stimulate! if your not sure, before buying, read up about different scents. Also be aware of putting oils on pillows, as it can irritate sensitive skin.
Helpful Foods and Drink :-
- Peanut butter
- Dairy (e.g. Yogurt)
- Hot milk (almond/coconut milk can be substitutes for intolerances)
- Hot milk with turmeric
- Hot chocolate
- ‘Sleep tea’ such as camomile or valerian tea
Some people struggle to nod off and others find themselves waking up in the night due to things on their minds. One suggestion that I read about in a magazine was to have a night pack, the idea being a book and a note pad, eye mask, sleep balm and ear plugs (the combination depends on why you wake/ what works for you). If you wake with things on your mind, you can use the note pad to write down all your memos/ ideas – and yes, it DOES have to be the old fashioned form of a pen and paper, its something to do with working the stress off by physically writing things down. However, it really does depend on what works for you, but it is advisable to have a ‘no gadget’ rule for bedtime. Keeping your iPad next to the bed with the intention of just typing notes or memos, but the light wont help your circadian rhythm and the temptation may become too much.
I personally find that going to bed that little bit earlier, can help combat waking in the night needing to write lists. I sit in bed before I turn the lights off and write a ‘to do list’. I often have a paper note pad where I note things down then cross things off each night (as they are accomplished), until i need to write a new one. I find ‘ticking’ items off, helps me to feel like i’m packing up for the night. I also use a sleep app on my mobile phone to help keep track of my sleep. For more details and other useful health tips see my ‘Tips for Keeping Healthy’ article.
So, there you have it, hopefully some of these tips will be useful and help you to get back to the land of nod. If you have any suggestions or useful tips that you find have helped you to sleep well, please get in touch or comment below and share your advice.