Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our life yet not only is it elusive for many of us, it is often positively neglected. In 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two of us were. There are now more than 100 diagnosed sleep disorders (of which insomnia is the most common) and the World Health Organisation has declared a sleep loss epidemic in industrialised nations due to the fact that two-thirds of us fail to get our nightly recommended eight hours.
The importance of sleep, its benefits and the consequences when we don’t get enough were laid bare by neuroscientist Matthew Walker in his fascinating book Why We Sleep. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny.” His book explains why sleep:
- Enriches our ability to learn, memorise, and make logical decisions and choices
- Recalibrates our emotional brain circuits controlling stress and anxiety
- Rejuvenates our immune system, helping fight malignancy, and preventing infection
- Lowers blood pressure
- Regulates our appetites
- Rebalances our metabolism and insulin/glucose levels.
It also explains why a lack of sufficient sleep leads to a quagmire of ill health and disease.
Given that sleep is so important but so difficult for many of us, here’s some tips, gathered from Why We Sleep plus other sources, on what we can do about it.
1. Sleep schedule
Walker’s top tip is to stick to a sleep schedule. “If there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what.” He recommends setting an alarm for bedtime in the same way that we do for the morning. Getting in sync with our natural sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, is one of the most important strategies for sleeping better. A regular sleep-wake schedule will leave us more refreshed and energised than if we sleep the same number of hours at different times, even if we only alter our sleep schedule by an hour or two. So:
- Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day even on weekends.
- Don’t take naps after 3pm. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
2. Daylight exposure
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Our brains secrete more melatonin when it’s dark—making us sleepy—and less when it’s light—making us more alert. Top tips include:
- Expose yourself to bright sunlight in the morning. The closer to the time you get up, the better. Why not book onto our 7am Nordic walking classes – not only will you get more light exposure but you’re also benefitting through exercise.
- Let as much natural light into your home/workspace as possible.
- A dark, cool gadget-free bedroom is best. Use heavy curtains or shades to block light from windows. Cover up electronics that emit light.
- Keep the lights down if you get up during the night.
People who exercise regularly sleep better at night and feel less sleepy during the day. It can help reduce stress and anxiety and increases the amount of time you spend in the deep, restorative stages of sleep.
- It can take several months of regular activity before you experience the full sleep-promoting effects.
- Try to finish moderate to vigorous workouts at least three hours before bedtime. Exercise speeds up your metabolism, elevates body temperature, and stimulates hormones such as cortisol so exercising too close to bed can interfere with sleep.
- Relaxing, low-impact exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching in the evening can help promote sleep.
4. Watch what you eat and drink
Your daytime eating habits play a role in how well you sleep, especially in the hours before bedtime. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants which can impact on sleep (it can take as long as eight hours for the effects of a cup of coffee to wear off). Other obvious advice is not to eat large meals close to bedtime, drink alcohol late at night or drink lots of fluids which will wake you up at night needing the bathroom.
5. Learn how to relax
Many of us find it hard to switch off at night so we need to learn how to do so. Practical things include avoiding bright screens within 1-2 hours of bedtime as the blue light emitted by phones, tablets, computers, or TVs is especially disruptive. Warm baths are also good (great news for me as I love them) as is reading - although avoid back lit tablets.
Finding ways to get back to sleep is also vital. Many people use relaxation techniques such as visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation, all of which can be done without even getting out of bed.
Finally, if you do wake up and can't get back to sleep, don’t clock watch. Walker says that if you're starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy again.