Simple and actionable tips to improve your sleep tonight.
1. Prepare your body for sleep.
The most important thing to remember about sleep is that it’s a process of restoration.
If you don’t give your body and mind things to restore from throughout the day, your sleep is likely to suffer.
People who exert themselves physically and challenge themselves mentally throughout the day are more likely to experience a better quality sleep.
Our bodies are amazing machines that are capable of operating at high capacity all day, but like a powerful freight train, you have to gently apply the brakes to come to a stop.
Sleep is no different.
At the end of the day our body wants to go through a physiological process of winding down. Our body temperature starts to lower, and our stress response system starts to slow down.
Here’s an introduction to some simple behaviours that can help to support this in the evening:
- Relax. Whatever works for you. When you’re feeling mellow in the evening but not quite ready for bed (sleep-tired), this is when you should try to keep those stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure down. Do the opposite, and your body won’t be in the right state for sleep.
- Take a bath. Often the process of taking a bath will trigger you into a quick relaxed mood (especially when you incorporate some aromatherapy). Baths also work well at bringing the body temperature up in order to then lower your body temperature when you get out. Remember lowering its temperature is something your body does before sleep so you’re helping out those processes, albeit ‘artificially’.
- Quieten the mind. Meditation is not for everyone, but for those who are well versed or willing to try, it can block out those loud thoughts or feeling of anxiety you can often be left with at the end of the day.
- Controlled breathing is an extension of the previous point. Try the 4-7-8 technique created by Dr Andrew Weil. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7, breathe out for 8. Repeat. Let your body relax, and you mind just do the counting.
- Nostalgia and Humour. You don’t need to meditate to reduce stress and anxiety. Find something pleasant to do that doesn’t overly stimulate the mind. For example, look at old photos – this often make us feel good. Create a laugh. Laughter reduces stress hormones, increases serotonin and oxytocin and relaxes your muscles. All these things act as strong preparation for a good night’s sleep.
- Journaling. The number of psychological principles that can be leveraged whilst journaling is plentiful. Sometimes a simple scribble of tomorrow’s to-do list is enough to lighten the load before bed and reduce any anxiety. Beyond that, strategies such as gratitude, affirmations and reflections have all been shown to have a huge impact on our mental health.
Thoughts = feelings. Positive feelings = lower stress. Lower stress = improved sleep.
2. When to go to sleep and when to wake up.
You should only go to bed when you are sleepy-tired.
You know when you are sleepy-tired by feeling like you could sink into sleep at any minute.
There are two key factors that can help explain why you should only go to bed when your body is ready to sleep:
- Sleep drive. This is the process of getting tired throughout the day. The longer you stay awake, you more tired you will get. Homeostatic sleep drive is a key trigger that sends you to sleep at night.
- The second factor is your circadian rhythm. This is your body’s natural clock that dictates the times that you should be awake and asleep.
Now imagine you decide to go to bed early because you have a long day ahead tomorrow. You try to sleep when your sleep drive isn’t heightened and when your circadian rhythm doesn’t want you to sleep. Put simply, your body isn’t sleepy-tired enough and the timing is off.
Not only can this have knock-on effects for days to come, but you’re also most likely going to lie in bed awake to begin with or experience a disrupted sleep throughout the night.
If you go to bed when you are sleepy-tired, your physiological processes that have already wound down will enable you to experience a deeper and more restful sleep.
You should wake up at the same time every day.
If you follow the previous principle of only going to sleep when you’re sleepy-tired, your bedtime may fluctuate slightly due to various factors that can affect your homeostatic sleep drive such as diet, exercise etc.
Your circadian rhythm therefore needs an “anchor”. The time that you wake up in the morning is just that.
When you set this time and stick to it every day, your body learns at what times it needs to start its biological processes and regulate them throughout the day. This includes levels of alertness and other processes such as releasing hunger hormones at set times.
Your desire to sleep is dependent on being awake for so many hours during the day. If you don’t control how many hours you are awake for, the body clock will become confused and you’ll struggle to develop a wake-sleep routine.
3. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed.
Have you ever woken up in the night and no matter how much you try, you cannot get back to sleep?
Sometimes when you begin ‘trying’ to get back to sleep at this point, it can actually cause anxiety about your disrupted sleep and wake you even more.
Furthermore, if you stay in bed, you are at risk of psychologically making a negative connection between your bed environment and struggling to sleep.
This is why you should move away from your bed environment.
Some of the previous tips we made about pre-sleep behaviours above can then be utilised but you must be careful about not stimulating the mind too much. Do the things that you would have done in the evening to relax you before bed. Reading a book or jotting a few things down in your journal can be useful.
Wherever you go, you must ensure that the light is kept dim. We will expand on this in the next section.
If you had a bad sleep the night before, stick to your typical routine. Sleep debt is a real thing, but be careful not to over compensate for a bad sleep with a long lie-in or a long nap the following day.
4. Two important things to remember in the morning.
Sleep naturally dehydrates the body. It is estimated that we can lose up to 1 litre of water throughout the night.
Given that the human body is made of around 60% water, there’s no surprise that it is imperative in maintaining our immune and digestive systems as well as kickstarting our metabolism.
If you love a coffee in the morning, try to hydrate first. Coffee is a diuretic and may dehydrate you even more over the course of the day. To add, you should avoid coffee from mid-afternoon. Caffeine has a half-life of around 6 hours and even though some people have different tolerances, it is a stimulant so should be avoided to optimise sleep.
Light: Get it in the morning, avoid it in the evening.
Hopefully now you have a good understanding of circadian rhythm and how important it is for your sleep.
Light is the most important external factor for regulating your wake-sleep cycle.
Light sensors in the retina send signals via the optic nerve to your brain which then deciphers whether it is day or night and adjusts your alertness appropriately.
It does this by inhibiting/prompting the release of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. In the morning, when your brain gets the signal that it’s light, it will stop the production of melatonin which makes you feel more alert and ready for the day.
That’s why one of the best things you can do in the morning is get some light. It doesn’t matter if that light is natural sunlight or artificial light.
The opposite applies in the evening. Less light will prompt the release of melatonin, so keep the lights dim and avoid looking at your devices just before bed.
When it comes to sleep hygiene, you’ll notice an underlying theme of routine.
It all comes down to creating regular patterns of behaviour so that your body can take its cues to activate its physiological processes.
None of the tips we have provided here are a magic answer to a perfect sleep, but practiced thoughtfully, and regularly they will greatly increase your chance of sleeping better and feeling better.
If you are experiencing chronic sleep issues such as insomnia, you should speak to your GP, as you will most likely need more substantial intervention such as cognitive behavioural therapy.