A decent night’s sleep is as important for your mental and physical wellbeing as a healthy diet and regular exercise. The consequences of poor sleep go far beyond feeling fatigued: lack of sleep impacts brain function, can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, and is linked to depression.
What is ‘Good’ Sleep?
The National Sleep Foundation advises that healthy adults require seven to nine hours of sleep per night, teens require eight to ten, and babies can need up to 17. However, getting the right kind of sleep is just as important as the duration. Throughout the course of the night, the body goes through various sleep cycles, each of which has four defined stages. During the ‘deep sleep’ stage, our heart rate decreases, our muscles relax and our brain waves slow down: this is the most restorative sleep stage, when our bodies release human growth hormone (HGH) which gets to work repairing and regrowing tissues, resetting our brains, consolidating memories, and strengthening our immune system. As you age, the amount of deep sleep you get each night naturally decreases. It then becomes increasingly important to make sure your lifestyle choices and sleep habits are conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Improve Your Sleep Quality
We all have an internal body clock that runs continuously in the background, regulating when we wake and when we sleep. Known as the circadian rhythm, this 24-hour cycle drives the release of certain hormones that control whether we feel alert or drowsy. Certain lifestyle habits can influence this cycle and affect when and how we sleep. To maximise your sleep quality, consider the following:
1. Develop a consistent sleep routine
Sleep experts agree that establishing a regular sleep routine is essential to ensuring you fall asleep easily and stay asleep. The key is to set a regular wake-up time and stick to it, regardless of how tired you are. If you’re getting enough sleep, you shouldn’t need an alarm to wake up, so if you are struggling to get up in the morning, bring your bedtime forward. Avoid long lie-ins, even on weekends, and don’t give in to long daytime naps, as these will disrupt your internal body clock and leave you feeling less tired when bedtime comes around. If you need a power nap, keep it to a maximum of 5-20 minutes.
2. Exercise early
Exercise is essential to overall health, and because it tires you out physically, it can help you fall asleep quicker. But there is a caveat: when you exercise can affect how you sleep. Because working out elevates your heart rate, speeds up your metabolism and stimulates the release of cortisol (the hormone that makes your feel alert and energised), intense exercise right before bedtime can end up keeping you awake. Aim to exercise earlier in the day and stick to breathing exercises or gentle stretches in the evenings.
3. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and too much liquid
Caffeine is a well-known stimulant, and for many, it’s an essential to getting going in the morning. However, its effects linger in the body for six to eight hours, so avoid caffeinated products after around 4pm. Alcohol, too, can cause interrupted sleep. Although a nightcap can act as a sedative and help you fall asleep faster, as it wears off it has the opposite effect. This is why so many people report falling asleep fast but waking up at 2am or 3am after drinking. For a restful sleep, avoid drinking excessively or late in the evening. Waking up in the night to use the bathroom and not being able to get back to sleep is also a common complaint. If this sounds familiar, try not to drink fluids of any kind for an hour or two before bed to minimise your chances of waking up in the night. If you do wake up, try to get to the bathroom and back without turning on any lights to avoid waking up completely. Consider a small night light in the bathroom to guide the way.
4. Reduce blue light exposure before bed
Because our circadian rhythm is heavily influenced by light, exposure to bright lights before bedtime can trick our bodies into being more wakeful. Blue light in particular – the light emitted by TVs, tablets and phones – is known to suppress the release of melatonin, the hormone that causes drowsiness. Of course, we all like to wind down at the end of the day by watching a movie or scrolling through social media, but consider dimming the lights when you do so and imposing a blue light curfew whereby electronic devices must be switched off one to two hours before you go to sleep.
5. Wind down for bed
Once you’ve turned off those devices, spend the next hour or two engaging in activities that will help you unwind and prepare you for sleep. This might be reading a book, listening to music or putting an audio book on. For some, having a warm bath or shower is a great way to relax. For others, writing a to do list for the following day, getting the next day’s outfit ready or preparing the kids’ packed lunches can all help to make you feel more organised and therefore less prone to running through mental lists when you get into bed.
6. Make your bedroom an oasis of sleep
Create the right conditions for sleep. This generally means a space that is cool, dark, and quiet. For most, the ideal temperature is around 24 C/75 F, so turn the air-conditioning down, put the fan on, and if necessary, get a blanket out.
Most people also sleep better when a room is darker, so if your windows let in a lot of light, whether from the morning sun or street lights outside, invest in some heavy curtains or blackout blinds.
Plenty of people find noise a major impediment to sleep. Electric fans are a great way to create white noise that drowns out other irritating sounds – and keep you cool at the same time. An alternative is to listen to a sleepcast (a podcast designed to send you to sleep) which talks you through some relaxing breathing exercises and sends you off to the land of nod.
7. Make sure your bed is up to the task
Did you know that mattresses should be replaced every five to eight years? A bad mattress and the wrong sort of pillow can cause back and neck ache and really impact your sleep quality. A good mattress, on the other hand, can solve aches and pains, and even make you look forward to going to bed!
Talk to the experts at The Mattress Gallery or The Mattress Experts for advice on the best type of mattress, pillow and bedding depending on whether you prefer soft or firm, whether you sleep on your side, back or front, and whether you tend to feel warmer or cooler at night.
TOP TIP: When to Seek Professional Help
Everyone can experience sleep problems from time to time, however, you should speak with your doctor if your quality of sleep is interfering with your daytime activities and your ability to function.