Have you ever suffered from sleep deprivation? It’s not fun, is it?
While we can all have a bad night’s sleep on occasion. Some of us really struggle to get enough sleep most nights. This could be caused by any number of things, such as being on social media at all hours or having too much going on in your head.
Yet, regular, good quality sleep is critical to our overall health and wellbeing. If you do have problems falling or staying asleep you are likely to experience symptoms such as strong fatigue, daytime sleepiness, poor concentration, irritability, memory loss, depression, frustration, and a weakened immune system. Research with rats suggests that in extreme cases sleep deprivation may even be fatal.1
When you sleep, your brain consolidates what it has learnt during the day and also releases calming hormones such as serotonin which send messages to your body saying that it’s time to rest and recharge. Staying awake keeps us in a heightened state of alert which, in turn, places stress on us both physically and mentally and can lead to many long-term health issues.
1. Get regular
We all have a natural sleep/wake cycle, known as our circadian rhythm. This runs like a 24-hour clock and tells our bodies when it’s time to be alert or drowsy. It works best when it is mostly in sync with the daylight cycle and when we go to sleep and wake up at around the same times each day. If your sleep patterns are non-existent you can learn to develop a regular routine through persistence and planning.
Avoid naps during the day as this will help you feel more tired at night. If you can’t get by without a nap, aim to keep in under an hour and to nap before 3 pm. If you haven’t slept well at night, still try to follow your normal daily plans. Skipping activities because you feel tired can reinforce insomnia.
Aim to have a regular bedtime and set an alarm to get up at the same time each morning, even on weekends, at least until your new sleep cycle is established. Be realistic, though. If you currently only sleep 4 hours a night, don’t plan on sleeping for 10 hours. Try for 5 hours first, then 6 or 7 until you find your own rhythm.
2. Your bed is for sleeping
Train your brain to associate your bed with sleep or sex only. No reading any digital devices, no calls or text messages and no watching TV. These only serve to stimulate the brain and keep you awake longer.
3. Create a sanctuary
Aim to make your bedroom as quiet, cozy and inviting as possible. You may need to invest in block-out blinds for your bedroom or use an eye mask and earplugs to limit distracting light and sound.
Let some fresh air in during the day and keep the room temperature as comfortable as you can at night. Also, consider using a humidifier or vapouriser to control the humidity in your room as dry air can cause breathing difficulties that may affect your sleep quality.
Use quality bedding that looks great and feels lovely to slide into at night. Update your pillow if needed and ensure that you don’t get too hot or cold under the covers.
While you are at it, check that your mattress is right for you. Mattresses that are too hard, soft or saggy can be uncomfortable and prevent good quality sleep.
4. Sleep when sleepy
Only try to sleep when you actually feel tired or sleepy. If you are not yet drowsy or you can’t get back to sleep get out of bed and do something else until you are ready to sleep, otherwise your brain will associate being in bed with being awake.
No clock-watching either! Frequently checking the clock during the night makes you more alert and reinforces negative thoughts such as “I’ll never get to sleep!” or “I’ve only slept for 5 hours, now I’ll feel rotten all day!”
5. Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bed
It is best to avoid consuming any caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, and some medications), nicotine (cigarettes) or alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. Caffeine and nicotine act as stimulants and interfere with your ability to fall asleep, while alcohol can affect your quality of sleep.
6. Eat well
A healthy, balanced diet will help you sleep well, but timing your meals is important. Some people find that a very empty stomach at bedtime is distracting, so it can be useful to have a light snack, but a heavy meal soon before bed can also interrupt sleep.
Exercise can help you feel tired and sleep deeply but try not to do strenuous exercise in the 4 hours before bedtime. Morning walks are a great way to start the day feeling refreshed!
8. Sleep rituals
You can develop your own rituals to help remind your body that it is time to sleep. Stop any work or using any electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you want to sleep.
Just as you may have a morning routine to get you up and going, you can create a nightly routine to slowly unwind. It might be as simple as brushing your teeth then reading a book (a real printed one, not a Kindle). Maybe try a warm glass of milk or camomile or valerian tea as these act as natural sleep inducers.
9. Warm up
Soaking in a warm bath 1-2 hours before bedtime will raise your body temperature, causing you to feel sleepy as your temperature drops again. Research shows that sleepiness is associated with a drop in body temperature. Snuggling up with a heat pack or hot water bottle may have a similar effect as these cool off after a while. Soothing heat can also help ease muscular tension and lower blood pressure.
10. Relax your mind and body
Many people find it easier to drift off to sleep after doing some relaxing stretches, breathing exercises or meditation for 15 minutes before bed each night. Guided meditation apps and peaceful music playing softly through your phone are perhaps the main exceptions to our ‘no devices’ tip above.
Of course, you don’t need to try all these tips at once. You’ll never get to sleep. Instead, experiment with a few at a time. Once you’ve found the ones that work best for you, stick with them and keep your routine going.
If you still have trouble sleeping after trying these tips, you may have an underlying issue that needs addressing. For example, you may be in physical pain or experiencing stress, anxiety or depression. See your GP to discuss further investigation and treatment options, such as medication, sleep apnoea tests, counselling or psychological therapies.
References and resources
1 Kamerow. DB and Ford. DE, 1989, Epidemiologic study of sleep disturbances and psychiatric disorders. An opportunity for prevention?, JAMA, Sep 15;262(11):1479-84, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2769898
Mental Health Foundation: Sleep Matters: The Impact Of Sleep On Health And Wellbeing (2011)