Sophie Bostock, PhD
Sleep tips 101: How can I sleep better?
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
Five steps to help unlock the POWER of sleep
In many ways sleep is incredibly simple. It's an innate and automatic behaviour. No-one has to teach us how to sleep when we're born, and we almost all do it, every 24 hours. But modern life throws all sorts of curve balls at us: electric light is a big one, but careers, commuting, mortgages, shiftwork, social media, fast food and central heating are all factors which our sleep processes haven't evolved to cope with.
In future posts I'll try and explain what happens when we sleep, and why the decisions that we make during the day can still impact on our night. But in the meantime, you're probably reading this because you're tired, so I thought I'd start with 5 things that everyone can do to help unlock the P.O.W.E.R. of sleep.
P) PLAN to protect 7-9 hours for sleep each night
If you're a planner, you probably plan your work, your social life, your exercise, your kids' schedules, maybe your shopping? But how often do you look at the week ahead, and make plans to compensate when your sleep might be squeezed?
Book a recurring time in your diary each week, maybe on a Sunday, to look ahead and review your potential sleep windows. Not everything is predictable (especially not if you have kids!), but if you do think ahead, you can rearrange optional events to avoid two consecutive short sleeps, so that you can repay your sleep debt the following night. You could also plan where and when you could schedule a prophylactic nap (in preparation for a sleep challenge), or a recovery nap the following day (*more on napping coming soon, there are pros and cons).
The scientific consensus is that adults need 7-9 hours sleep every night for good health. There is natural variation in our sleep needs, but 7+ hours is a good rule of thumb. Every night of short sleep builds up a sleep debt which makes it harder to focus, to feel positive, or to remember things.
O) Get OUTDOORS as often as possible during the day
Even on a cloudy or rainy day, the intensity of light you will experience outside is 10-20 times brighter than typical office lighting. On a sunny day, direct midday sun can hit 100,000 lux, (the unit measuring illuminance or light intensity), whereas you'll be lucky to hit 1,000 lux in an office by the window.
Sunlight is not only bright, but it is rich in light in the blue or cyan wavelengths of light, which sends a strong activating signal to the brain. This makes us feel more upbeat and alert, and it helps to signal the body's internal clocks that it's daytime. When light fades at sunset, dim light prompts the brain to produce melatonin, the hormone which signals the body that it's time to sleep.
Traditional fluorescent and LED bulbs only weakly emit blue wavelength light. If you're only exposed to dull indoor lighting all day and evening, the daytime and nighttime signals can get missed, and the body gets confused about when to switch on melatonin, making it harder to get to sleep naturally, or to sleep soundly. Getting plenty of sunlight during the day can also make you less sensitive to the alerting effects of blue light at night.
W) WIND DOWN - give yourself a calming hour before bed, including a digital detox
Sleep will come naturally when you are physically and psychologically ready for rest. If the hour before you get into bed consists of a mad panic to finish work, a HIIT class, or a gourmet burger, you're sending mixed signals to the body and brain. Ideally stop eating at least two hours before bed.
As you wind down, turn down dimmer switches or use lamps to reduce the intensity of lighting. A recent study suggested that using an iPad with a blue light filter could still reduce melatonin production - it might not be the light, it could be that checking emails and social media before bed can make you feel anxious, which interferes with sleep.
If you have kids, you'll know that a sequence (bathtime, pjs, teeth, book..) can help with the mental preparation for sleep. A familiar sequence of rituals for adults can also be helpful to leave the stresses of the day behind, and get the right mindset for sleep.
If your mind is racing with persistent thoughts, keep a piece of paper and a pencil by your bed. During your wind down time, write down the key things you have to remember. Tell yourself they will still be on the page tomorrow, and you can let the thoughts go.
E) ENERGISE strategically
It's only natural for our energy levels to need a bit of pepping up during the day. Our body clocks typically have a natural lull in alertness in the early afternoon, between about 1 and 3pm.
While it might be tempting to reach for a double espresso, you'll also get an immediate alerting signal from sunlight, eating, physical activity or socialising. Caffeine is worthy of a more detailed post, but it essentially masks the body's natural sleep drive, reducing feelings of drowsiness. Caffeine hangs around in our system for a long time - for most people half the effect is still there 5 or 6 hours later. Even if we're so tired that we get to sleep, the caffeine can still interfere with good quality, restorative sleep.
If you consistently mask your natural feelings of sleepiness with stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, it's very difficult to know whether you're getting enough sleep. Try switching caf for decaf for a few weeks, or ditching caffeine after midday, to see whether it makes a difference.
R) Stick to a regular sleep-wake ROUTINE
If you get up and get into bed at the same time each day, 7 days a week, you will fall asleep faster, and are more likely to stay asleep through the night.
Many of us deprive ourselves of sleep during the week but sleep in on weekends, leading to a phenomenon called 'social jetlag'. Every time you shift your wake time by more than an hour, you shuffle the body into a jetlag-like state, when the body's organs are out of sync with the environment, and may be out of sync with each other, creating stress on the body. Long term, social jetlag is linked to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and depression.
If adopting an evening routine is unrealistic, start with mornings. And if the same time is too much - especially at the weekend - at least aim for variation of less than 2 hours. Keeping a sleep diary, listing wake and sleep times, and anything that has interfered with sleep, can be a great way to become more conscious of how well you're sticking to a routine. Download the Sleep Scientist Sleep Diary here.
If you've tried all this, and you're still not sleeping well, please don't worry - there are lots more techniques you can try. If insomnia is getting you down, please don't wait for me to write another post - insomnia is a medical condition which warrants treatment. Ask your doctor about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is recommended as the first line therapy.
So, in summary, I'd start here to improve your sleep and boost your energy during the day:
P = Plan for 7-9 hours sleep per night
O = get Outdoors as often as possible
W = Wind down for at least an hour of digital detox before bed
E = Energise strategically - does that coffee need caffeine?
R = Routine. Start with wake times, and build more routine from there.
Download the Sleep Scientist Sleep Diary to track your progress!