If you could bottle a good night’s sleep you could probably rule the world – such is the energy and performance boosting power of this sometimes elusive human state.
As a GP and coach – people often ask me what they can do to sleep better.
Previously in this series I’ve covered some background about the science behind sleep and admitted which sleep rules I break. In this article I explain the top five pieces of sleep advice I do actually follow myself and why.
I’ve spent many years doling out sleep advice and many years experimenting with what works for me personally. The ‘sleep rules’ I follow are derived from a balance of what I find effective and what I find I can actually stick to most of the time.
Of course, everyone’s body and lifestyle is different and I’m not suggesting that these are necessarily the most important rules for you to follow. You may find that some of these are either impractical for you or that they don’t yield much benefit. However, in my professional experience, many people do find that they can improve their sleep quality and quantity by making relatively small changes and if you haven’t already tried the tips below, you might wish to experiment with one or more.
- 1) Don’t use alcohol as a nightcap
Although alcohol can help people to fall asleep faster it disrupts sleep quality in the second half of the night – interfering with valuable REM sleep. I rarely drink more than 2 units on a given day and always aim to stop drinking alcohol at least 2 hours before bedtime to minimise sleep disruption.
- 2) Avoid caffeine before bedtime
The desire to sleep is caused by a build-up of a chemical called adenosine in the brain.
Caffeine has a very similar molecular structure to adenosine and so blocks the brain’s adenosine receptors, reducing feelings of sleepiness. Hence timing the intake of caffeinated drinks can be helpful to reduce or increase sleep drive as appropriate. Laboratory studies suggest that there may be genetic factors which mean that not everyone is affected by this.
However, for those who are affected, caffeine can reduce sleep drive for up to 8 hours. I‘m pretty sure that I fall into the group of people who do feel less sleepy after caffeine so I tend to avoid it for at least 6 hours before my planned bedtime. Conversely I take full advantage of the effects of a strong after dinner coffee on evenings when I’m working a night shift.
- 3) Have a screen time curfew
I generally avoid using a computer or phone or watching television for at least 30 minutes before going to bed. This is because the light emitted from such screens can interfere with production of the sleep hormone melatonin from the pineal gland.
On the other hand this gives me the perfect excuse to use the evening before a night shift for a box set binge, particularly in the winter months when there is no natural light in the evenings to stop me feeling sleepy when I need to stay up for work.
If you are unable to avoid working in front of a screen in the evening you may find it helpful to use one of the various available filters to help to reduce ‘blue light’ which is the part of the spectrum which particularly inhibits melatonin secretion.
If sleep is an issue for you then ensuring that your bedroom is dark is usually not too difficult and may help significantly.
If you work shifts and need to sleep during the day the addition of blackout lining to your bedroom curtains can work wonders. If this is not possible or if you have to sleep away from home, an eye mask can achieve the same effect. I also wear tinted glasses to drive home after a night shift to help to minimise my light exposure.
- 4) Limit what you get up to in the bedroom
Some experts say that a bedroom should be for just two activities: sleep and sex.
During the first few months of married life I was pretty good at sticking to this but by our first anniversary – reading had made its way into the repertoire of bedroom activities!
Seriously though, as well as the hormonal changes that regulate our circadian rhythm, our bodies respond to external cues and psychological associations. Therefore reserving the bedroom predominantly for sleep can help to provide a psychological cue to your body that being in bed means it’s time to nod off.
Sex, of course is also perfectly acceptable in the bedroom and can often help you to sleep as it induces the release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin and causes a small post–coital drop in body temperature, which all help to promote slumber. Failing that you could try reading!
The bedroom is certainly not the best place to have a home office or anything else that reminds you of daytime pursuits. I also avoid having a TV and mobile phone in the bedroom.
It is particularly important to avoid developing a psychological association between the bedroom and worrying about sleep. Experts generally recommend that if people are unable to fall asleep within about 30 minutes (certainly if they lying there worrying about not being asleep) they should get up and move to another room until they feel tired. This helps to avoid associating the bed with wakefulness and worry. Having spent years as a GP seeing people with long term insomnia and witnessing the worries that this causes I certainly follow this advice myself.
- 5) Keep a notebook by your bed
This little tip often doesn’t feature in mainstream sleep advice but personally I find it really helpful. My note book serves two purposes. Firstly I jot down three things I’m grateful for before going to sleep each night. It’s quick and easy to do and research has shown people who are more grateful tend to sleep better. My coaching clients who have decided to do this have been pleasantly surprised by the difference it has made.
Secondly, I use the note book as a place to jot down anything that threatens to keep me awake. For example if I’m just dropping off to sleep and I suddenly remember something I must do the next day, instead of lying there worrying that I’ll forget I just make a note of it.
If I wake up in the night and find that I’m worrying about something I also grab the notebook and write it down. Importantly, I don’t write down detailed thoughts about the issue – I just note what it is and make a decision to think about it in the morning.
As well as our bodies having a circadian rhythm there is some evidence that our moods also have a circadian rhythm. Whatever our baseline level of positivity and mood we have diurnal fluctuations (probably influenced by levels of a chemical called serotonin in the brain). We tend to be at our most positive during the afternoon and at our least positive in the early hours of the morning (if we are awake then).
When we feel low in mood, we are less able to think creatively about our problems and are more likely to indulge in negative ruminations which in turn tends to make our mood even worse.
Most of us have probably experienced at some point a night in which we’ve lain awake worrying about something which has seemed like a catastrophe at four am but looks very different in the light of day.
Sometimes simply acknowledging that we are not at our most resourceful during the night and ‘parking ‘the problem until morning is all that’s needed to allow us to sleep on it.
These are the little things I do which help me to sleep well despite having a lifestyle involving shift work. In my experience, many people find that making a relatively small change to their bedtime habits can make a real difference to their sleep.
However, there are a few people who have on-going sleep problems despite following all the basic sleep advice.
In my next article on 15/08/18 I’ll discuss some of the medical problems which commonly affect sleep and explain more about medical treatments for insomnia.
Sleep is just one of the areas people can choose to work on in my Live Better, Feel Better, Be Better programme.
Contact me for more details.