The Ultimate Guide to Getting Better Sleep

Practical Tips For Insomniacs, Shift Workers and Anyone Struggling to Reach and Maintain Slee
By Insomnia Sufferer Claire Mitchell and Mrs. R. Patel from Nithra – The Institute of Sleep Sciences

If you find it hard to sleep when night-time comes, or if you’re burning the candle at both ends trying to keep pace with a demanding work schedule, just accepting you are getting less sleep can seem like your only option. However, missing out on the sleep you need not only leaves you somewhat groggy and grumpy come the dawn, it soon impacts upon your waking life: It can affect your mood and daily energy levels, as well as interfering with your mental agility and capacity to handle stress.

Persistent, long-term sleep loss is very likely to degrade both your mental and physical health. So gaining an understanding of your own sleep requirements and learning how to combat sleep loss is the first step towards getting a better sleep, which will ultimately improve your quality of life.

How Much is Enough?

The US National Sleep Foundation say an average adult will get under seven hours of sleep each night. But given today’s hectic, life-in-the-fast-lane mode of living, some may believe six to seven hours of slumber is a fairly reasonable amount.

However, just getting by on the minimal sleep you need to survive is not the same as enjoying a sleep schedule which promotes optimal functioning. In fact, it could mean you’re heading for chronic sleep deprivation.

It’s often said we should all get eight hours of sleep, and an average healthy adult requires from seven to nine hours. But in reality, people’s actual needs will vary, and the same individual will also have differing requirements at different times in their life.

As the following National Sleep Foundation (2015) data shows, newborn babies need the most sleep, after which the amount required then decreases through childhood to the teenage years before leveling off during adulthood.

Age-related sleep requirements:

Age:NSF (2015) Recommended Sleep Hours
Age: Newborn to 3 Months14 - 17 Hours
Age 4 - 11 Months12 - 15 Hours
Age 1 - 2 Years11 - 14 Hours
Age 3 - 5 Years10 - 13 Hours
Age 6 - 13 Years9 - 11 Hours
Age 14 - 17 Years8 - 10 Hours
Age 18 - 25 Years7 - 9 Hours
Age 26 - 64 Years7 - 9 Hours
Age 65 Years+7 - 8 Hours

Newborn infants develop rapidly, and this progression is naturally supported by higher rates of sleep.

Furthermore, research has shown that young children with good sleeping habits show enhanced cognitive abilities and better language development. And though it’s widely believed older adults need a lot less sleep, they still require a minimum of seven hours.

But as many find it hard to sleep for that period overnight, this age group may characteristically take naps during the day to make up any deficit.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Not getting enough sleep can have both short- and longer-term effects.

Short-term sleep deprivation has been observed to cause slower brain waves in the frontal cortex area. This brings shortened attention spans and memory impairments as well as making people more anxious.

In addition to this reduction in cognitive ability, those short of sleep and in a grouchy mood are also more prone to impulsive behaviours, and thus will seek instant gratification in preference to enhanced outcomes which demand a more patient approach.

Biologically speaking, lack of sleep is also known to deplete the store of glucose in the prefrontal cortex, whereas sleep replenishes it.

In one 2013 study published in the Harvard Business Review reported that low glucose levels can thus have a negative impact on an individual’s self-control, which means even mild sleep deprivation can render someone more prone to lying and cheating.

There are also longer-term health implications for anyone who persistently accumulates a sleep deficit. Some experts suggest this may impair the body’s immune system and wound-healing mechanisms, while other health consequences mentioned include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia. And though researchers acknowledge the difficulty of filtering out other lifestyle influences, such as socio-economic features, there remains an accumulation of evidence pointing to direct biological impacts.

One area where sleep deprivation is often perceived to be endemic is night work.

According to a systematic review of 28 studies by the World Obesity Federation (2017) it was reported that workers on ‘prolonged permanent night work’ were 29% more likely to develop obesity or become overweight than their co-workers employed on a rotating pattern of shift work.

And these research findings, based on an analysis of over two million subjects, also found that night shift workers increased their risk of sustaining a heart attack or stroke by as much as 23%.

These events were more common among shift workers than other people: shift work was associated with an increased risk of heart attack (23%), coronary events (24%) and stroke (5%) – The BMJ

A Modern Phenomenon?

Fragmented sleep patterns are often cast as a by-product of modern lifestyles where we are subjected to constant indoor lighting and awash with inter-connected tech gadgets. However, studies focused on the sleep habits of contemporary groups of hunter-gatherers suggest our impressions of a more tranquil past may not be entirely accurate.

For instance, one US study of the Hadza people in northern Tanzania (2017) discovered persistent night-time waking and wide disparity between the sleep schedules of a range of individuals.

During a 21-day observation period, there were only 18 minutes when it seemed the whole tribe of 33 individuals were simultaneously asleep. Based on this evidence, researchers proposed that the Hadza’s fitful sleep patterns could represent an ancestral survival technique which evolved to ensure sentinels were always available to guard against the possibility of nocturnal dangers.

The essential difference between the Hadza’s ‘natural’ sleep patterns and our modern, sleep-deprived populations seems to be that, unlike their western counterparts, these hunter-gatherers accepted the situation and were not troubled by paranoia and anxiety concerning their sleep habits.

Modern Hunter gathers probably get less sleep that you do.

The Scientific American

Sleep Timing

The idea of a ‘body clock’ which runs on a 24-hour cycle has been well established by scientists, who often refer to this phenomenon as a ‘circadian rhythm’. This inbuilt mechanism which regulates our sleeping and feeding patterns has evolved to mirror our planet’s day-night cycle. So-called ‘clock genes’ within the human body sense changes in light and temperature, and thus ensure that as darkness falls we also begin to feel drowsy.

The overwhelming majority of organs, activities and functions within the body – blood, liver, kidneys and lungs, for instance – are in some way influenced by hormonal signals triggered by our circadian clock. This, in turn, explains why a busy modern lifestyle which induces a persistent pattern of poor sleep has the potential to become a risk to your general health.

Improving The Quality of Your Sleep

Far too often, those suffering sleep deprivation find that even when they finally get to bed, they can’t get off to sleep, or have difficulty staying asleep. And older adults soon discover that these kinds of problems tend to become more prevalent as we age.

Problems like insomnia are no fun, but, as W. C. Fields put it: “The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep!” So with that advice in mind, and remembering that sleeping well has a crucial role to play in your mental and physical well-being, let’s run through some things you can do to enjoy a restful night’s sleep which will restore and enhance the quality of your waking life.

1) Work in harmony with your natural body clock

Synchronising with your own body clock should be a primary aim of any strategy to improve your sleep pattern. Even if you were just to convert the same hours of irregular sleep into a regular pattern of sleeping and waking, you would soon notice an improvement. Any minor adjustment which regulates your sleeping will payback in terms of leaving you feeling fresher and more energized.

To optimise your quality of sleep, you should look to get to sleep at night and wake up in the morning at the same times each day. This action should help to adjust your internal body clock and therefore bring you better sleep. When going to bed, it’s best to opt for a time when you are likely to be tired anyway. This will reduce the likelihood of tossing and turning because you’re not ready to sleep. And once you’re getting sufficient sleep, you should find yourself able to wake naturally without the need for a wake-up alarm. In fact, if you still find a need for an alarm, that may be a sign that you still need to go to bed a little earlier.

Sleeping on in bed when you have days off and at weekends is not a good idea. If there is any noticeable disparity between your weekday and weekend sleeping patterns, the impact upon your body clock will leave you feeling jet-lagged once again. And the greater the contrast, the worse the effects will be. If a late night leaves you with a sleep deficit, it’s better to take a nap during the day. This is far less likely to upset your established pattern of sleeping and waking.

Any naps you do take should be in the early afternoon and not exceed 20 minutes at most. Try to limit your napping to occasions when you need to recover a sleep deficit. If you start regular naps, it can soon lead to an inability to fall properly asleep at bedtime.

Don’t just accept daytime drowsiness. If you start to feel sleepy well before you’re due to go to bed, try to move around and get involved in something which actively stimulates your interest. Otherwise, if you nap every time you feel drowsy, you’ll find yourself feeling wide awake at night when your body clock should be helping you sleep.

2) Learn to regulate your exposure to light

Light has a strong influence on your circadian rhythm, and the release of melatonin, a natural hormone, is an important part of the control mechanism. So when darkness falls, your brain responds by secreting larger amounts of melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy.

When dawn comes around, your brain responds by limiting the melatonin produced, which then makes you feel sharper and more alert. Unfortunately, a number of everyday features of modern life tend to manipulate how your body produces melatonin. And the result is often a shift in your circadian rhythm.

Influencing your personal exposure to light

During daylight hours you could:

– try to expose yourself to bright morning sunshine soon after you get up. You could perhaps take breakfast outside on the patio, or inside by a sunlit window. This will help to make you feel more awake.

– try to be outside more often during the day. You could perhaps exercise in the sunshine, go outside during your breaks at work, or take your dog for a walk during daylight rather then when it’s getting dark.

– try to introduce as much natural light into your house or workspace as you can. Position your desk next to a window and always keep blinds and curtains wide open during daylight hours.

– use a light therapy box if necessary. Its ability to simulate sunlight can help to boost light input on those dark midwinter days.

At night-time you could:

– try to limit your access to bright screens in the late evening before bedtime. TVs, smartphones, tablets and computers all emit blue light, which can prove extremely disruptive to circadian rhythms. Toning down the brightness, using smaller screens and installing software to reconfigure screen lighting can all help to reduce the impact of your tech gadgets.

– forego watching late-night TV shows. Apart from limiting your production of melatonin, late TV programmes introduce stimulation when you need relaxation. Listening to relaxing music is always a better option.

– avoid reading on any device with a backlit screen. Backlit tablets, for instance, are considerably more disruptive than an e-reader without a light-generating screen.

– arrange your bedroom so it’s dark when you want to get to sleep. Fit shades or heavy curtains to black out your windows, or else consider wearing a sleep mask. And remember to cover any electronic devices with light-emitting displays.

– try to dim any lights you may use if you get up at night. You could perhaps fit a low-level nightlight in a bathroom or hallway for safety purposes, or otherwise use a small torch. Avoiding the use of strong lighting should make it easier to resume your sleep when you return to bed.

3) Take daily exercise

Those who take regular exercise enjoy a more restful sleep and also feel less drowsy during the day. Not only will this extend the period of deep, restorative-phase sleep you experience, it will also help to combat the symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnoea. And the more vigorous your exercise routine, the greater the sleep benefits you gain. But any regular exercise will have a positive impact upon the quality of your sleep – even a daily walk of just 10 minutes.

Note that exercise has a ‘slow burn’ effect, and it may take a few months before you experience maximum benefit. So concentrate on cultivating an exercise habit which you can maintain over the longer term.

Schedule your exercise to maximise your sleep gains

Physical exercise accelerates your metabolism, raises your body temperature, and stimulates the production of hormones such as cortisol. These effects won’t be a problem if you exercise early in the day, or even during the afternoon. But if you exercise too close to your bedtime, they may well hinder your sleep routine.

Always plan to complete any moderate-to-vigorous workouts at least three hours before you retire. And be prepared to shift them back even earlier if there is still a clash. However, you should find that relaxing, low-impact exercises involving yoga or gentle stretches will actually help to promote sleep.

4) Regulate your food and drink sensibly

How, what and when you eat during the day will have an effect on your sleep, especially just before you go to bed. So to give yourself every chance of a good sleep, you should:

– restrict your intake of caffeine and nicotine. Did you know that a caffeine drink, for instance, may cause sleep issues for 10 to 12 hours afterwards? And likewise, smoking in the evening close to your bedtime may also disrupt your sleep.

– try to eat dinner earlier in the evening. If you can, avoid heavy meals, and rich, spicy or acidic foods within two hours of preparing for bed. Otherwise, you risk heartburn and stomach problems interrupting your sleep routine.

– try to avoid alcoholic drinks before bedtime. Though a drink could make you feel relaxed, it is also likely to disrupt your sleep pattern.

– try not to drink too much liquid in the evening. Drinking less fluids will reduce the need for those nocturnal bathroom visits.

– try to cut down your intake of refined carbs and sugary foods. During the day, avoid taking on lots of sugar, white bread, white rice, and pasta, because these foods may precipitate night-time wakefulness and limit your access to the deeper and more restorative phases of sleep.

Would a night-time snack help your sleep?

There’s no hard and fast rule here: Some find a light snack of healthy food is a beneficial addition to their sleep routine. Others, however, find it simply causes indigestion, making it even harder to sleep.

5) Relax, wind down and clear your thoughts

Do you find you just can’t sleep, or constantly wake during the night? If you are left with residual stress, worry, and anger from a challenging day, it can then become very difficult to sleep well.

But if chronic anxiety dominates your nocturnal thoughts, you can still learn how to stop worrying and reframe your life so you view things from a more positive perspective. If it’s demands linked to employment, family or education which are wrecking your sleep, you may need to develop some stress-management techniques. Once you learn how to manage your time more effectively, find productive ways to handle stress, and develop a calm, positive attitude, you’ll be much better equipped to enjoy restful sleep at night.

It’s a fact that if your brain becomes over-stimulated during the day, it will be that much harder for you to slow down and unwind in the evening and through the night. So many people overstress their brains by constantly interrupting other tasks to monitor their smartphones, emails, or social media accounts. Try to schedule specific times for these activities, and aim to focus on one task at a time. Then when it comes to bedtime, your brain won’t be in a multi-tasking mode and constantly anticipating fresh stimulation. That will make it easier for you to unwind.

Some relaxation techniques to improve your sleep

When bedtime arrives, practicing established relaxation techniques is a great way to calm your mind, wind down after the day, and prepare for sleep.

Promoting the relaxation response involves:

– deep breathing: With your eyes closed, start taking deep, slow breaths – and try to make each new breath deeper than the previous one.

– progressive relaxation of your muscles: Starting off at your toes, tense the muscles as tightly as you can, and then relax them completely. Using this same technique, gradually work your way throughout your body right to the top of your head.

– visualizing a restful place where you can be at peace: With your eyes closed, develop a mental image of a place that’s calming and peaceful. Focus on just how relaxed this tranquil place makes you feel.

Bedtime rituals to promote a relaxed mood

Create your own personal “toolbox” of tried-and-tested bedtime rituals which help you unwind before you go to sleep.

These could include:

– reading a favourite book or magazine under a soft light
– taking a relaxing warm bath
– listening to some gentle music
– doing some easy stretching movements
– unwinding by spending a little time with your favourite hobby
– listening to an audiobook
– making some undemanding preparations for the following day
– dimming your lights in the hours before bedtime.

6) Make Some Improvements to Your Sleeping Environment

If you can develop a peaceful bedtime routine, this will send your brain a strong signal that it’s time to unwind and let go of the cares and stresses of the day. Even making some small changes to your bedroom surroundings can make a significant difference to the quality of your night’s sleep.

Make your bedroom a dark, cool, and quiet zone

Keep any noise down to low levels. And where you can’t eliminate domestic noise, try masking the sound with a fan or a white noise machine designed for this purpose. Earplugs may be another possible solution. Gifted Geek has reviewed several leading earplugs.

Keep your bedroom cool and ventilated

Most of us sleep best in a slightly cooler room (around 18° C/ 65° F) which is well-ventilated. If your bedroom is too hot or too cold, this discomfort can disrupt quality sleep. Consider installing trickle window vents if needed.

Make sure your bed is ultra-comfortable

Arrange your bed covers so you have plenty of room to stretch and turn in comfort. If you find you regularly wake with a sore neck or an aching back, you may need to experiment with a firmer or softer mattress, underpad and pillows to provide you with an optimum level of support.

Preserve your bed as a place for sleeping and sex

Don’t attempt to work, operate your computer, or watch TV while in bed. Then your brain will come to associate your bed as the designated place for sleeping and sex. That will make it much easier to unwind at bedtime.

7) Learn some techniques you can use to get back to sleep

Brief nocturnal waking is quite normal, but if you then find it tough getting back to sleep, try the following tips:

  • What you can try when insomnia prevents you sleeping
  • Avoid stressful analysis
  • Try not to induce further stress by fretting over your inability to fall back to sleep. Such stress will encourage your body to awaken further. Instead, practice breathing in and out slowly while thinking how your body feels.
  • Aim for relaxation rather than sleep
  • When you can’t get back to sleep, try a relaxation technique – meditation, visualization or progressive muscle relaxation – all of which can be performed without leaving your bed. While relaxation does not replace sleep, it can nevertheless help rejuvenate your body.
  • Try a calm, non-stimulating activity
  • If you lie awake for more than a quarter of an hour, leave your bed and try a non-stimulating activity such as reading a book in a soft light. Don’t use screen devices, because this risks cueing your body to wake.
  • Defer worries and intrusive idea – when worries and ideas wake you at night, scribble a brief memo on a pad you keep beside your bed for that purpose. Then you will rest easier knowing your thoughts have been captured for more productive development when you awake.

The Key Message

So the key message is: you’ll get the best sleep by harmonising your body’s inbuilt systems and functions.

Furthermore, healthy sleep and a healthy body are strongly linked. So if you exercise regularly, avoid over-exposure to light and over-indulgence with food and drink at times when such activities will interrupt your sleep patterns, you should put yourself some way along the road to better sleep. And you can reap further benefits by moderating the incessant demands of modern living: learning to relax will not only improve your sleep, but it’s also good for your mental health too.

Taking back control of all these things will improve your sense of well-being, so optimising your bedroom environment is another task which will reward you with an improved quality of sleep.

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