'I find the nights long, for I sleep little, and think much.'
Charles Dickens,Bleak House
I thought I’d pull together a few key messages from books, journals, and organisations dealing with sleep and wellbeing, as many people seem to be struggling during the pandemic. This may be largely due to situational anxiety*. Many, many people are sharing this experience. Please bear these things in mind as you read what’s below.
One thing to remember, and it is a big one for many of us, is that researchers would probably define a good night’s sleep for the average person as eight hours, not seven. What’s more, the final two hours are the most important for storing and strengthening the raw ingredients of new facts and skills. If we sleep for 7 hours, we cut this period in half and only get one hour of this … So, hard as it is, our goal should be eight hours. It can be difficult to achieve, but we just need to do our best and not feel as if someone is pointing an accusing finger at us. I hope these tips help.
Ten tips for healthy sleep
Stick to a sleep schedule. This is hard, as many of us think we ‘deserve’ a weekend lie in, or maybe a later night on a Friday or Saturday. It feels like we don’t have any treats at the moment and the imposition of another ‘rule’ goes against the grain. This is, however, right up there on all lists of top sleeping tips. Our body works to a rhythm and changing at the weekend results in something akin to jetlag (remember flying?)
Get some exercise. There is lots of evidence that exercise helps with sleep and sleep improves activity, so it goes both ways. However, don’t exercise too much too late in the day. Try to exercise at least thirty minutes on most days but not later than two to three hours before your bedtime. You want your body to be slowing down for sleep. Exercise before bed will trigger all of the processes that you really want to calm down.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Obvious, but true. Caffeine blocks receptors in your brain for the neurochemical adenosine, which is responsible for ‘sleep pressure’, so the chemical that should help you fall asleep is blocked. Coffee after mid-afternoon is a real no-no. Nicotine is a stimulant and raises heart rate and blood pressure, both of which inhibit sleep.
Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. I know, many of us grew up with the concept of a ‘night-cap’ in popular culture – but it really doesn’t help. We may fall asleep, due to the sedative effect of the alcohol, but our sleep will be less nourishing and may well be disrupted. We may think we’ve slept ‘well’, but our sleep won’t have done the job it needs to do.
Avoid large meals and drinks late at night. This can be really difficult to manage around other commitments, but it is no less important. Food needs to be moved along our digestive system and mixed with secretions to aid digestion. Both require muscles to keep working when they should be resting. Many people follow a ‘no food outside of daylight hours’ rule, which makes some sense, but could be a struggle if you live in Northern Scotland in December.
Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. I know it seems random and there are others who advise power naps etc., but researchers have found that doing this after 3pm has an impact on our rhythms and makes bedtime more difficult.
Build in time to relax before bed. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music is ideal for switching off, but note, it might not be best to do this in bed… Many experts suggest keeping bed for sleep only, so the body picks up the cues that bed = sleep. Some people might spot an issue here, but I’m sure you’re capable of working it out!
Take a hot bath before bed. A bit of an odd one. We know that a drop in body temperature encourages sleep, so why warm up? It is actually known as the ‘warm bath effect’. By taking a warm bath a while before bed, after which your body temperature drops slightly, you can trick the body into thinking you have gone from daytime into night-time. All mammals fall asleep as temperature drops at night. This also means it’s best to keep bedrooms cool.
Avoid technology in the bedroom. You may be reading this on a phone. Our modern lives are dominated by them. We (almost) all fall into this trap at some point. If at all possible, keep phones out of the bedroom (I know it’s difficult, but let’s face it, probably not impossible.)
Control the amount of light in your life. Daylight is key to regulating sleep patterns which are affected by the hormone melatonin. When we are exposed to sunlight in the day and low levels of light in the evening, melatonin levels stay low in the afternoon and then rise again from mid-evening. As they rise, we get sleepier. The levels of melatonin then drop from around midnight to 7am and we ideally wake as our melatonin level is lowest. So we need to:
Wake up to bright lights (in the UK, this may require artificial light for a good chunk of the year!)
Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least half an hour each day.
Get rid of lights from the bedroom – if possible including those LED lights that come attached to everything these days. Similarly, in the evening, reduce the brightness of living spaces.
And finally, if you can’t get to sleep, don’t lie in bed awake. Get up and do something like reading or listening to music until you start to feel sleepy. You might think ‘I can’t afford to get up. I need to get to sleep.’ But you won’t get to sleep by telling yourself you should. If sleep is about switching off our conscious thought, we can’t logically expect to be able to think ourselves to sleep. You’ll get to sleep when your body can take control, rather than your mind.
*They may also be related to on-going physical, psychological or emotional conditions. I’m not suggesting that these tips replace specific medical or therapeutic advice. Managing to get more sleep can, however, help improve many conditions that disrupt it in the first place.