We all need sleep. In fact, experts on the subject are now saying that sleep might just be the most important factor when it comes to mental and physical health, and the quality of the time you spend awake. If you don’t get enough of it, you’ll find yourself zombified, unproductive, more emotional than usual and—in some cases—overweight.
But considering it’s so vital to our wellbeing, sleep can prove elusive for many of us. How many times have you laid in bed, frustratingly awake, struggling to nod off? For some, the true horror of a bad night’s sleep is the knowledge that it’ll likely result in a rough day to come. It works both ways, though—the way you behave during the day has a massive impact on the way you behave at night.
Here are a few easy ways to improve your routine in order to fall asleep quicker, and stay there for longer. Experiment with them until you find the things that help you most.
Let There Be (Less) Light
You’ve probably heard of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. It’s naturally occurring, but controlled by how much light you’re being exposed to. When it’s dark, your brain makes more melatonin, which makes you sleepy. When it’s light, it produces less, which is why you feel more alert in brighter surroundings. It’s a pretty simple equation, right? Not so simple when you take into account the light coming from your phone when you check your emails before bed, that late night Game of Thrones bender, and the fact you work in an office designed to let in as little natural light as possible.
Modern life overcomplicates what should be a straightforward process. Here are some ways to simplify things again:
- Wake up early, and start your day with a blast of sunlight. Have breakfast outside, take your dog for a walk or have your coffee by a window. Light resets your internal rhythms, starting your day off right.
- If you work in a gloomy (or fluorescent) office, make sure you take your breaks in the sun. Exercise outside if you can. Every little helps.
- You might have seen a SAD lamp before—they simulate sunshine, which can be great during a short winter day. Start off with 5 minutes and work your way up, though—too much of a good thing, and all that.
- Blue light from phones, tablets, computers and televisions is massively disruptive when it comes to melatonin. Say no to bright screens within 2 hours of bedtime. If you can’t face an evening without tech, there are apps designed to change the kind of light your gadgets emit.
- Bedrooms should be dark. Upgrade your curtains if they’re letting light through, or if you’re on a budget, a sleep mask will do in a pinch. If you need to get up in the middle of the night, try to keep the lights down. It’ll make it easier for you to fall back to sleep.
Witness the Fitness
People who manage to fit a workout into their daily schedule enjoy a much better night’s sleep, and a more wakeful day, in addition to the smug warmth you get from pursuing fitness. A vigorous session of exercise improves all sorts of things, from sleep apnoea to insomnia, and typically means you spend more time in the sleep sweet spot—the restorative deep stage.
I’m not suggesting a drastic workout—even light exercise can improve the quality of your sleep. Ten minutes of walking would do it! Just make sure you’re not leaving it too late in the day—working out too close to bedtime can have the opposite effect that you’re looking for. That’s because exercise makes your metabolism work harder. It raises your body’s temperature, and it stimulates the good hormones—cortisol, anyone? Unfortunately, those things aren’t conducive to a decent night’s sleep. Gentle stretching won’t hurt before bed, but get the cardio out of the way during the morning or afternoon.
More important than what you do with your body, though, is what you’re putting into it. There are pretty obvious things to avoid here—caffeine, nicotine and refined sugar (that means white bread, rice and pasta too, I’m afraid) are all stimulants that disrupt your sleep. Alcohol might knock you out but it does nasty things to your sleep cycle.
Snacking isn’t always bad, though. In fact, there are some things that can promote sleep, but there aren’t many of them:
- A glass of organic milk, or a yogurt
- A banana
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachio)
- A tuna sandwich
- Tart cherries
Worriers, Come Out to Play
Speaking personally for a moment, the thing that keeps me awake at night tends to be my own thoughts. Keynote speakers on sleep say that anxiety, residual stress, frustration and overstimulation can make it almost impossible to get off to sleep at the end of a long day. It can be really tricky to pull yourself out of the vortex of thoughts when there’s nothing to distract you, but there are a few great relaxation techniques that might help:
- There’s one tool that you’ll always have on you, no matter where you’re trying to get to sleep—your breath! Close your eyes and focus on taking deep, very slow breaths. Try to make each one last a little longer, and go a little deeper than the last, and you might find that you nod off without even realizing it.
- Progressive muscle relaxation isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Start with your toes and work your way up—tensing each muscle group as tightly as you can before completely relaxing it.
- Build a bedtime ritual that helps you unwind before you get into bed. Take a warm (but not too hot!) bath by candlelight to boost your melatonin and relax your muscles. It’ll also cool you off, getting your body to the right temperature for a decent night’s sleep. Listen to some gentle music or books on tape. Do some gentle stretches, or make preparations for the coming day. Whatever makes you feel calm will probably be beneficial to your sleep.
Don’t forget that when it comes to sleep, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The only way to figure out what works best for you is to try everything! Experiment with the way you interact with light during the day and the evening. Start off slow with a short burst of exercise at lunchtime, or make a commitment to cutting sugar from your diet—at night, at least. Make time for yourself, and see how that impacts the way you sleep. It’s your bedtime; find out how to make the most of it.