Five Easy Lifestyle Tweaks For A Perfect Night’s Sleep
Illustration by Mr Nick Hardcastle
An expert from Harley Street’s sleep clinic tells us how to make the most of our time in bed.
Dr Jim Brown is a consultant physician and sleep specialist at the Centre for Human Health and Performance, 76 Harley Street London, which recently launched its sleep clinic.
I treat sleep disorders and optimise sleep for everyone from office workers to elite performance athletes. Lack of sleep causes poor performance at work, low moods, weight gain and chronic ill health including increased risk of diabetes. Seven in 10 people sleep less than seven hours (seven to nine hours is the recommended amount). Key indicators of quality sleep include sleeping more than 85 per cent of your total time in bed, and falling asleep within 30 minutes.
In today’s society, there is a vogue for always being connected, leading to insufficient time to wind down before bedtime. Stress and anxiety are big factors in sleep duration, quality and can lead to established insomnia. Ingesting the likes of caffeine to keep us “on top of our game” further affects our ability to sleep. Also, our bodies are influenced by external stimuli – including temperature and the “light-dark cycle” – along with internal biological processes that govern our sleep/wake cycle. This is known as the circadian rhythm.
To optimise your sleep cycle and ensure you set yourself up for the perfect night’s sleep, here are five key things to introduce to your daily routine.
Use your bedroom for two things only
It is important to keep the circadian queues as regular as possible, and this involves keeping a regular bed and wake time. This schedule should be constant throughout the seven-day week. Catching up on sleep at the weekend – “social jet lag” – should be avoided. Having a bedtime routine should include a wind-down period. Some people find reading or relaxation techniques helpful. Write down tasks for the morning so that they are not playing on the mind at night. The bedroom should be reserved only for sleep and sex and should be dark, cool and without electronic devices including phones and TV. A warm shower helps because the subsequent drop in core temperature is a signal to the body that it is time to sleep.
Exercise 150 minutes a week
Exercise helps enormously with sleep. Research shows that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise weekly can improve sleep quality by up to 65 per cent. However, timing is important. Excessive late-evening exercise is known to cause sleep disturbance in the early part of the night.
Use your phone in the morning
Avoiding excessive light in the evenings is important, especially LED spotlights and blue light from screens close to the face. Our circadian rhythm is easily disrupted with artificial light and in particular the short wavelength light emitted by screens and handheld devices. Abnormal amounts of evening light supress a hormone called melatonin that prepares us for sleep. Glasses with lenses that filter out short wavelength light may be helpful in people who are unable to avoid these sources of artificial light. Bright light in the morning however boosts alertness and improves mood as well as ensuring the circadian rhythm is properly entrained.
No chocolate after lunch
We all metabolise caffeine at different rates, but people who have difficulty sleeping should avoid consuming it in all forms (including chocolate) after lunch. Half the quantity of caffeine consumed at 6.00pm will still be circulating around the blood stream at midnight. Heavy and/or spicy meals late at night can cause heartburn, which effects sleep. Ideally the evening meal should be eaten at least two hours before bedtime with a light snack prior to bed if required. Milk has been proposed as the ideal drink at bedtime due to the combination of protein and electrolytes it contains, along with tryptophan which is the precursor amino acid to melatonin. Alcohol causes sleep fragmentation and less deep sleep.
Take a nap
Taking a daytime nap has long been viewed as the preserve of the unmotivated. During the early afternoon there is a natural dip in alertness. This is part of the circadian cycle and the time for a siesta. Recent research has shown positive benefits of a short nap (of less than 30 minutes) in improving mood and productivity. Naps longer than this should be avoided as you will slip into the deeper stages of sleep and wake feeling groggy. People with difficulties falling or staying asleep at night should avoid sleeping during the day.