Seven Steps To Better Sleep
Whichever way the precarious life-work scales tip, it’s sleep that always seems to get the boot. We are designed to spend a third of our lives sleeping and yet 43% of the American workforce say they “rarely or never” get a good night’s sleep on weeknights. Thirty per cent of Brits claim they are sleep deprived or verging on insomnia, which suggests that some 19 million of us are not getting to sleep, or, if we are, we’re certainly not staying that way for long.
Sleep is a fundamental component of our physiological and psychological wellbeing. The body is busy doing all sorts of things while we rest. Cells, tissue and muscle are all busy regenerating themselves; the immune system gets a boost, hormones that control weight are regulated and detoxification occurs in both body and brain. Sleep research also indicates that a good snooze wards off stress, anxiety and depression (the cruel irony, of course, is that psychological stress is one of the primary causes of insomnia, a condition identified by the consistent inability to fall asleep and stay that way).
Since sleep is such a critical restorative process, the effects of chronic deprivation can be severe. A study from the University of Surrey in the UK demonstrated that fewer than six hours of sleep per night for two weeks affects the expression of some 700 different genes. This means that a lack of sleep can affect change our biology and predisposition to disease in a very real – sometimes irreversible – way.
A lack of sleep can affect change in our biology and predisposition to disease in a very real – sometimes irreversible – way
The vast majority of us, however, are more familiar with the pedestrian consequences of a shoddy night’s sleep. Neuromuscular coordination goes awry, mimicking the effect of a night on the tiles, short-term memory becomes a lost cause, skin ages prematurely and productivity takes a dramatic nose dive (and we’ll say nothing of the wardrobe decisions made on a poor night’s sleep).
The hard-schooled would argue that sleep is a luxury, but in our particularly fraught modern life, sleep is a precious commodity. The idea that highly productive people have to get up at 4am every morning to do emails is highly outdated. Fall into sleep debt and it can be incredibly hard to make the repayments. “After a while, it becomes impossible to have a night of slow-wave sleep,” says independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley thesleepconsultancy.com.
Whether you have trouble invoking the Sandman, find it hard to get an uninterrupted night or are wandering around in the lighter stages of sleep, read on for some sure-fire tips to maximise your rest.
Granted, a heavy pour of Johnnie Walker Blue Label may help you to nod off sooner but since the alcohol will metabolise overnight, your ability to enjoy an uninterrupted night of sleep will be hindered. “Alcohol affects sleep because it dehydrates the body. It also causes you to pee and, because it’s highly calorific, the body needs to generate enough heat in an effort to burn it off,” says Dr Stanley. “All of these will disturb the latter part of the night when regeneration is taking place.” If you’ve enjoyed a boozy dinner before bed, be sure to rehydrate thoroughly (coconut water, which is rich in electrolytes, vitamins and minerals, is an excellent option) and take a couple of drops of milk thistle, a herbal remedy that helps the liver eliminate alcohol more easily.
And while sleeping medications might be tempting (15.3 million prescriptions in the UK were handed out in the period between 2010 and 2011; in America, 60 million prescriptions were written in 2011) they open the door to a whole host of side effects such as increased tolerance and dependency. There’s also the risk of “rebound” insomnia, wherein the condition comes back with a vengeance due to the body having adjusted to the nightly hit of benzodiazepines.
You might as well ditch a few other stimulants that are making serious shuteye a distant memory while you’re at it. Caffeine isn’t doing you any favours when consumed within four to six hours of going to bed, while the nicotine in tobacco can keep your head buzzing well into the wee hours. If you want to make sleep your friend, then it’s better to keep such lovable vices to a minimum.
We are now all in the habit of scrolling through Facebook on your iPad or watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones from the comfort of our bed. While such activities might help us feel as if we are getting some proper downtime, they are not ideal pre-sleep activities. The constant (and often useless) stream of information will keep your mind whirring but, more importantly, the blue light these screens emit wreaks havoc with your natural production of melatonin, the neurotransmitter that induces sleep.
When the brain clocks blue light, it slows this shutdown process, assuming the glow of your laptop is, in fact, daylight – an indicator that you should be wide awake. It follows, then, that TVs, phones, laptops and so on are best kept as far away from the bedroom as possible. Go so far as to charge your smartphone in a different room during the night. Your bedroom should be a space dedicated to sleep and sleep alone (with one obvious exception – the kind you’ll gladly stay awake for).
Develop a routine
We’re hardwired to rise at dawn and go to sleep at sunset. While this isn’t exactly practical or convenient in today’s anytime, anywhere world, a sleep schedule (the very same kind you’d use on a newborn) will help establish a natural rhythm of sorts. “One of the most powerful things you can do for your sleep is fix your wake-up time,” says Dr Stanley. Turning in and rising at the same time every day will programme a new routine in the body and, before long,“the body will predict when it needs to wake up and therefore make the most of your sleep”.
As for bedtime, create a nightly routine to wind yourself down. This may involve some light meditation, stretches or having a warm bath with some aromatherapy oils (the drop in temperature following a soak is a natural trigger for a restful night’s sleep). Eventually the unconscious will come to understand that your chosen pre-bedtime schtick is an indication that it’s time to start preparing the body for sleep.
Learn to sleep on it
Ever wondered why you are at your most creative as you sleep? That’s because the subconscious is more readily available to us as we snooze. The stuff we can’t see or figure out during waking hours is presented to us in the dream state. In addition to that, our brainwaves shift into the theta frequency as we enter the REM stage of a sleep cycle. This is the realm of inspiration, imagination, resolution and creativity. Consider the many geniuses that claim their moment of inspiration came to them while sleeping. India’s mathematical genius Mr Srinivasa Ramanujan claimed his insight into Bernoulli numbers came to him in dreams while Sir Paul McCartney says he dreamt the song “Yesterday” during some serious shuteye. So, rather, than wrack your brains in an attempt to problem-solve, just call it a night. Who knows what brilliance might emerge from it.
Empty your mind
You cannot will yourself to sleep. In fact, even trying to do so ends up creating more anxiety about your inability to nod off. Either that or it sets off a new stream of thoughts in your head, exacerbating the issue further. You’re better off reaching a state of acceptance, says Dr Guy Meadows, who has recorded his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy techniques in The Sleep Book – How to Sleep Well Every Night. Going to sleep is a process of relearning how to empty your mind – and the means to do that is grounded in something called mindfulness meditation, the practice that involves bringing one’s non-judgmental and undivided attention into the present moment by observing an internal process such as the breath. Over time, incessant thoughts slow down and lose their power.
Of course, detaching yourself from the myriad of thoughts that run through out heads is harder than it sounds. If your brain is still whirring away as you lie in bed – and you still haven’t got round to reading Dr Meadows’ book – get up and distract yourself. “If you haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, then get up and do something else,” recommends Dr Stanley. Read a couple of pages from your book, do some ironing or organise your bookshelf in alphabetical order, returning to bed when you feel sleepy. “Most of the time a visit to the bathroom will do the trick. For some reason the bed always appears to be more comfortable when you return,” he says.
Smell yourself to sleep
Aromatherapy isn’t a solution for chronic insomnia but it can certainly help those who struggle to fall asleep. Essential oils such as lavender and camomile are said to stimulate the limbic (emotional) brain and can create a sense of comfort that, in turn, makes it easier to drift off.
Bath products, pillow sprays and diffusers containing these oils can be found easily. The Lavender & Camomile Bath Oil from Lola’s Apothecary (lolasapothecary.com) is blended well enough to knock you out. Alternatively Aveda’s lavender-rich Stress-Fix Concentrate can be rolled onto pulse points before you turn in for the night (aveda.co.uk). And if toying around with oils isn’t your thing, then spritz your bed linen with This Works’ Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, containing lavender, vetivert and wild camomile (thisworks.com).
The frequent flyer programme
Jumping through time zones will invariably mess with our circadian rhythm, the biological clock that determines when we sleep and rise. Generally speaking, it takes the body about a day to recover per time zone travelled; it can take a week, therefore, to bounce back after flying from LAX to London.
As such, it pays to prep your body for the change in time a few days before your travel. To do this, sleep and rise earlier if you’re headed eastwards (when jet lag is most likely), and later if you’re travelling westwards. Shifting your sleep/ rise schedule by half-hour intervals every day is the most manageable way to do this (NB, this adjustment will, in turn, affect your meal times). The stock advice of setting your watch to your destination’s time zone won’t have any measurable effect on your body but it will help you adapt psychologically to your new environment.
Also be sure to devise a meticulous travel itinerary, one that allows for an early arrival at your destination, so you can make the most of the sunlight and your body can adapt. An afternoon nap is permissible so long as you don’t drift off for more than two hours. If you’re really struggling to get to sleep on your first night, it may be worth taking melatonin (the sleep hormone) as a supplement. Its efficacy is still up for grabs but anecdotal evidence suggests that it can help you drift off when taken two hours before turning in.
Illustrations by Mr Cozy Tomato