33 Ways To Actually Sleep Well At Night
llustrations by Mr Harry Haysom
Having trouble sleeping? You’re not alone. It’s been reported that 67 per cent of adults in the UK experience disrupted sleep. In the US, according to Sleep Foundation, “between 10 and 30 percent of adults struggle with chronic insomnia”. These numbers are significant. More than a quarter of people say that improving sleep is their biggest health ambition, according to a survey for Aviva. But, at this time of the year, when the days are longer (and the drive to socialise late into the night is strong), sleep prioritisation tends to go out the window.
But there is no time like the present to improve your sleep, especially if you find you’re feeling exhausted more than usual. After all, sleep is pretty important. For, basically, everything. From focus and emotional wellbeing, to weight regulation, cardiovascular healthy, immune system health and far more. Some sources even say that poor sleep can reduce life expectancy. So here we have 33 ways to improve sleep, from the really simple to more technical fixes. How dreamy (hopefully).
Indulge in daylight
“Daylight is sort of key to getting good sleep,” says Prof Kevin Morgan, a professor of psychology at Loughborough University. It provides vitamin D, sure, “but it also exposes us to natural light, which helps us to regulate our circadian rhythms”, he adds. “Light is the strongest cue to our internal circadian rhythm,” says Dr Rebecca Robbins, sleep scientist and sleep expert for Savoir. “Without it, our bodies and brains are less able to understand when we are meant to be tired and meant to be awake.”
Blackout curtains are good
For optimal circadian rhythm regulation, we also should introduce proper darkness, too. “Darkness is essential for good sleep and using blackout blinds or curtains is imperative,” Robbins says. “An additional helpful feature can be the use of a dark eye patch.” For balance, in the morning we should then “throw open the curtains or blinds to flood the room with natural light,” she adds.
Ban the blue light
Blue light, we’ve all heard of it, but is it really problematic? Here’s the definitive answer: “In a 2019 systematic review, the authors reported that just two hours of exposure to blue light in the evenings reduces the production of [sleep hormone] melatonin,” says Dr Deborah Lee, of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy. This means it affects how we sleep. “Experts recommend wearing anti-blue light glasses in the evenings and avoiding looking at screens two to three hours before bedtime.” Lee says, adding that blue light in the daytime helps keep us awake.
Tape your mouth shut
Sounds strange perhaps, but taping your lips together with a porous tape (found online) before sleeping “increases the oxygenation of your blood and is proven to help you sleep better,” says Mr Dave Gibson, of thesleepsite.co.uk. “Oxygen transfer in the lungs is more efficient from humified air breathed in through the nose than through the mouth. It can also reduce sleep disorders such as snoring and sleep apnoea,” Lee says.
Use a gentle alarm clock
Using an alarm clock will help you transition away from using your phone as a clock (and then checking all the rest of your apps while you’re there). But don’t just buy the first alarm clock you see. “I would advise using an alarm that starts with a softer sound and then gradually increases in loudness/intensity,” says Dr Luke Pratsides, of Numan. “This graduated alarm will prevent you waking up with a startle that can be unpleasant.” Similarly, “bright alarm clocks (so those with an LED display) can be stressful and hinder our ability to relax and unwind,” Robins says.
Exercise is good, but …
“The idea that the more energy you expend the more you’ll sleep is completely wrong,” Morgan says. “Getting enough regular physical exercise is important for sleep, but stop three hours before your bedtime, as the endorphins can keep you awake,” Lee says. “It can also warm up our body temperature.”
Try to keep cool
Our bodies don’t sleep as well when they’re warm. “Keep your bedroom cool, (18ºC/65ºF is great),” Gibson says. “Your core body temperature needs to drop by about 1ºC to help you find deep sleep, if you’re too warm you might not be able to access it.”
“Having a shower or a bath before bed can also get your body temperature down, which encourages sleep,” adds counsellor Dr Michelle Ruth.
Time limit your naps
“Some people, quite simply, can’t nap effectively,” Morgan says. “But for those who can, there’s many types of nap. The two main categories are compensatory naps (catching up on sleep) and hedonistic naps (siestas, naps for fun). Either way, the sweet spot is a 30-35 minute nap (excluding the time it’ll take you to sleep). No more than 40 minutes, either way. You want to enjoy the benefit of proper sleep, but you want to avoid sinking into a deep sleep which then gives you sleep inertia (that weighty feeling you get).”
5-HTP is the supplement of choice
When it comes to more direct supplementation “5-HTP is a good option,” Pratsides says. 5-HTP (also known as oxitriptan) is a naturally occurring amino acid. “It supports the body's natural production of melatonin, which is a critical hormone for regulating our natural sleep cycle known as the circadian rhythm.”
Consuming chamomile works
Yep, the science on chamomile being good for sleep is in-fact sound. “It contains the flavonoid apigenin, which is thought to bind to benzodiazepine-like receptors in the brain, inducing sleepiness,” Lee says. “It can be taken as a supplement or drunk as a tea,” Pratsides says.
As does eating Probiotics
Probiotics are good for many aspects of our health, but there might just be another benefit you likely don’t know about. “Gut health specialists have suggested that how our brain and stomach work together may be very important for sleep,” Lee says. Gut bacteria produces gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). “GABA is a neurotransmitter known to induce feelings of rest and relaxation,” Lee says. “This process may therefore have a direct effect on sleep. There hasn’t been a lot of research just yet, however.”
You should also get your zinc on
Zinc is a mineral that you’ll find in many foods, including shellfish, legumes, seeds and wholegrains. Zinc is also “important for sleep regulation,” Lee says. “In a 2018 randomised controlled trial, a group of ITU nurses were either given a zinc sulphate tablet or a placebo every 72 hours, for one month. The zinc group fell asleep sooner, and had better sleep quality than those who took the placebo.”
Tryptophan is another key nutrient to look out for
Eat what? Don’t worry, it isn’t some new superfood harvested from an obscure form of algae. “Tryptophan is an amino acid which has been shown to help people fall asleep faster,” Lee says. “You’ll find it in milk, bananas and oats.”
You can eat yourself awake, though
Sadly, it’s about what you eat, not just snacking. “Avoid eating too close to bedtime, and aim to leave a few hours between a meal and sleeping,” says Morgan. “Avoid eating foods that are spicy or difficult to digest near bedtime, as it can keep you awake.”
Caffeine should be limited. Here’s the specifics
It may seem obvious but we need to cover this, too: caffeine affects sleep. “We all have slightly different caffeine tolerance, but the evidence does show that caffeine can linger for up to nine hours,” Robin says. “Therefore, it is advisable to avoid caffeine in the six to nine hours before you want to fall asleep.” Gibson says that “there’s caffeine in chocolate and soft drinks, too”, so it’s good to be cautious if you think you might be especially caffeine sensitive.
If you’re waking up to wee…
“Alcohol is a diuretic, so it can cause you to get up frequently during the night,” Lee says. “Caffeine is a mild diuretic, so eliminating both near bed can help. Also, have less water before bed. Your body is perfectly equipped to go without water overnight – get those two litres in in the day.”
No more night caps
Yes we’ve all considered a tipple to help us sleep through a rough night or flight. Turns out, this isn’t the best idea. “Although drinking alcohol can make you fall asleep more quickly, alcohol is broken down in the body to acetaldehyde, which is a stimulant that keeps you up,” Lee says. “So I do not recommend using alcohol as an agent to help you sleep. For those who have become alcohol dependent, habitually drinking alcohol also leads to chronic sleep disturbance.”
Use your intuition
Your body is pretty clever; often life would be better if you just listened to it more. “We know when we’ve not slept well, just like we know when we’re thirsty,” Morgan says. “But for some, we look at clocks and we see what our health apps say. It’s the least predictive factor of how we slept. Listen to your body. We’ve spent millions of years developing a sensitivity to the quality of our own sleep. If you wake up feeling pretty good and alert, that’s good quality sleep.”
Keep a sleep diary
Lee says that “If you record your actions during the day, before, at and after bedtime, and take time in the morning to write about what went well and what didn’t. After a while, you may see a pattern which will help you make improvements.” Given it’ll only take a few minutes, it’s worth a go, you might even enjoy the process.
If you can’t go to sleep, don’t
According to Morgan, the easiest way to have a bad night’s sleep is to “think about it too much”. When we actually apply thought to that very basic biological activity, we’re “more likely to just irritate ourselves, which increases stress, which makes us less sleepy.” If therefore you do find yourself tossing and turning, just get out of bed. “Do something like reading in relatively soft lighting until you’re tired again,” Morgan says. Gibson adds that we can “allow 20 minutes to nod off. If you can’t get to sleep, get out of bed, have a warm drink, or read a book, then come back to bed when you are feeling tired. This means your brain associates your bed with getting to sleep, rather than lying awake.”
Stop aiming for eight hours
Eight hours is a bit of a myth. “We have to sleep at nighttime, we have no choice about that,” Morgan says. “But sleep does not need to be fixed in a bi-phasic routine, where you have a block of sleep, and a block of awakeness.” So essentially, the idea of sleeping for a prolonged period isn’t necessarily best. We can break it up into smaller sections and do just fine. “That long period of sleep is a consequence of the industrial revolution really. Also, poor sleep quality has nothing to do with quantity.”
Wake up at the same time daily
Our circadian rhythm regulates when we’re tired and when we’re alert. Morgan says that it is “generally anchored on your rising time, not when you go to sleep. So if you’re going to vary when you sleep, try and vary the time you get into bed, not the time you get out of bed.”
Meditation actually works
Getting Zen might seem a pretty obvious way to sleep better, and it turns out the practise actually does work. “A 2018 review, which included 18 trials and 1,654 people, concluded there was moderate evidence that mindful meditation improved sleep quality,” Lee says. “At five to 12 months of follow up, mindfulness meditation was as good as other evidence-based sleep treatments at inducing sleep and improving sleep quality. Also meditating for 10-30 minutes a day, has been shown to reduce stress, depression and anxiety, as well as improve sleep.”
Jot down those worries
If you find your mind racing as you’re trying to nod off, writing down those thoughts might help. “Ensure important tasks or thoughts have been noted down, so that they don’t stop you winding down your mind and getting into a relaxed state,” Ruth says. “Some people find keeping a notepad by their bed helpful to note down any important thoughts that come to mind in the middle of the night.” Plus, it means that “very critical thought” isn’t going to be forgotten, which might help you to sleep easy.
Avoid stressful information first thing in the morning
Morning paper kinda person? “We tend to feel more stressed and/or anxious in the morning due to a surge of cortisol within the first hour of waking,” Ruth says. “While it’s tempting to reach for your phone first thing in the morning, it is better for your anxiety to consume news and other potentially stressful things once your cortisol has had a chance to decrease. Avoid it just before you go to sleep, too, as it’ll give you a surge of cortisol, which will keep you awake.” So maybe stick to the back pages.
Associate your room with sleeping
A bit like a dog with its bed, this one. “Most people who sleep well have completely accidentally taught themselves that their bed and its position and its smell is a place where they fall asleep,” Morgan says. By contrast, if you work from bed, you might be associating it with the boss breathing down your neck for a report. Not peaceful.
A clean room makes for a clean mind
Ever felt that, despite the lights being out, you can feel your room’s messy energy? “Research shows that decluttering your bedroom promotes good sleep,” Ruth says. “It is thought that a cluttered room clutters your mind, whether you realise it or not.” This means where possible, it’s good to leave the room looking good before you start to wind down.
Fresh bedding is also a winner
We know this feels good. But clinically, “93 per cent of respondents to a survey say they sleep best in freshly washed bedding,” says Ms Farah Arshad, bedding expert for DUSK, a luxury bedding company. So wash it. This includes the duvet, and the pillows. To do this, “follow the care label,” Arshad says. “Use the correct heat, size and washing machine settings; avoid overloading your washing machine; use pillow protectors to extend the life of your pillows and keep them cleaner for longer; allow your pillows and duvet to air outside regularly and shake to get rid of any dust.”
Invest in new bedding (and maybe even a new bed)
Never replaced your pillow? It might be time to do that, then. “If it’s stained or discoloured, you wake up with aches – particularly in your neck and shoulders, you’ve started to get tension headaches, it’s lumpy, or doesn’t spring back, you might want to look into replacing it,” Arshad says. Robins adds that, “if you find that your bed causes you pain or causes you to wake up in a sweat, it may be time for a new bed.”
Neutral decor is ideal for sleep
Not dissimilarly to the clean room, clean mind idea. “Neutral colours are more soothing than bright colours, and are ideal therefore for the bedroom to help sooth us as soon as we walk in,” Robins says. By contrast, a big red wall might make us feel alert, which isn’t ideal for sleep.
Get the lavender out
Yes, those herbal remedy folk are onto something. “Lavender is known to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and produce feelings of calmness,” Lee says. “It even helps relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression and has sedative properties. Crucially, lavender has been shown to improve sleep in various small studies.”
Mood lighting is your friend
It’s sexier. But also “bright lights impact on melatonin production, which is the hormone that facilitates sleep,” Ruth says. “Try using a sunrise alarm clock or a dimmer switch/lamp so that the light you do use is more calming.”
Humidify your life
While this might seem incredibly extra (especially in the UK, where MR PORTER is based), Lee says that “keeping the air in your bedroom well humidified (the optimum is 40 to 60 per cent humidity) can help keep your nasal passageways, mouth and airways, stay hydrated, which can aid night-time breathing.” So consider it, you’re worth it.