How to get the perfect night’s sleep

As anyone who’s ever spent a day feeling absolutely knackered will tell you, a good night’s sleep is important.  The thing is, getting a good night’s kip isn’t easy: there are a lot of things that can wreck your chances of bedding down for eight solid hours.

That’s why we’ve put together this piece dedicated to the different techniques and tricks you can use to improve your quality of sleep.  If you tend to struggle to drift off, any or all of these tips should help.

First things first

Just before we get started, it’s probably worth pointing out that everyone is different, and that it will probably take a bit of experimenting before you nail what works for you.  Do take the time to do this: it’s worth it.

Now, let’s get going: there’s a lot of sleep to catch up on!

Tip number one: make sure you have a regular sleep schedule

Possibly the most common way to wreck your chances of sleep is by not sticking to a set time. Your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle – the circadian rhythm – has a serious preference for sleeping at the same time each day.  Here’s how to give it what it wants:

  • Set a regular bedtime.  Yup, you’re back to being a kid again.  (At least you get to choose the bedtime this time!)  Pick a time by which you usually feel tired: there’s no point heading to bed at 10 if you’re going to be wide awake for the next two hours.  The key to this is to try not to break the routine at weekends: genuinely attempt to go to sleep at the same time every day. If you must go out at the weekend, still try to get home at a reasonable hour!
  • Wake up at the same time.  If you’re getting enough sleep, you’ll normally find that you’ll wake up without an alarm.  However, in the early days of a new sleep schedule, it’s still sensible to keep one on.  It’s worth noting that if, after a week or so, you still need the alarm, you probably need to set an earlier bed time! Again, try to stick to your wake-up time at the weekend to really re-inforce it.
  • If you need to nap, then nap.  If you know you’re a bit behind, go for a daytime nap as opposed to a lie-in.  A nap will allow you to pay off any sleep debt without messing with your circadian rhythm.  It’s worth noting, mind you, that napping won’t suit certain people: anyone with insomnia or sleep apnoea should probably steer clear, the last thing you need is another reason to be awake.
  • Battle the drowsiness.  If you’ve over-indulged at dinner, you’ll almost certainly feel drowsy whilst all that grub digests! Avoid that post-meal nap by doing something stimulating. Head out for a walk, or do a bit of housework.  Anything to get you away from the sofa!  If you nap too late, the chances are you’ll struggle to sleep later on.

Tip number two: Naturally regulate your own cycle

Let us introduce you to melatonin.  This is a hormone that naturally occurs in the body when it’s dark, and helps you drift off.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot trickier to avoid bright lights than it used to be: smartphones, tablets, TVs and e-book readers are all over the place! Essentially, you should be trying to get plenty of bright light during the day, and then as little as possible in the evening. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to get more light:

  • No sunglasses.  Unless you’re in a situation where you’ll damage your eyes without them, leave the sunglasses at home.
  • Try to maximise your time spent outside during the day.  Even if your office is a bit dingy, try to go for a walk during your lunch break or straight after you finish your shift.
  • Get more light into your home.  You might not be able to control your work environment, but you can control the one you live in!  Try to keep your curtains and blinds open during the day.
  • Use a light therapy box.  If you really, really struggle to get enough natural light during the day, it might well be worth getting a light therapy box: these simulate natural light.  As a result, they can be particularly valuable in the winter, when there’s not a lot of sun around anyway!

How to boost melatonin production at night:

  • Turn off the TV.  And this goes for your smartphone as well.  The more time you spend looking at brightly lit screens, the less time your body will have to produce the hormones you need to sleep.  So put those screens down in the few hours before you go to bed.
  • Swap out your lightbulbs.  We’re not suggesting that you walk around in the dark (you have shins, and there are a lot of table corners out there waiting to hit them), but consider swapping out your chosen light bulbs for dimmer ones.  Low-wattage bulbs can really make a difference.
  • Make sure your room’s dark when you actually need to sleep.  The darker it is, the easier you’ll find it to drift off.  If you’ve got any electrical displays that are constantly on, then cover them up.  Install heavy curtains or shades to block the light from the window.

Tip number three: Create a relaxing routine

Relaxation is a huge part of sleeping well.  As such, it’s a good idea to create a proper ‘wind-down’ routine to let your brain know that it’s relaxing time.

  • Keep the noises to a minimum.  Whilst you’re not going to get rid of noise completely (good luck keeping the traffic outside quiet) there are a number of ways to help minimise it.  Most smartphones have white noise or nature apps on them that’ll give you a more pleasing background noise to sleep to.  (Though again, keep away from those screens!).  The other obvious way to cut the noise down is by using earplugs: a number of models are available that are more than comfortable enough to sleep in.
  • Keep your room as cool as possible.  Whilst you might think that being warm and snug is nice (and it is), it’s not that good at helping you sleep.  In fact, most people tend to sleep best in a room no warmer than 18C, and with proper ventilation.  (A room without fresh air can be a real hindrance, too).
  • Keep your bed comfortable.  As anyone over the age of thirty who’s attempted to sleep on a sofa will tell you, having a good bed is key to drifting off.  In fact, a good bed is probably one of the most worthwhile investments you can make in your home full stop.  Invest. It’s worth it.
  • Keep the bed for sleep or sex.  If you’re not being romantic, and you’re not going to sleep, you shouldn’t be anywhere near your bed!  This is more important than you might think, because if you do impose these limits, your body will learn to take getting into bed as a cue for one or the other!
  • Consider anti-snoring devices for your partner. If your partner snores it can no doubt cause frustration when you’re trying to get into your sleep routine. Aside from lifestyle changes, you could buy your partner an anti-snoring device from mouth guards and sprays to nasal strips and nasal rinses.
  • There are a number of tasks that work really well as part of an evening routine:  reading a book (with a soft light), having a warm bath, listening to soft music, doing gentle stretching, or simply listening to books or podcasts (without screens!).  Pick out the things you like doing, and do them.

Tip Number Four: Make sure you eat right

If your stomach’s got a load of work to do, it won’t take kindly to you trying to kip. It’s worth bearing the following things in mind regarding food and drink before you go to bed:

  • Avoid large meals before going to bed.  There’s nothing wrong with having your main meal in the evening, but if you’re going to do that make sure you have it at least two hours before bed (three hours if you’re eating anything rich or fatty).  Fatty foods take a lot of work to digest.  Also, avoid spicy or acidic foods late at night, as this can cause heartburn and stomach trouble.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake.  Caffeine can cause sleep problems even ten to 12 hours after drinking it!  Consider cutting down the amount of coffee you have, especially if you tend to have some in the afternoon.  (If you really do need one after lunch that’s OK, but consider cutting out your morning mug if so).
  • Don’t drink too many liquids in the evening.  Though keeping hydrated is obviously important, if you take in too much during the evening you’ll end up needing to spend a penny during the night: not restful!
  • Quit smoking.  It’s no great secret that smoking doesn’t do the body much good: nor does it help your chances of drifting off!  Nicotine is a stimulant that’s been shown to disrupt sleep.  What’s more, smokers experience nicotine withdrawal as the night progresses, meaning they’re more likely to wake up with cravings.

Tip Number Five: Use these techniques to help get back to sleep

It’s actually more common than you might think to wake up at some point during the night: fortunately, usually brief enough that you forget it.    If you are waking up and having trouble getting back to sleep, though, try using one of the following techniques:

  • Keep your body cued for sleep.  It’s important to try and avoid worrying about whether you’re going to get back to sleep again (though this isn’t always easy, of course!).  An effective way of staying out of your head is to take a page from yoga’s book.  Focus on the feelings and sensations of your body as you slowly breathe in and out.  You’ll be surprised how easy it can be to fall back to sleep if you’re able to concentrate.
  • Make relaxation your aim.  Rather than worrying about sleep, try to focus instead on being relaxed.  Eight hours of genuine relaxation will be far more valuable to you than eight hours of stress.  Though sleep is obviously the ultimate aim, remind yourself that rest and relaxation will still help rejuvenate your body.
  • Do something that’s non-stimulating.  If you’ve been awake for over 15 minutes or so, try getting out of bed to do something that’s not too stimulating, but will help deplete your extra energy levels.  Reading a book is a really good candidate, as is doing something mundane like washing up or folding laundry.  Just avoid screens!

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