Sleep: get more of it, get smarter and be healthier

Sleep: it’s bloody brilliant. 

Who doesn’t love a good kip? Whatever the hell you’ve dealt with during the day, whether it’s your boss being a pain in the backside or just a to-do list the size of Wales, there’s nothing like laying down in bed and waking up a good nine hours later feeling refreshed and ready to conquer.

Of course, there’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong.  That’s why we’ve put together this complete guide to getting the perfect night’s sleep.

First, why you should bother

You might have heard the nonsense about Thatcher and Trump only getting three or four hours a night, but ignore it. For us humans, a good eight hours of sleep is the right way to go. Here’s why:

  • It kills diseases. Regular, quality sleep can both decrease your risk of developing colds, and can also increase your resilience to stress.
  • It helps you stay in shape. A lack of sleep can make you put on weight, as it drastically slows down your metabolism. More sleep means less fat. As long as you don’t eat your bodyweight in cake, obviously.
  • It aids concentration. If your job requires you to be on the ball, every day, then sleep is essential.
  • It will make you look hotter (yes, really). According to a 2010 study by the British Medical Journey, people who regularly get their full eight are more attractive. Not an essential, but it doesn’t hurt.
  • You’ll live longer. As a general rule, people who routinely sleep for fewer than six hours a night have a much higher risk of dying sooner.
  • It will make you better at the bang, bang, bangidy-bang, a-said-a-bang, bang bangidy bang (bang bang bang). 20-30 per cent of men and women felt their sexual relationships had been affected by sleeplessness (according to the 2010 Sleep in American poll).  Don’t get enough sleep, and the chances are your sex life might be affected.

So, if you’re not worried about being fitter, less sick, less likely to die at 50, hotter, smarter and better in bed, feel free to leave the room now.

Oh, no-one? Then we’ll proceed…

Step 1: Set a schedule

One of the best ways to ensure killer sleep is to get in touch with your body’s natural circadian rhythm (otherwise known as the sleep schedule). Sleeping at exactly the same time each day will help you feel waaaaaay more refreshed. Consistency is king.  Here’s how you nail it:

  • Have a bedtime. I know, I know, bedtimes are for children. However, there’s a reason your parents dragged you away from the TV at the same damn time every night: because it’s good for you. Obviously, your new bed-time doesn’t have to be half past seven (it doesn’t not have to be either), so just set a time where you’re usually tired and stick with it.
  • Wake up at the same time. Usually, you’ll wake up naturally if you’re getting enough sleep. If you do need to set an alarm every day, you need an earlier bed-time!  With both wake-up time and bed-time, try and maintain the same time at weekends. If you’re doing everything right, this will be easier than you think.
  • Don’t be afraid to nap. On some occasions, you’ll lose sleep through no fault of your own. So catch up with a good daytime nap: its way better for you than having a massive lie-in the following morning.
  • Don’t succumb to after-dinner snooziness. Feeling drowsy post-dinner is normal enough, but it’s still a one-way ticket to poor sleep.  Give yourself a jolt by doing something like washing the dishes or chatting to a friend. If you succumb, you’ll end up waking later in the night and not being able to get back to sleep.

Step 2: Keep that schedule in line

The key part of developing a proper sleep schedule is to ensure that, once you’ve got it in place, you keep it there.  Unfortunately, a lot of modern life seems custom-made to mess with your sleep cycle. Here’s how you can stop the information age screwing with your brain.

  • Try and get more natural light. Exposure to natural light during the day can make a big difference to how sleepy you feel by the time you go to bed. Remove those sunglasses, go for a walk at lunchtime and have those work windows wide open.
  • Boost melatonin. Melatonin regulates your sleep cycle, so it’s important to keep it ticking over. Turn off those electronics in the lead-up to bed. Yes, that includes the iPad! Instead, use the run-up to bedtime to listen to music, read a book (no backlit e-readers!) or simply practise relaxation exercises.
  • Stay dark. Avoid bright lights of any kind. The best way to ensure this is to get darker bulbs for the bedroom, and to spend the hour or so in there before you actually drift off.

Step 3: Build a sleep-friendly room

Your bedroom should be optimised for sleep above all – not full of TVs, iPads and mobile phones.  The more soothing the atmosphere, the better.

  • Darkness, darkness. The darker the room is, the better you’ll sleep. If you happen to have something like a lamppost outside your window, then invest in a sleep mask: they’re simple, but seriously effective.
  • Keep the noise down.  Whilst you can’t account for everything (sad people playing loud music at 2am as they drive past your window), it’s a good idea to try and eliminate as much noise as possible. Consider investing in a good pair of earplugs.
  • Keep your room cool. A bedroom that’s too hot can interfere with sleep. The bad news is so can a room that’s too cold!  You’ll need to experiment with which way works best for you, but most people sleep best in a slightly cooler space. Pick up an air-con unit or fan if your room tends to keep the heat.
  • Get a comfy bed. If you’ve got a decent budget, investing in the very best bed you can afford is as wise an investment as you can possibly make.  You need to be able to stretch and turn comfortably. Get a new mattress if you ever start to struggle with a sore back or aching neck.  Try different levels of firmness. Oh, and get decent pillows.
  • Keep your bed for what it’s for. If you associate your bed with things like work or errands, then your brain will find it harder to power down.  If you strictly only use your bed for sleep or sex, your brain will get a powerful cue: its either sleepy time or sexy time.

Step 4: Diet and exercise

Aaaaah, everyone’s favourite bit. Yes, KFC banquets are a glorious thing.  However, they’re also a sleep killer.  Both diet and the amount of exercise you get can seriously impact your sleep levels.

  • Avoid big meals at night.  Try and eat dinner as early in the evening as you can, and don’t eat anything heavy within two hours of going to bed.  Your body puts in a lot of effort digesting things, and if you make it do so at night, your sleep will be interrupted.
  • Stay away from the Booze. Whilst a night-cap before bed might make you feel drowsy, it actually reduces the quality of your sleep.  Obviously, the odd night out will still happen, but avoid drinking for the sake of it.
  • Cut down on liquid consumption. Whilst it’s important to stay hydrated, a belly full of water when you go to bed will lead to only one thing: night-time trips to the loo!
  • No caffeine. Whilst we’re not suggesting you give up caffeine full stop (anyone who does that is superhuman), try and avoid having any after around 2pm, as it stays in your system for longer than you think!

Step 5: Free your mind

If there’s one thing guaranteed to stop almost anyone sleeping, it’s stress.  The last thing you need is to be up late worrying about something though, of course, everyone does it here and there. Here are some ways to help calm yourself when there’s something troubling you:

  • Deep breathing. Fortunately, the idea of deep breathing and relaxation is becoming more and more common, and is no longer something that ‘just the hippies do’. Close your eyes, and start taking deep slow breaths, with each breath slightly longer than the last.  Try to concentrate solely on the feeling, and block out everything else.
  • Postpone it. If you find yourself worrying about a particular thing, then make a note of it and tell yourself that you’re going to deal with it first thing in the morning. You’ll be able to compartmentalise it and then relax a bit more. What’s more, a good night’s sleep will usually mean you’ll be refreshed enough to easily solve the problem when you wake up!
  • Try and make relaxation your goal. If you’re struggling to sleep, try taking in a relaxation technique such as meditation, visualisation or deep breathing. Whilst they aren’t a total replacement for sleep, they still help the body rejuvenate.

Remember, sometimes you may actually need to see a doctor!

Though you should go through all of the above points when trying to improve sleep, there really are some circumstances in which it’s best to consult a physician.  These include:

  • Persistent day-time sleepiness or fatigue
  • Loud snoring accompanied by pauses in breathing
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Frequent headaches in the morning
  • A crawling sensation in either your legs or arms at night
  • Inability to move whilst falling asleep or waking up
  • Falling asleep at inappropriate times

Block out the world’s noise

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