I write having just had a great night’s sleep.
Granted I was exhausted when my head hit the pillow. Still, I am now feeling incredibly refreshed. I was lulled easily into a restful slumber and dreams came easily.
The Secret of Good Sleep
Now, I am aware that this may seem like downright showing off to those who find they simply can’t sleep, but let me share a secret. Good sleep is a formula. Apart from a few people with chronic sleep issues (and even then, my experience is that many can achieve a good night’s rest), adopting some basic practices can really help and I am going to let you in on that secret. But first – why it is important.
The benefits of sleep
I do not exaggerate when I say that sleep is the foundation of all other wellbeing practices. It is the basis of good health, both physical and emotional. If a pill were available that recreated the benefits of sleep, there would be a run on the chemists. People would re-mortgage to buy it.
Here are a few of those benefits:
Good sleep will increase your protection against cancer, diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease and ward off colds and flu. It will improve your capacity for knowledge, memory and learning as well as facilitate creativity. Your safety when driving will be improved. )Driving on less than 7/8 hours sleep is the equivalent of drink driving – and we are proven to be very bad at judging our state of tiredness!) You will feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. It will improve the length of your life and make you more attractive to boot!
Now, before you label me a snake oil merchant, I can assure you the science behind this is strong – and overwhelming. Matthew Walker’s excellent book “Why We Sleep” is packed full of evidence.
Now we have established the why, let’s look at the how.
The 7 commandments of Good Sleep Hygiene
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each night
I realise that if you are still hanging on to the idea that you are capable of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, this may well be sad news. Nonetheless, the fact is, our bodies work well with routine, and giving the brain consistency helps it prepare for sleeping well each night.
- Aim for 7-8 hours sleep opportunity
I have literally had people laugh out loud in scorn when I have presented this information in professional seminars. If that is you, if you feel that achieving 7 hours sleep is about as achievable as a trip to the moon, you may want to look at my blog about busy. I absolutely do know this can feel impossible but really – what is more important than your health?
Now if you have young children who wake in the night, that is a whole new ball game. There were certainly a few years in my life when sleep deprivation meant I was not functioning well. Lower your standards and ask for help. When a baby is keeping you awake all night, any offer of help should be taken. – especially if it means you can get some sleep. And do not expect your productivity levels can just continue as normal. It can’t. Thinking it can will only make you ill
- Design and use the bedroom for sleep only
Well, ok, you are allowed sex as well. But that is it. No TV, laptop, or phone. Our environment is important and the bedroom needs to be restful, and signal to the brain that sleep is expected. The bedroom should also be as dark as possible at bedtime (see no. 5) and cooler than you think (see no. 4)
- Lower your body temperature
The brain has evolved to release chemicals that help the body relax into sleep. In the past, the sun going down signalled the brain to do this. The sun went down and the earth cooled.
Central heating works against this function. Keeping the bedroom cool, (it’s fine to have a nice warm duvet to snuggle under), and the brain understands it is time to go to sleep. Having a shower or bath before bed also helps. When we get out of a nice warm bath, our body temperature drops, helping the brain to release the sleep chemicals.
- Avoid light and screens at night
As with the temperature drop, our brains have evolved to signal sleep to the body when the sun goes down and it becomes dark. Make your bedroom as dark as possible. I use black out blinds and a sleep mask. Not pretty but effective.
Screens, especially blue screens, are the worst. The light and content stimulate the brain. Our eyes are particularly prone to the effects of blue ray light, some theories maintain that this is because we evolved from sea creatures and blue ray light penetrates these marine conditions.
Whatever the reason, it is absolutely essential you avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. If, like me, you are engaged in a constant battle with teens about keeping phones out of the bedroom, keep up the good fight. You are right.
- Avoid caffeine , cigarettes and alcohol
Now, when I present this information to groups, someone often cries out that they need a drink to get them to sleep.
They are (partly) right, alcohol will help them out of consciousness more quickly, but that is not quite the same as sleep. It is poor quality slumber and often interrupted. The mystery of why the brain loves to wake and ruminate at 3am is not quite solved – but we all know that worry loves this hour, and drinking before bed will almost certainly have you awake by 3.
Cigarettes are a stimulant and will interrupt quality sleep. Avoiding large meals is also important. The body needs to sleep and actively digesting food consumes energy.
Limiting drinks before bed is also a good idea, if only because waking for a trip to the loo interrupts sleep, and prevents us achieving the REM dream state we need for good emotional health.
- Exercise and maintain a healthy diet
I touched on this in my blog about wellbeing. Exercise is good for us physically but it also reduces anxiety and depressive symptoms. It can help the circadian rhythms (body clock), thus improving our chances of getting good sleep.
High sugar, high carbohydrate, heavily processed food, interfere with sleep quality. Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in a balanced diet promote it.
Try it out. Just for a couple of weeks and see the benefits.
Until next time, friends