Health and Wellbeing: Sleep
If you have difficulty sleeping and these suggestions don't make any difference, then you should think about contacting a medical professional
The purpose of sleep is not fully understood, but it is essential for physical and mental health and wellbeing. While we are asleep, our bodies perform essential maintenance and repair. A regular sleep cycle brings with it many physical and psychological benefits including:
- Boosting your immune system
- Better mood
- Better decision-making
- Better exercise performance
- Better memory
- A healthier heart
- Reduced stress levels
A regular good night's sleep may also help you lose weight; there's evidence that people who don't sleep well, have a larger appetite and eat more tend to weigh more than people who do sleep well. Disruption of the sleep cycle is thought to affect regulation of hormones that control appetite.
Most people need 7-9 hours' sleep per night and it's important that you make time for this just like you make time for other activities. To get a handle on how much you're sleeping, think about keeping a sleep diary, where you keep track of your sleep patterns and habits.
It's not possible to never sleep; even if you keep going without sleep for a long time, you will eventually fall asleep. However, there may be some things that prevent you from falling asleep as easily as you could or should:
- stress, anxiety or worry - these can keep the body and brain alert
- surroundings - for example, your bedroom might not too bright or noisy
- food and drink - how and what you eat and drink in the evening can disrupt your ability to fall asleep
- exercise - not enough exercise, or exercising at the wrong time can keep you alert in the evening
- medication - some medicines can keep you alert and awake; perhaps check with your doctor if you think the medicine you take is keeping you awake
Quality and Quantity
It's not sufficient to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, if the sleep that you get is not good quality. Good quality sleep is where you:
- Fall asleep in 30 minutes or less
- Sleep through the night or waking up only once
- Fall back asleep less than 20 minutes after waking up
Poor sleep quality has the same effects as lack of sleep; you might be forcing yourself out of bed the following morning, struggling to stay awake and having trouble staying focused. You may also be more irritable and feel a little depressed.
Sleep hygiene is the name given to good practice and habits that will maximise your sleep quality. Sleep hygiene isn't rocket science; there are a lot of simple things you can try to help improve the quality of your sleep. Some relate to your evening habits and activities, while some relate to where you sleep. Follow these suggestions for a couple of weeks and see if they make a difference. It takes a little time for your body to adjust and adopt a regular sleeping pattern
Habits and Activities
- Try to get into routine before going to bed, and think about going to bed around the same time every night
- Set your alarm for the same time every day. If you wake up before the alarm sounds, just lie in bed and relax until the alarm does go off. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day will help your body develop a good wake/sleep cycle.
- Try to wind down and relax for a couple of hours before bedtime - no running around; instead, do something you find relaxing (e.g., knitting, reading or listening to music)
- No caffeine from 4-6 hours before bedtime. If you do want to have a hot drink before bed, try a herbal tea (e.g. camomile, valerian or lemon balm), hot milk, or perhaps Horlicks or Ovaltine
- Avoid exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise can increase alertness, which won't help you sleep. Exercise during the day is a good idea though!
- Avoid heavy meals before bedtime. The digestion process can cause discomfort and disturb the sleep cycle
- No alcohol three hours before going to bed. Alcohol is a stimulant that will increase the number of times you awaken in the middle of the night, reducing your sleep quality
- If you are a smoker, try to cut down the number of cigarettes you have in the evening; like alcohol and caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant.
- Don't watch TV or use a computer/tablet/smartphone before going to bed. The light from these devices can interfere with production of melatonin, a hormone made by your body that helps promote sleep.
- Some experts think that you shouldn't nap during the day, as this makes you less tired at night
The Sleep Environment
- Make sure your bedroom is cool, not cold. It's easier to fall asleep easier when the temperature is cooler, not warmer.
- Make sure your bedroom is as quiet as it can be. If you need to, wear earplugs
- Make sure your bedroom is as dark as it can be. Think about getting blackout curtains if too much light comes in from outside
- Make sure your bed is comfortable. How old is your mattress? Some groups think you should replace your mattress every 7-10 years, but it really depends upon how much wear and tear it's subject to. Some mattresses, like memory foam and latex, can last an average of 15 years.
- Try not to watch TV, read, use your phone or work(!) in bed. Your brain should associate your bed with sleep, not with activities that require you to be alert
- Similarly, if you can't get to sleep when you go to bed or wake up in the middle of the night, get out of bed and go and do something relaxing for a wee while until you feel tired. Don't lie in bed thinking - it'll just keep you awake.