Updated: Oct 9, 2018
Sleep has been labelled as the third pillar of health (along with diet and exercise).
Poor sleep has been linked everything from metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes to depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
As research continues to emerge it becomes more and more apparent that Sleep deserves our attention and improving our sleep is important for EVERYONE!
In this series of blogs on Improving your Sleep, we will be exploring the tried and tested methods of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (known as CBT-i) and picking out every day hints and tips to give you the best chance of a good night's sleep.
Using your Body to Build Better Sleep
Each of our organs have been finely tuned and refined over hundreds of thousands of years to wake and function during the daylight hours and to sleep when it gets dark. It's only been in the last hundred years that we have seen the increase in availability of electricity and light sources (including TVs, computers and mobile phones) that allow us to keep 'switched on' when the sun goes down.
Biological evolution simply doesn't work fast enough for us to have fully developed the ability to chop and change our sleep-wake routines in the way that we do. Although we might do okay in the short term, we will usually see the effects of poor sleep the longer this goes on.
It's like using your elbow to beat time on a drum- you might be able to get away with it sometimes but you'll never join a marching band!
1. Establish a Sleep Routine
Harnessing your body’s natural rhythms and making them work for you can be as simple as sticking to one routine. The more routine our daily functions are, the more predictable they become for us. None more so than sleeping.
If we stick to the same bed time and waking time throughout the week we are less likely to have to scrape ourselves out of bed in the morning or find ourselves tossing and turning at night time. This is partly due to increasing our sleep drive at the same rate throughout the day and also increasing the psychological cues that we start to build when our sleep time is regular.
You can help yourself to establish a routine by:
Setting yourself a bed time and waking time that seems reasonable depending on your current life commitments. If you need to wake at 06:00am to get to work on time then you may have to adopt a ‘So be it!’ attitude and adjust your bedtime to suit!
Don’t try to play ‘catch up’ with your sleep, that’s not how sleep works and it will play havoc with your attempts to establish a healthy routine. Imagine it a bit like not eating all week and then having 7 sausage casseroles on a Saturday! It won’t stop you feeling hungry when you’re deprived and can make you feel sick when you’re finally fed!
Wherever possible- don't nap! Napping will decrease your sleep drive and make it less likely that you will stick to your routine. If you need to nap, stick to short bursts of
If you really feel that you MUST have a lie in on a Saturday morning or have an early night, then try to stick to within 1 hour in either direction of your set time in order to minimise the knock on effect on your body’s sleep/wake rhythm.
2. Turn down the heat
As we move through the day our core body temperature rises and falls and sends signals to the brain about when it is time to wake and when it is time to sleep. As our body temperature starts to rise our body functions start to wake up, it peaks in the afternoon and as it dips again in the evening, our body starts to shut down and get sleepy.
Certain things can interfere with our core body temperature however including exercise. We all know the health benefits of exercise and you should absolutely get plenty of it! However, exercise (especially cardio and strength training) raises our core body temperature. If we do this too close to bed time then we can struggle to drop off to sleep.
It usually takes around an hour after exercise for our core temperature to begin to drop again and the good news is that well timed, gentle exercise can simulate the cooling effect of our core temperature and send us off beautifully to The Land of Nod!
3. Watch out for the added extras!
Caffeine, alcohol, sleeping tablets, nicotine and even sugar can block the body’s natural signals around sleep/wake times.
If you’re also going through a period of stress or anxiety, is possible that your body’s ‘stress baseline’ may also be raised therefore lowering your tolerance levels for those ‘added extras’, making it even more difficult to get a restful night in bed.
Reducing your use of these substances (in a gradual way if needed) throughout the day and introducing a curfew on them before bedtime may help to cue back in to your body’s natural signals around sleep and wakefulness. Speak to your GP for further advice!
4. Use the light to your advantage
As the sun rises and our core temperature rises in a natural setting we are also subjected to more daylight. The increase in light also sends messages to our brains that it is time to wake up. In the modern age however we have many gadgets and gizmos that simulate light and stimulate our brains tricking them into feeling awake when our bodies are telling us to sleep.
Choose a point in the evening where you switch off your main lights, shut your curtains etc and move to side lights and lamps.
Consider investing in black out blinds or an eye mask
Screens (especially a mobile phone held right up to your face!) are incredibly stimulating for your brain. It may feel like your body is resting but your brain chemistry is going a million miles an hour with all the light and information that it is having to translate into words and images.
Setting yourself a complete curfew on ‘screen time’ (particularly if you have trouble getting off to sleep!) can have incredible effects. Aim for at least 30 minutes but preferably an hour before bed.
5. Get a bit of Shhhhh!
The natural world gets much noisier as the sun comes up and the animals start getting on with their day and greeting one another and we are very sound sensitive at night time.
Generally, finding ways to make our world quieter on the lead up to bedtime and during our sleeping hours will give the right ingredients to cue into our natural body rhythms and give us a better chance of sleeping well.
Switching off noisy devices such as the radio and TV (yes even if they’re on low!)
Considering using ear plugs or a white noise machine if you’re in a noisy area
At the opposite end of your sleep the reverse strategies apply!: gradually increasing levels of noise and even making noise yourself as you wake (joining in the dawn chorus!), making sure to open your curtains wide and let in the light, checking your phone (out of your bed!!) and doing some vigorous (even brief!) exercise have all been shown to increase wakefulness and give you a better chance of waking well.
In our next blog on Sleep:
The Sleep Cycle and increasing the QUALITY of your sleep.
Why the snooze button on your alarm should be eternally banished!
And even more helpful ways to improve your sleep.
If you give any of the hits and tips above a good try let us know how you get on by commenting below!
If you have any specific sleep issues whether covered in this blog or not, we would love to hear from you! We might even be able to sneek some tips into our next blog, just for you!