Are you one of the many people who fall asleep easily, only to wake up a few hours later and struggle to get back to sleep again? According to a 2013 report by sleepcouncil.org.uk, almost half of Brits are kept awake by stress or worry at night. Perhaps you have trouble falling asleep in the first place, or find yourself waking throughout the night. Millions of people suffer from some form of insomnia, but sleep can be improved by practicing better sleeping habits and pinpointing what it is that keeps you up at night.
Addressing your so-called ‘sleep hygiene’ (a term used by the NHS) can help you determine what you can do differently to get more sleep, before turning to sleeping pills or tonics.
Create a sleep sanctuary
Make your sleep environment comfortable and relaxing:
- Check the temperature, noise levels, ventilation and level of light in your bedroom. Consider using a fan to circulate air and create white noise, or new blinds or curtains to keep the space nice and dark for peaceful sleep.
- Make sure your bed is comfortable for you, and large enough for you and your partner. If you share a bed with someone who keeps you up, try upgrading to a queen or king-size bed. Try out different kinds of mattresses – this investment can really make a difference. Use soft cotton sheets and experiment with different pillows until you find ones that are conducive to your sleeping positions.
- Use your bedroom for sleeping only. If you must use it to pay bills, work or watch television, try to close off that area and/or put electronics away so you can maintain your sleep sanctuary. Also, hide your clock. Having a large illuminated clock can just create more anxiety.
Improve daytime habits
The following may be affecting the quality of your sleep:
- Napping during the day. If you are exhausted and must nap, limit it to 30 minutes as you train your body to sleep at night.
- Caffeine and alcohol. Abstain for at least a few hours before bedtime. Caffeine keeps you awake, and though alcohol may initially act as a sedative and help you fall asleep it can affect normal sleep patterns.
- Smoking. As a stimulant, nicotine can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. There is also the chance that night-time nicotine cravings can affect your sleep.
- Staying in the darkness after waking. Open curtains or step outside to be exposed to natural light soon after waking. This helps your body’s natural clock to adjust and transition from sleep to being awake.
- Low iron levels. Women with low iron levels may experience trouble getting to sleep. It is worth checking your iron levels to see if a supplement can help.
- Working out late in the day. Exercise is recommended for good sleep, but if you find that your daily workout falls close to bedtime it may be having the opposite effect. Exercise in the morning or afternoon to avoid being kept awake from the stimulation of aerobic exercise.
Develop a bedtime routine
Bedtime routines are not just for kids! The way you get ready for bed can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Keep these points in mind as you see what works for you.
- Eat your evening meal earlier. Waiting at least two hours after having dinner can help you avoid indigestion and discomfort from being too full. Also, if trips to the toilet tend to affect your sleep, limit your fluids as well.
- Go to bed at the same time. It can be difficult but try to set a bedtime for yourself and stick to it. Your body will respond by expecting sleep at a certain time each night. If you must compensate for a late night by sleeping in the next day, go to bed at your normal time in the evening to stay on schedule. You may even find that you have to re-arrange your daily activities in order to get to bed on time.
- Take time to relax. Make a conscious effort to wind down before bed. Your ritual could include a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea, reading, meditation or gentle stretching.
- Write (or type) out all of your worries. Often what keeps us up is our anxiety over what’s happening in our lives. It can help to take time out and write it all down or type it all out, so if you do wake during the night you aren’t immediately assaulted by those thoughts.
- Check your medication. In some cases prescription medicine taken for an unrelated illness could be keeping you awake. Also, resist the urge to self-medicate by taking over-the-counter sleeping pills, which have the potential to cause dangerous side effects and may just mask sleeping problems without determining the cause.
- Get rid of your screens. Try removing the television from your bedroom and keeping your mobile off limits. Less electronic screen time can help your brain to quiet down before bed.
If you do wake up…
Once you’re awake, what can you do?
- Try visualising repetitive actions, such as walking up an endless stairwell (or counting sheep!). You can also focus on your breathing, breathing in for a count of five, and out for a count of five. Focus your energy on your toes, slowly moving to your feet, your ankles, calves and knees, until you reach your forehead, all while breathing deeply and regularly.
- If you can’t sleep, don’t force it. Get out of bed. Go to a different room and do something relaxing, such as reading or stretching. Just avoid turning on bright lights or doing anything stimulating, like watching the news or checking your work emails.
- Have a tryptophan-rich snack. Tryptophan is an amino acid used by the body to produce serotonin, which is necessary for sleep. Though a heavy meal is not in order, a small serving of turkey, chicken, walnuts, milk or cheese (among other foods with significant levels of tryptophan) on an empty stomach, can help you feel sleepy.
A realistic bedtime
Going to bed at a realistic time is a good overall tip to end on if you are looking to improve your sleep hygiene. The idea is this: try to spend your time in bed sleeping, as opposed to lying awake. If you find that you are only able to sleep for five of the eight hours you spend in bed, why not go to bed a little later? Turn in at midnight to be up by five o’clock the next day. You can then gradually add 15 minutes or half an hour to your allotted sleep time. Although at first it may seem like you’re cheating yourself out of the additional hours, you could be improving your sleep in the long run.
Visit these online resources for further information regarding better sleep: