If you’ve arrived on this page with one eye open, salvation awaits! Our sleep is more disturbed than ever but, thankfully, science has given us more than a few ways to transform those bad nights into feel-good mornings…
An uninterrupted night’s sleep may seem, to some, like a matter for the dark arts - but, actually, getting scientific with your shut-eye is a surer path to the 7-8 hours you’re craving.
So let us introduce you to The Sleep Scientist herself, Dr Sophie Bostock. A Sleep Evangelist with a PhD in Health Psychology, TedX talks and a wealth of research and innovation under her pillow, Dr Bostock has been on a mission to improve the lives of millions by championing the importance of sleep for our mental health and performance.
While we know sleep, and the exact amount we need, can be highly personal – there are some who seem to power through on nothing more than a few hours and a double latte – there is a growing bank of evidence that shows the risks of missing out on essential sleep time. A persistent sleep problem could put you at greater risk of anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and a raft of physical health conditions.
Fortunately, Dr Bostock also knows an increasing number of good-sleep strategies that will ensure you get all the rest you require…
If you’ve been having a series of bad nights’ sleep – whether that’s struggling to get to sleep or waking up a lot in the night – your brain will start to associate your bed with anxiety. This calls for a reset. “You need to recreate a positive sleep-bed connection,” says Dr Bostock. “Protect your bedroom for sleep and intimacy only. That means no phones, no work, no dozing for hours on weekends. If you can't sleep, get out of bed, and only get back in when you're feeling sleepy."
Bedtime routines aren’t just for kids. Having the same activities in the same order can be a helpful cue that sleep is on its way. Going to bed and waking up at the same time also anchors your body clock and helps your internal systems run efficiently. For creating that positive connection to sleep, include a few nice things to look forward to in your routine too, such as reading or meditation.
While you’re cultivating a good routine, cull any unhelpful habits ruining your sleep. Yes, you know what we're going to say before we've even said it: Stop that late-night scrolling. We’re all guilty of it – well, almost. Actually 95% of us use some type of computer, game or phone within the hour before bed, and the light from electronics has been found to send alerting signals to the brain. Switch off, swap it for a good book and give your body chemistry at least an hour to settle down for the night.
Eating or exercising too close to bedtime can also interfere with your sleep. "Food is one of the 'Zeitgebers' or time-givers,” says Dr Bostock, “They tell our body clocks what time it is. Meanwhile, high energy or competitive exercise can produce stress hormones, which will interfere with getting to sleep."
You’ll want to knock that night cap on the head too. "Alcohol disrupts your natural sleep cycles," says Dr Bostock, "So you're more likely to wake up feeling irritable, not refreshed." Stick to water or herbal tea, and take only sips before bed to avoid waking up in the night to go to the bathroom.
A busy life can often lead to us falling into bed and hoping we’ll drift off straight away. Unfortunately, for a lot of us, it isn’t that simple. Giving yourself time to wind down is important, especially if it’s the night before a Big Day. Just don’t confuse this essential “down time” with actually going to bed earlier.
"This can be counterproductive," says Dr Bostock. "If you go to bed too early, when your body clock isn't ready for sleep yet, you’re more likely to feel anxious when you can’t sleep.” If you’ve got something important on the next day, get plenty of daylight, make an effort to do plenty of physical activity and go to bed at a normal time – or later, if you're still buzzing.
An easy way to wind down can be something as simple as a warm bath or shower. Warm water increases the blood flow to the extremities and cools the core body temperature, which is a signal for sleep. A delicious dose of Oxytocin – the happy hormone released through hugs, feel-good movies and orgasms – is a wonderful antidote to stress too.
Once you’re in bed, leave the day behind and think happy thoughts. ”You're after a feeling of calm and contentment,” says Dr Bostock. “If your mind is very active, divert your thoughts to positive imagery. My personal favourite is to think of three things I'm grateful for. Positive emotions defuse stress and help promote a deeper, more satisfying sleep."
Of course, all the warm baths and Oxytocin in the world can’t fix everything. So, it’s 2.47am and you’re wide awake, listening to your partner snore. Now what?
Firstly, try not to get too worked up about it. “Reassure yourself that it’s OK,” says Dr Bostock. “Resting while you’re awake, safe and warm, is OK too.” Give it 20 minutes and, if you’re still wide awake and getting increasingly frustrated, get out of bed and do something else like reading until you feel sleep again. “You want to change it up before your brain learns to associate your bed with wanting to bash your head against a wall.”
Had more than a few bad nights? If sleep interferes with your usual daytime functioning, and is disturbing your quality of life, it’s time to take action.
Dr Bostock recommends keeping a sleep diary for a few weeks, to help you spot patterns and identify changes which are effective for you, such as that digital detox or eating earlier in the evening. If your sleep problem persists for several weeks or more, or if you’re having difficulty coping, seek help from your GP, or a relevant specialist.
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