We all know that we sleep because we are tired, but have you ever wondered why we actually sleep?
Let's jump straight into the four areas to consider when looking to improve your sleep: Health, Environment, Attitude & Lifestyle.
Health: We know from last week that poor health affects sleep and vice versa. It’s important to get any health concerns addressed both for helping physical symptoms and for addressing any worries that might keep you awake.
Speaking of physical symptoms, how do we sleep when in pain? In 2016 an NHS review found that half of the UK may be suffering from some form of chronic pain - surely this can only be having a negative impact on sleep? One of the top ways to break the cycle of pain and sleeplessness is to exercise roughly 2-3 hours before going to bed, this uses any excess energy, releases endorphins to relieve pain but leaves time for any adrenaline to subside. Temperature is also very important. This is not one size fits all, everyone will be different but getting the temperature perfect in your bedroom is key to help manage pain while inducing sleep. As a general rule, you sleep better in a cool environment, however, if you are suffering from joint pain, a cool breeze from an open window can cause agony. If you are suffering from a sports injury, cold temperatures will help to slowly reduce swelling and encourage a faster recovery. You know your body and you know your pain so listen to it, a few degrees could be the difference.
Environment: Where you sleep is important, and the bedroom and bed should be mainly places you associate with sleep. In particular watching TV, playing with phones or screens, or eating in bed can all affect the quality of our sleep. A few simple steps can help to associate the bedroom with sleep instead of sleeplessness and frustration. For example, use the bed only for sleeping or sex and go to bed only when you're sleepy. If you're unable to sleep, move to another room and do something relaxing. Stay up until you are sleepy, and then return to bed. If sleep does not follow quickly, repeat. Noise levels and light all play a part in determining our sleep too so it might be time to invest in some blackout blinds and comfortable earplugs (not the ones British Airways gave you when returning from last year's summer holiday).
Remember your environment is not just the room around you. The most important two components to a good nights sleep are the ones directly beneath you. Investing in a good quality pillow and mattress are essential if you're serious about improving your sleep. Granted it's not cheap but can you really put a price on a good night's slumber?
Attitude: It’s easiest to get to sleep when we are able to relax and let go of concerns. We’ve all had a night where we lie awake and worry. In the time before we go to bed, we should try and wind down, be less stimulated, and relax. These days this can be harder than ever, but relaxation techniques, mindfulness practice or behavioural therapy can all help. Because we tend to become preoccupied with not falling asleep, cognitive behavioural techniques help to change negative expectations and try to build more confidence that we can have a good night's sleep. These techniques can also help to change the "blame game" of attributing every personal problem during the day on lack of sleep.
Research has shown that writing down worries, in general, can reduce stress levels and help people perform tasks more efficiently. But psychologists at Baylor University wanted to see if writing down future-focused thoughts, specifically, could help people sleep. To test their theory, they recruited 57 healthy adults, ages 18 to 30, to have their sleep patterns monitored overnight in a lab. Data from the participants’ sleep studies, including eye movement and brain-wave activity, showed that people who wrote to-do lists fell asleep nine minutes faster than those who wrote about completed tasks. Nine minutes of extra sleep may not seem like a lot, but it’s comparable to the improvement seen in clinical trials for some prescription sleep medications currently on the market. It seems clear that by giving ourselves the opportunity to dump everything we are concerned we might forget onto a piece of paper, takes the burden away and allows our minds to relax.
Lifestyle: Most people know that caffeine contributes to sleeplessness, but so can alcohol and nicotine. Alcohol initially depresses the nervous system, which helps some people fall asleep, but the effects wear off in a few hours and you wake up. Nicotine is a stimulant, which speeds heart rate and mind. I was stunned to learn that the quarter-life of caffeine is 12 hours! That means if you have a coffee at midday, a quarter of that is still in your brain at midnight. And what is the zero-life you ask? Well, worryingly it takes somewhere between 24-36 hours to completely leave your brain.
Making sleep part of our lifestyle will ultimately make the difference. Set yourself some rules and guidelines and put them in writing, having a structure to your bedtime routine will work wonders. For example, we should aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. People generally have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Unfortunately sleeping late on weekends doesn’t make up for poor sleep during the week. It sounds crazy but if necessary, set an alarm for bedtime as well as the morning.
The world’s most famous expert on the physical act that takes up one-third of our lives (sleep) is a gentleman named Matthew Walker, his book 'Why We Sleep' was a Sunday Times Bestseller in the UK, and a New York Times Bestseller took 4 years to write. Matthew works as a professor of neuroscience and psychology and the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley so he knows a thing or two. A lot of the information found above comes from this book. If you would like to learn more I can absolutely recommend that it's a great bedtime read.