Beating sleeping problems with good sleep hygiene
With winter approaching, it is important to be aware of our bodies’ mental and physical changes as we adapt to colder temperatures and shorter days. A big part of maintaining good health in winter (and, of course, also throughout the year) is sleeping well, as sleep is responsible for our memory, metabolism and – importantly – mood. It is important that everyone practises good sleep hygiene.
Sleep is vital for our mood, memory and metabolism. All three of these things rely on normal quantities of sleep and they all suffer if we sleep badly for any reason. Although everyone has a different relationship to their bedroom and bed, and needs different amounts of sleep, everyone can follow the same principles of good sleep hygiene. (This term is used when we think about your lifestyle and habits during the day that might affect your sleep, your routine before bed and what you do in the bedroom itself.) Consider the following as a toolkit with techniques you can use for better nights and therefore better days.
Caffeine: caffeine is a stimulant and makes you feel more awake, staying in your system for up to eight hours. If you have insomnia (a predisposition or natural tendency to poor or light sleep) then caffeine can and often does keep you awake in the evening. It is worth thinking about the number of cups of tea and coffee you drink but also some of the things that might have hidden caffeine – this includes painkillers, a whole variety of soft drinks, or dark chocolate.
Alcohol: alcohol certainly does make you fall asleep a little quicker but the problem comes in the second half of the night. The body breaks down alcohol very quickly and this means that it is out of your system in the second half of the night, which is when it tends to cause both vivid dreams and a lighter more broken sleep for most people.
Nicotine: nicotine is a stimulant. If you do smoke and don’t want to stop at the moment, make sure you have your last cigarette at least two hours before bedtime and avoid smoking in the night if you do wake up.
Engage in exercise
Most people don’t think of high-intensity exercise as a sleeping tablet. By high intensity, I mean exercise that really gets you out of breath and sweating. A simple indicator would be whether or not you can talk easily in full sentences whilst exercising. The time of day and type of exercise do not seem to matter as long as you avoid exercise within the last two hours of the evening. Exercising helps you to both fall asleep quicker and to have deeper and more refreshing sleep. We should all be doing about 150 minutes of exercise a week. So, if you are not doing this, have a think about where this could fit into your day.
It helps to get into bed at a fixed time, and wake up every morning to a fixed, set-time alarm.
Your bedroom should be…
Cool, dark and quiet: Completely dark is best. Streetlights, children’s night lights and many other things can make this difficult, but simple options to cut out the light include an eye mask or blackout blinds. If there is loud street noise then try to reduce this a little with some soft wax ear plugs.
A place of sleep only: if you are awake for long periods, you might start to do things in bed that are part of your waking life: watching TV, reading, knitting or sudoku. This might seem like a good idea to decrease your levels of frustration but, in fact, this is simply reinforcing a pattern of bed being a place where you spend your waking hours. The bedroom should be used for sleep only. In particular, light sources such as laptops, phones and TV should only be used outside of the bedroom. I like the German word for bedroom, schlafzimmer; it literally means ‘sleep room’. Make sure that your bedroom is a schlafzimmer and not a multipurpose room. If you do wake in the night, don’t lie in bed, wide awake, for more than a quarter of an hour. Get up. It might be the time to fold the washing or make the packed lunches, easy jobs that are not too strenuous and also not too stimulating. Head back into the bedroom only when you feel really sleepy and your eyes are struggling to stay open.
Make sure to wind down before bed by…
Putting the day away: set aside fifteen to twenty minutes in the early evening, at least two or three hours before your usual bedtime. Make sure that you do this outside of the bedroom and in your normal waking space. Simply make a short list of the day that you have just had, what you did, the things that you managed to do and anything that you didn’t do that bothered you. Write down a short ‘to do’ list of the things you know that you need to do soon. For tomorrow, think about what you have to do at work or in the house. Check your diary so that you aren’t caught off guard. If there is anything that you are not sure about, make a note in your diary or on your phone to find out what you need to know and set aside a time to do this. When you look down your list and feel in control of the day ahead, close the book and put it away.