Dreaming of a good night’s sleep? These simple steps from Gemma McCaw can boost your bedtime so you wake up feeling refreshed.
We all know how much better we feel after a good night’s sleep, but for some reason most of us are failing to prioritise our need for sleep as highly as we should. A global study showed that two thirds of people in developed nations do not get the recommended eight hours a night, which has a profound impact on health and wellbeing. In fact, studies show that those who routinely sleep for less than six or seven hours a night have weaker metabolic function and compromised immune systems.
A lack of sleep affects almost every part of our lives – health, happiness, productivity, relationships and even the way we parent. Interestingly, we are the only species that deliberately deprive ourselves of sleep, which is concerning considering it’s a vital ingredient for a healthy and happy life.
We need to be clear: sleeping is not lazy, so we must remove the stigma associated with prioritising sleep and claim back our health. By routinely getting eight hours of sleep, you’ll feel energised, refreshed and able to cope with whatever life throws at you. As sleep scientist Matthew Walker says, the elastic band of sleep deprivation can stretch only so far before it snaps.
By routinely getting eight hours of sleep, you’ll feel energised, refreshed and able to cope with whatever life throws at you
So, how can we get more sleep?
Let the light in
Viewing morning and evening sunlight anchors our nervous system and tells us when to rest and when to be active. Our internal body clock – or circadian rhythm – was designed to help our brain regulate our sleep cycles, so being exposed to light changes in our environment over a 24-hour period is essential.
When you wake up in the morning, rather than picking up your phone and exposing yourself to artificial light, pull back the curtains and immerse yourself in the natural light for at least two minutes. The same applies for the evening, as exposure to the changing light at night signals to the body that it’s time to release the hormone melatonin, which is essential for sleep. Instead of drawing the curtains and watching TV after dinner, spend some time outside, taking in the dusk before heading in for bed. You’ll find you drift off faster and enjoy a deeper, more restful sleep.
This encompasses habits that help you have a good night of sleep, and they start from the moment you wake up. Small things you do during your day can impact your ability to sleep. With this in mind, understanding how essential it is to move our bodies during the day and being mindful of stimulants and sedatives, like caffeine and alcohol (as well as avoiding big meals before bed) can have a big impact on sleep quality.
Creating a night-time routine can be helpful – think about a warm shower or
a relaxing soak in the bath, and most importantly, avoid screens for at least an hour before bed.
Keep a schedule
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to bank sleep or catch up on the weekend like laundry or housework. The key is to do your best at sticking to a sleep schedule, going to bed at roughly the same time each night and waking at the same time each morning. If you’re a shift worker, identify a suitable sleep schedule for you. It may be that, coming off a night shift, you have a sleep when you arrive home but go to bed earlier that following night, or have a short nap before your shift to improve alertness. Think about factors that help you sleep, like exercising, (high intensity exercise right before bed isn’t recommended) to help relax, or reading a few chapters of a good book before turning off the light.
Curb your caffeine
We often turn to caffeine or stimulants like energy drinks for a pick-me-up, but these can seriously affect our ability to sleep well at night. For an average adult, caffeine remains in the body for at least five to six hours, meaning that if you have a coffee at 8am, half the dose is still in your system at 2pm. So, if you enjoy an afternoon coffee, think about how it may be affecting your sleep. Instead, opt for decaf, herbal tea or a glass of water.
I often hear people say that a glass of wine or two helps them wind down at night – unfortunately, it can also mean the exact opposite. Alcohol is a depressant, so it may feel relaxing, but our body rapidly metabolises it, causing rebound alertness several hours later. This often strikes in the second half of the night (think lying wide awake at 2 or 3am) which is the crucial time when we need our rapid eye movement (REM) or deep sleep. Lack of REM sleep leaves us feeling sluggish and drowsy the next day. Remember, alcohol does not serve your sleep, so try a different bedtime wind down. Replace that glass of pinot with a relaxing tea and you’ll thank yourself for it the next day!
The most common disruptor of sleep is without a doubt, devices. The artificial light from phones and tablets interferes with our natural sleep rhythms – not to mention the potential stress of dealing with work emails just before bed. Your bedroom should be a sanctuary for sleep, so do all you can to make it so. A cool, dark environment helps set the scene for good sleep, and try putting in place a rule that gadgets stay elsewhere in the house. Invest in an old-fashioned alarm clock and there’ll be no excuses for screens in the bedroom.
Exercise is crucial for sleep, but it’s important not to over do it before bedtime. High intensity workouts can elevate your heart rate and stimulate your nervous system, so think about scheduling it earlier in your day, rather than leaving it until just before bed. Instead, try a stroll around the block or a restorative yoga session for evening activity.