If you’re struggling for shut-eye – or just want to drop off quicker and stay down longer – these tips will usher you into the land of nod quicker than counting sheep
By Ed Cooper
Turn off your phone at night! Go to bed earlier! Read a book! Spray lavender on your pillow! Buy a new mattress!
We’re assuming that, by now, you’re aware of these well-worn tips and tricks for sleeping better. Especially if you’re the kind of person who spends the small hours propped up in bed, googling ways to not be awake, propped up in bed, in the small hours (*raises hand, stifles yawn*).
Improving your quality of sleep – and achieving better sleep hygiene – first involves filtering through by reams of advice that is either obvious, or unrealistic. Often, it’s both. But it matters, to more of us than you may think. According to the Sleep Foundation, 10-30 per cent of adults suffer from chronic insomnia, which involves having difficulty dropping off and maintaining a deep sleep, with frequent awakenings during the night. More than a third of US adults get less than seven hours a night, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Sound familiar?
Well, not to keep you up at night, but sleep matters. Like, it really matters. How well you sleep is directly related to your mental health, your physical health, your productivity and your quality of life. Fixing your relationship with shut-eye is one of the most effective ways to make yourself happier, healthier and, frankly, more pleasant to be around.
But how can you make changes to your sleep routine that actually stick? That will make your pillow more tempting than Netflix’s autoplay? To help, we tapped sleep expert Dr Deborah Lee, who works with Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, for six tips that will make getting a good night’s sleep so simple, you could do it with your eyes closed.
Not to get all technical, but humans are designed to sleep when it’s dark and be awake when it’s light. This 24-hour cycle is known as your circadian rhythm, and you share it with everything from animals to plants to fungi. Try to fight it and you’re battling against millions of years of evolutionary pressure. In the long run, evolution is going to win.
“The importance of your circadian rhythms is often not fully appreciated,” explains Dr Lee. Her first tip for better sleep is really feel the rhythm and work with it, not against it. “You need to get up early in the morning and flood your bedroom with natural light. Go for a walk as soon as you can, without sunglasses, so your retina is flooded with light. Your body needs to know the difference between being asleep and being awake.”
When you want the opposite effect, flip it. “In the evening, close the curtains and blinds, and dim the rooms,” says Dr Lee. A darker environment will cue your body to release the sleep hormone melatonin, which sparks feelings of drowsiness (if you’re yawning before the news comes on, you’re doing it right). When you do turn in, blackout blinds or a dark eye mask will shut out any sleep-disturbing ambient light, helping you stay down once you do drop off.
Bear with us on this one, as it’s not as complicated as it sounds. By making a few minor tweaks to your bedroom set-up, you can make easy leaps towards having a more restful night. “Sleep with the window open even in the winter, as your body temperature goes down as you drift off to sleep,” says Dr Lee.
Alternatively, embrace your inner infant with a doze-inducing soundtrack. “Some people sleep better with pink noise, which is a background noise that provides a type of buzz or hum such as crashing waves, or the sounds of nature.”
If you’re struggling to nod off, let a little bit of breathwork be your ally. “Use your diaphragm for breathing. Breathe in through your nose, and suck in your abdominal muscles to fill your lungs,” says Dr Lee. “In 4-7-8 breathing, try to breathe in deeply as described above for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then breathe out for a count of 8. Keep repeating this, concentrating on your breathing.”
This technique will activate your vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for feelings of rest, relaxation and calm. Your vagus nerve also can help to improve certain health issues, such as feelings of anxiety. With 20 minutes of mindful breathing being shown to improve the quality of sleep, it’s a no-brainer.
In everyday life, keeping a journal — whether it’s for your mind, your social relationships or just for yourself — is quite commonplace. A sleep journal, however, could be a lesser-known catalyst to achieving a restful night.
“Writing a nightly journal before bed has been shown to reduce stress and help sleep,” says Dr Lee. Ideally, your sleep journal should include the time you went to bed, how many times you woke during the night and the time you woke up in the morning, alongside any naps you may have taken in the day.
If you’re a fan of hitting the weights room after work, or slot in a HIIT class after dinner, take this for a spin: an Appalachian State University study suggests that those who train in the morning enjoy more restful slumber compared to those who work up a sweat once the sun has set. Similarly, the study found that early morning exercise can enhance nocturnal blood pressure changes. Double the benefits by training outside at dawn to sync your workouts with your circadian rhythm.
If you’ve tried all that and you’re still staring at the ceiling, try a long stroll without leaving your bed house. “Imagine a scene in your head, such as your favourite walk,” Dr Lee suggests. “Retrace your journey from putting on your coat and leaving the house, step by step, remembering the things you pass, the gates you open and close, the trees and plants, the people you meet and so on. In 10-15 minutes, you are likely to be asleep.”
It’s theorised that practising guided imagery helps your brain divert focus away from other thoughts and sensations in your body, alleviating any anxious thoughts or concerns and relaxing your body for sleep.
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