A good night’s sleep. It sounds so delightfully simple, but as sleep sufferers know, it can be anything but.
Most of us need between seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night. Sleep less than that, and our productivity declines, our behaviour becomes more impulsive and we’re less able to regulate our emotional responses.
Too short a slumber can also negatively impact our blood pressure, cardiovascular systems and respiratory functions, according to Matthew Walker, professor of neurology at University College London (UCL).
And it can alter how our bodies process food. According to a 2017 study of UK adults, longer sleep is associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) and better metabolism.
With most of us now confined to our homes, there’s never been a better time to reset our body clocks and get structure back into our lives, said Colin Espie, professor of sleep medicine at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford.
Here are some useful tips for getting started.
CREATE A DAILY ROUTINE
Decide what time to set your alarm each morning and set a fixed bedtime seven to eight hours in advance. Don’t expect to fall into a rest state right away – give yourself an hour in bed to relax. As for weekends, it’s fine to stay up later and wake up later, but stick to a sleep window of seven to eight hours, no more or less. “Creating structure is a healthy and hopeful thing to do; it gives one a sense of being in control,” said Dr Espie.
EXERCISE EARLY IN THE DAY
Thirty minutes of daily exercise is important for cardiovascular health, said UCL’s Dr Walker, but don’t exercise within three hours of going to bed: “Working out prior to bed can mean endorphins and adrenaline levels are higher, making it difficult to switch off.”
As for weekends, it’s fine to stay up later and wake up later, but stick to a sleep window of seven to eight hours, no more or less.
WORK NEAR A WINDOW
“Expose yourself to as much daylight as possible throughout the day,” advised Guy Leschziner, consultant neurologist at the sleep disorder centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London. “Environmental light, even if it is overcast, is beneficial for us to recognise that it is daytime, which makes it easier for us to associate night with sleep and to regain our circadian rhythm.” If you can’t work near a window, take a break and go for an afternoon stroll outside.
CREATE A COMFORTABLE SLEEP ENVIRONMENT
Those of us living in full households may have recently converted our bedrooms into offices. While working from bed may be tempting, avoid it if you can, said Leschziner: “Sit in a different chair, make sure the room is as bright as possible. It’s about creating environmental associations with sleep.”
When it comes to optimising your room for sleep, blackout curtains, a soft sleep mask and clean, breathable sheets can go a long way towards a good night’s rest.
DON’T RELY ON APPS
While some sleep specialists are fans of sleep-tracking apps, Leschziner does not recommend them to patients. “It’s more important to be guided by how you feel,” he said. “Some of the apps are wildly inaccurate and can increase your anxiety about sleep.”
CALM YOUR BRAIN
Before bed, relax your mind by reading, listening to soothing music or meditating. Blue light from our mobile phones and laptops can keep us awake, so switch your devices off and consider charging them in a separate room overnight. If you’re feeling anxious, Dr Espie suggested discussing your feelings with others, and asking yourself: “Am I okay? What can I do?” This will lower your brain’s stress level: “As social animals, this can be done by communication and talking to other people; it puts it in perspective and helps us relax.”
AVOID CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL
Having no alcohol is best. “Even the smallest amount of alcohol can disrupt your sleeping pattern,” said Dr Walker. “Too much alcohol will lead to a more broken sleep due to the sugars breaking down very quickly. You won’t hit a deep sleep, which is where you get all the restorative benefits.”
Avoid caffeine after lunch as well – try a herbal tea instead.
KEEP YOUR EYES CLOSED
“Almost all people wake up four hours after bed but then fall back instantly,” said Dr Walker. “But if you do get driven awake with anxiety, do not look at the clock, and rest with your eyes shut.”
“Even if you do not feel it, you are resting and going in and out of sleep,” he adds. “You might not have deep sleep but you can have light sleep and that will be adequate.”
By Flora Macdonald Johnston © 2020 The Financial Times