Ever felt like you just can’t get a good night’s sleep?
You aren’t alone.
1 in 3 American and British adults and high school children do not get the sleep that they need. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called insufficient sleep a ‘public health epidemic’.
It’d be great to be able to jump into bed, close our eyes and fall asleep straight away. So why can’t we?
Put simply, sleep is way more complicated than that.
Good sleep has a lot to do with our habits and routines in the bedroom, and surprisingly, before we even get into the bedroom.
Psychologist Richard Wiseman has been through the sleep research and written an excellent book Night School: Wake Up To The Power Of Sleep.
Here’s the lowdown from sleep science on what you can do to get a good night’s sleep.
1) Get Exercising
It’s not rocket surgery. Research has shown time and again, if you want to fall asleep faster, and sleep deeper at night, do some exercise to tire yourself out during the day.
Researchers have carried out hundreds of studies examining whether people that exercise during the day sleep especially well at night.
In 2010, Matthew Buman from the Stanford University School of Medicine reviewed these experiments and concluded that certain types of exercise do indeed promote sleep…to help ensure that you maximise your chances of nodding off at night, you need to carry out at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity, or at least 1.25 hours of more vigorous exercise, each week.
So when’s the best time to exercise?
….studies also showed that working out around 6 hours before your bedtime was especially good, in part because exercise can make you all hot and sweaty, and you need time to cool down before heading to bed.
But be careful with the energy drinks and “pre-workout” energy supplements if you’re hitting the gym – they typically contain doses of caffeine that have been found to increase insomnia and nervousness in athletes.
So tiring yourself out with exercise improves sleep. Not exactly groundbreaking information. Is there anything else obvious we tend to forget?
2) Cut The Napping
We probably all know this from experience. Too much sleep in the day = not sleepy at night.
But there is still one nap supported by science:
Your circadian rhythm encourages you to take one, 20 minute, nap towards the middle of the afternoon. If you are napping for longer than that, think about cutting down.
Of course, when it comes to napping, supported by science and supported by your boss are two very different things.
Okay, you’ve increased your exercise and cut down on napping. What can you do closer to bedtime to improve your sleepiness?
3) Spend Time In The Tub
Sleep researchers have found that taking a bath at the right time of day can help you nod off.
Baths taken in the morning and afternoon had almost no effect on sleep. However, those taken in the evening, or directly before bedtime, significantly improved the quality of sleep.
4) Eat A High Carb Snack
Eating the right kinds of food can help increase sleepiness.
A small portion of carbs will help you doze off.
Research shows that you can easily increase your chances of getting a good night’s sleep by eating a small portion (under 200 calories) of food that is rich in carbohydrates. If you do feel like a late-night snack, go for a small amount of high-carb chow.
What does a 200 calorie high carb snack look like? A Big Mac combo? You wish.
- about 6 wholegrain crackers
- one slice of toast
- approx. 12 tortilla chips
- a small muffin
- a banana
- a small bowl of wholegrain cereal
While we’re talking food before bed, let’s cover drinking as well.
So what about a nightcap? Should you be using alcohol as a sleep aid? No.
While alcohol helps you nod off faster, researchers have found that alcohol disrupts sleep quality.
The take-home message here is that alcohol is not actually a particularly good sleep aid even though it may seem like it helps you get to sleep quicker. In fact, the quality of the sleep you get is significantly altered and disrupted…over long periods of time, this could have significant detrimental effects on daytime wellbeing and neurocognitive function such as learning and memory processes.
What other good habits help sleep?
5) Keep The 2 S’s Rule
Forming good habits is all about getting the right associations to trigger our behaviour. Good sleep habits are no different.
(read more about the science of habit formation)
Good habits in the bedroom means ensuring the bedroom is only used for sleeping and sex.
Many sleep scientists recommend that you only sleep and have sex in your bedroom (although, presumably, not at the same time)….consider banishing anything – such as televisions, desks, or computers – that is encouraging you to associate the room with anything other than the two Ss.
6) Embrace Darkness
Sleep scientists have found that the amount of light entering our eyes is one of the most important things influencing our body’s internal sleep clock.
The light entering our eyes stimulate the areas of the brain that produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
When these areas are stimulated they stop producing melatonin. This makes you feel alert and awake.
It’s easy to underestimate the powerful effect that light can have on your brain during the evening, with research showing that being exposed to just one hour of moderately bright light at night reduces the amount of melatonin in your brain to daytime levels.
What to do?
- Ensure you use ambient lighting in your living room, bathroom, and bedroom
- Use heavy curtains in your bedroom, or invest in eye masks
- Reconsider how you use your electronic devices before bed.
Hold on! What was that last point!?!
Yep, all those light emitting screens are harming your sleep.
Light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially effective at keeping you awake. Unfortunately, computer screens, tablets, smartphones, flat-screen television, and LED lighting all emit large amounts of blue light.
In fact, Richard Wiseman estimates that 10 minutes of smartphone use is equivalent to 1 hour in bright daylight.
Ten minutes of a smartphone in front of your nose is about the equivalent of an hour long walk in bright daylight. Imagine going for an hour long walk in bright daylight and then thinking, “Now I’ll get some sleep.” It ain’t going to happen.
In the middle of the night you wake up and think, “Aw, I’ll just check Twitter, email or Facebook,” and, of course, you’re being flooded with that blue light. You’re not going to be getting back to sleep very easily for the next hour or so.
Think you might suffer from violent withdrawal symptoms if you have to give up your device?
Here’s some tips for limiting blue light before bed:
- Turn off devices 90mins before bed, or turn down screen brightness (and keep the device at least 12 inches from your eyes)
- Use an app that dims the lighting on your screen at night (see below)
- Consider wearing a pair of amber-tinted glasses designed to block blue light (if you don’t mind being disowned by your family and friends)
- Use a nightlight with a red bulb (red light tends not to suppress melatonin production)
(The nifty app f.lux dims blue light on your macbook at night, while twilight does the same thing on android. iPhone users will have to fiddle with accessibility settings like this to dim their screens).
7) Learn To Love Lavender
What scent has been found to help people nod off? No it’s not the dutch oven one.
…psychologist Chris Alford, from the University of the West of England in Bristol, sprinkled either lavender or odourless almond oil on the bedclothes of female insomniacs, and discovered that the lavender helped improve the quality of their sleep.
In similar work, other researchers found that lavender-scented bath oils, pillows, and blankets helped improve the sleep of both infants and their mothers.
If you were hoping that tip was going to offer scientific justification for your lavender coloured pyjamas then I can only apologise……
8) Listen To Waves
It’s no surprise that noises disrupt our sleep. Some more than others.
When you sleep, your unconscious brain is still listening out for any sounds that signal danger….men and women are sensitive to different kinds of sounds when they sleep, with some research showing that women are listening out for crying babies, dripping taps, and rowdiness, while men are more attuned to car alarms, howling wind, and buzzing flies….data from more than 20,000 people….discovered that aircraft are more disruptive than cars, and that cars are worse than trains.
All this noise. What’s the solution? Mask the noise with less disruptive sound.
.…research has shown that playing the sounds of waves crashing on a beach, or ‘white noise’ (the noise you hear when you have a radio tuned between stations), helps cover up these disturbances and aids sleep.
Righto. You’ve upped your exercising, cut your napping, made friends with rubber ducky, chowed down, kept the 2 S’s, turned off the devices, you reek of lavender, and your room sounds like the North Atlantic. But you still can’t sleep. What now?
9) Find Your Optimal Bedtime
Sometimes we can’t fall asleep because we aren’t tired when we go to bed.
Ideally, we would fall asleep the moment we put our heads on the pillow. Is it possible?
‘Restrictive sleeping’ is an effective technique to find this holy grail of sleep.
Here’s a step-by-step summary of the restrictive sleeping routine suggested in Night School: Wake Up To The Power Of Sleep:
- Go to bed six hours before you want to wake up for 5 days (no naps during the day)
- Track your time in bed and time asleep for the 5 days (this app can help)
- Work out your sleep efficiency for the last 5 days (average time asleep / average time in bed)
- If your sleep efficiency is greater than 0.9 go to bed 15 minutes earlier for next 5 days
- If your sleep efficiency is less than 0.9 go to bed 15 minutes later for the next 5 days
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you are getting 7-9 hours sleep each night with sleep efficiency of 0.9
So there are 9 tips from science to get you on track for zzz’s.
If the above tips (and the drowsiness that reading this blog tends to induce) are still not getting you to sleep, consider seeing a clinical psychologist specialising in cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT). Why?
Because a single 1-hour CBT session has been shown to have a 73% success rate in curing acute insomnia, and within 3 months.
Sweet dreams! (and here’s more sleep tips from Richard Wiseman’s youtube channel)
Image sources: wikimedia commons