How to get the most out of your sleep
Here we are going to cover some tips to help you sleep better.
The first thing we’ll look at today is preparing for sleep. We may not think much about how what we do 3 or 4 hours before bed may affect us, but we need to take a holistic view of our lifestyle to improve our sleep and count down backwards from our bedtime to make sure we’re preparing well for a good night’s sleep.
Throughout the day a neuro-transmitter called Adenosine is building up in your brain. The more adenosine we have in the brain, the bigger our desire to sleep. We usually get a peak of this chemical twelve to sixteen hours after being awake.
There is something that can suppress this it though – can we guess what that is?
It’s in our favourite morning drink – that’s right caffeine. Caffeine disrupts the levels of adenosine in our brain and blocks it from functioning, which in turn makes us feel more alert. This is generally fine in the mornings, but we need to be a bit more cautious of caffeine in the afternoon and evenings.
In the medical world they use the term ‘half-life’ which refers to the length of time it takes the body to remove 50% of the drug.
Caffeine has an average half-life of 5-7 hours. So if you have a coffee to beat the afternoon slump around 4pm, you could still have around half of that caffeine in your system at the time you are trying to go to bed, which is not going to help you get to sleep! We all have a different sensitivity to caffeine so it won’t affect all of us in the same way, but if you’re having trouble sleeping, I’d recommend limiting your caffeine intake after 3pm.
Remember caffeine is also in some teas, soft drinks and foods like dark chocolate.
We also want to think about alcohol consumption as this is known to disrupt our sleep.
Alcohol throws our sleep phases completely out of whack. Have you ever felt that having a nightcap will help you drift off? It might help you fall asleep initially but alcohol disrupts our REM sleep cycles in the early stages of sleep, which means we rebound later on, missing out on vital deep phases of sleep. Where possible, have your last drink at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Food and exercise
We should aim to finish eating at least two hours before we go to bed too. If we eat too close to bedtime, your body will be working extra hard to digest that food throughout the night. This means the body has to spend more energy doing this, which results in less energy for other areas of vital repair and recovery.
If you’re someone that likes exercising in the evenings, ideally we want a clear 2 hour gap between exercising and bed, particularly if it’s vigorous or intensive exercise. This tends to get adrenaline pumping round our bodies which will make us feel alert – again not great for feeling relaxed and ready for bed.
In order for our bodies to release melatonin, a natural hormone which sends signals to make us feel sleepy, we need to experience a drop in heart rate and a drop in body temperature – so generally we need to feel relaxed for this to happen.
Which brings us on to the last element here; technology. We would really recommend turning off technology an hour before bed. If you can’t manage that, try half an hour and really consider the type of content you’re consuming before bed. This goes from what you’re reading on your smartphone to what you’re watching on TV. You may not want to be binge watching the latest thriller if it’s going to get your heart rate up. And you certainly don’t want to be checking your work emails as it’s likely to get you thinking about work. If we can create better discipline around our devices, we are more likely to get a better night’s sleep.
Your wind-down routine
Creating a really solid wind-down routine is going to be really important here.
We use the metaphor of walking down a sleep staircase throughout the evening, so that when it’s approaching your bed time, you feel relaxed and sleepy. So I want you to think about, what do you currently do in the last hour before you go to bed? It’s a great idea to create some rituals before bed that will help you feel sleepy. The brain works really well with associations – so once we create an association between a particular activity and our bedtime, your brain should send out the right signals to help you feel relaxed and sleepy, each time you carry out that activity.
This can be anything from having a cup of herbal tea, to using a lavender pillow spray or an aromatherapy body cream to having a relaxing bath.
Within your wind-down routine we also want to think about lighting and temperature.
Later on in the evening, we want to reduce bright lighting to mimic the outdoor environment of it getting darker throughout the evening, as this will better prepare us for sleep. Consider investing in a lamp for your living room and bedroom so you can switch any bright overhead lights off. Do this around 2 hours before going to bed ideally.
Naturally the temperature outside also drops as it gets into the evening, so we also want to mimic that in our homes. In the winter, try to turn the heating down or off, particularly in the bedroom a couple of hours before you go to bed. Or consider leaving a window open to cool the room down. Ideally we want to sleep in a temperature of 16-18 degrees celsius.
When thinking about going to bed we don’t want to miss our sleep window.
Picture the scene: you’re watching Master Chef and start to get a bit sleepy. Your eyes start to close and before you know it you’re dozing off on the sofa. You wake up after ten minutes of dozing and realise you should go to bed. So you get up, brush your teeth, close the curtains, pack your gym bag for the morning, switch all the lights off, change into your pyjamas and then you get into bed and guess what - you’re wide awake.
We need to make sure we’re ready for bed before we start to get sleepy: curtains shut, pjs on etc. That way, as soon as we feel sleepy, we can just climb into bed and drift off into a blissful 8 hours of sleep. When we get sleepy and we start doing things, our body thinks it’s time to be alert so it pumps adrenaline around our body to keep us awake. That transition into bed is really important, so we want to make sure we’re prepared and ready for when sleep beckons.