We talked about sleep as one of the Five Domains to help you lead a happier life in our previous blog here. But as it is such an important and often under-rated part of our physical and mental wellbeing, we thought it worth going into some more detail.
The importance of sleep
A good night’s sleep helps improve our physical and mental health. It is essential for our bodies to have time to rest and restore. Although there is still some mystery surrounding the processes that occur during sleep and the reason we need so much time asleep (7-9 hours a night is recommended for adults), there is a consensus that sleep is essential for brain function and restoring the body.
Restorative sleep, where your body goes through all stages of the sleep cycle, allows your brain to heal and restore itself and to form and strengthen necessary neural pathways in the brain. This is necessary for memory retention and cognition. It is also thought that sleep is essential for the restoration of our muscles and tissue, immune system and hormones.
How to improve your sleep
The below sleep hygiene tips will help you to reform your sleep so you can feel revitalised and at your best each day.
1. Reduce light before bed
Reduce light around your home and screentime at least one hour before bed, as this light reduces the production of melatonin which induces sleep. Light from screens, including TV, computers and your smartphone can block melatonin production in your body because the light emitted makes your brain think it is still daytime.
Creating a screen-free space in the bedroom can be a good tactic. The added benefit of not using your phone around bedtime is that checking emails, messages and social media can make it hard for your brain to switch off. This kind of smartphone usage at night has been linked to reduction of performance at work or school the next day because it can stimulate mental engagement when your body is trying to wind down for sleep. You need to be able to make the most of your rest time so you can perform your best during the day!
2. Increase your exposure to natural light during the day
Doing this helps to calibrate the body’s circadian rhythms and regulate melatonin production in the body. When your body is exposed to sunlight during the day, it blocks the production of sleep-inducing melatonin and signals to your body that it is time to be awake.
Exposing your body to the sun in the morning – or sleeping with your bedroom blind open so you can wake naturally to the light – will help kickstart your day and also help you sleep better at night.
3. Don’t consume caffeine late in the day
Caffeine is a well-known disruptor to sleep as it inhibits the production of sleep-inducing chemicals and can interfere with the body’s natural rhythms, especially when consumed close to bedtime. Research varies, but suggests not intaking any caffeinated drinks 3 to 7 hours before bed or after lunchtime, can improve sleep.
Even if you don’t feel that you have trouble sleeping, but wake up in the morning feeling drowsy, this could be due to the effects of caffeine making you have disturbed sleep.
4. Try to sleep and wake up at the same time each day
Creating consistency in your sleep patterns will help to regulate your circadian rhythm and improve the quality of your sleep.
This might be easier said than done with a busy and varied lifestyle, if you do shift work or are a new parent, but if you try to get to sleep at the same time each night, it will be easier to fall asleep and have a restful undisturbed sleep and get a good amount of sleep before it’s time to wake up. If you try to do this as much as is possible for you, you will find you get a better sleep.
5. Reduce alcohol consumption
Although alcohol can increase drowsiness and is often used as an aid for sleep, it can actually reduce the quality of sleep you get. Alcohol can interfere with the sleep-inducing chemicals, meaning although you may feel drowsy, you will often wake up a few hours later due to this disruption.
Alcohol can also cause your body to relax too much, which may result in snoring and sleep apnea, and as it is a diuretic, it can cause you to need to get up during the night to use the toilet.
While one or two drinks on occasion will not impact sleep too much for a healthy person, using alcohol excessively or regularly to aid in sleep will most likely have negative effects in the long run.
A word on sleep tracking apps and tech
Apps, wearable tech and nearables (you don’t wear them but they sit on your nightstand or under your mattress) are growing in popularity for tracking sleep. They use technology such as movement tracking, sound detection and even sonar to track your sleep patterns and provide you with data and advice on what you can do to improve it. Wirecutter’s review of four sleep-tracking apps: Pillow, Sleep as Android, SleepScore and Sleep Cycle, is worth a read if you are interested in going down this route.
But we have a word of caution. Recent research suggests that sleep apps can trigger what’s been termed Orthosomnia, an unhealthy obsession with achieving perfect sleep. And they can also be a cause for insomnia. Questions have also been raised about the accuracy of the data captured by the technology.
Our take is this: if the technology helps you understand your sleep patterns or improves your quality of your sleep without adding anxiety, then it might be worth considering. But if you are the kind of person to obsess over perfectionism, then it might be best to steer clear.
Our final note is that although the above tips are a good guide if you struggle with sleep or feel tired throughout the day, it is important not to get too hung up on these. At the end of the day you have to do what is best for you and works within your lifestyle, so aiming for perfection is also not the way to go.
If you are doing all the above and still feeling tired, or have concerns, please consult with a doctor.
Check out our deep-dive into sleep and all the other useful workshops in our upcoming retreats.