Back to sleep school
Sixteen million people in the UK struggle to sleep. Where are we going wrong?
A RECENT STUDY of 13 countries highlighted that the UK is the ‘most exhausted’ country of all*, beating America, Canada and Ireland with 37% of us feeling we don’t get enough sleep.
‘Sleep is the foundation of good physical, emotional and mental health,’ says Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert and author of How To Sleep Well (£10.99, Capstone). Bad sleep can quickly translate into: unproductive days filled with clumsy mistakes, poor food choices (carbs on carbs, please) and a sense of misery you just don’t get if you wake up on the right side of the bed.
Furthermore, the brain does its housekeeping at night, such as flushing out the day’s accumulated toxins, including a protein called beta amyloid, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s. So, if sleeplessness becomes chronic, we have worse things to worry about than spilling our morning tea; scarily, we’re more likely to suffer from heart disease, depression, obesity, strokes and ‘three times more likely to catch a cold’, says Dr Neil.
So, how do you know if you’re getting enough? ‘Around 80% of us need 7-8 hours a night,’ says Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of The Sleep School. ‘But there are some people who need as little as four hours or as much as 12 to function at their best.’ Put simply, you need enough to make you feel awake, alert and focused during the day.
WE NEED TO WIND DOWN TO SIGNAL SLEEP IS ON THE WAY
Our inability to relax is inhibiting our slumber. ‘ We need to wind down earlier to signal to the brain that sleep is on its way,’ says Dr Meadows. Two hours before bed, he recommends instigating the wind-down routine, during which we should create a chill zone, doing things like watching TV, listening to music or reading a book. ‘Our bodies have evolved to get used to falling asleep as the sun falls, so try to mimic a cave-like retreat,’ he recommends. ‘For example, switch overhead lights to side lamps.’
Then there’s the 30-40 minutes pre-sleep, at which point you should be amping up relaxation. ‘Switch off all electronic devices and do boring, nonstimulating things, like getting ready for the next day,’ he advises, recommending anything calm and quiet. The key is to make this an every-evening ritual, without doing it obsessively, to signpost the body toward sleep. Consistency is also key for bed and wake-up time; the more erratic your sleeping pattern, the groggier and more jet-lagged you’ll feel. And no, sleeping in at weekends won’t make up for poor sleep during the week. SLEEPING CLEAN Believe it or not, there is such a thing as sleep ‘hygiene’ and it doesn’t refer just to fresh sheets and a clean face come bedtime. Rather, the National Sleep Foundation define it as ‘the practices and habits necessary to have a good night-time sleep’.
One of the fundamentals of hygienic sleep is being clean from screens and the blue light they emit; yep, that means forgoing the Insta-stalking and pre-sleep Friends episodes for paper books and a dim light. ‘ We have light sensitive cells in our eyes that constantly detect how much blue light there is in our environment,’ says Dr Meadows. ‘ When there is blue light (also sunlight), your internal body clock will think it’s still daytime and subsequently that you need to be awake.’ Looking at your phone just before bed is comparable to looking at a ‘mini sun’, he says, because it confuses the brain into releasing the awakening hormone cortisol, and delays and reduces the production of melatonin; thus, not only will it take you longer to get to sleep, but the quality of your sleep will be reduced.
Keeping that phone quarantined and away from the bed might seem difficult, what with the old alarm clock excuse, but you can save your protests because nowadays there are excellent alarm clocks that take sunrise into their own hands. The Lumie Bodyclock Glow 150, £90, uses LED technology to reproduce a sunrise over 20, 30 or 45 minutes, to mimic a more natural wake-up, and it also helps lull you to sleep with a fading sunset light and calming sounds, like waves crashing. EASE YOUR MIND ‘ The most important thing you need for good sleep is a quiet mind,’ says Dr Stanley, so even if you’re physically exhausted, sleep doesn’t always come easily. For those with extreme anxiety or worries, meditation and tapping into the breath can be a good idea. One of the best apps out there is Breathe, which visually guides you through a series of deep breaths and can be used on all phones (and Apple Watch for breathing help on the go). Relax Melodies is another app offering sleep sounds for those who like to take it down a notch ( perfect for that half hour before bed) and Three Minute Mindfulness delivers quick mindfulness sessions to alleviate stress.
Another trick is to try a hot bath before
bed; it can help lull the body into a sense of sleep and deep relaxation because when you get out, the body cools down quickly, signalling to the brain that it’s time to sleep. Add a scoop of magnesium salts to relax muscles and induce a sense of calm.
Peaceful surroundings are key, too; that means a bedroom designed to be conducive to sleep – dark, quiet, cool, well-ventilated, tidy and comfortable. Cool bodies sleep best, so keep your bedroom temperature at 16-18°C and ensure there’s good air flow, especially during long hot nights. Dyson’s Pure Cool Fan, £499.99, not only delivers a brilliant breezy flow to each room, but purifies the air, making it perfect for city dwellers.
What you sleep in is just as important: ‘Every time we change our bed linen, we have a great night’s sleep,’ says sport sleep coach Nick Littlehales. ‘ When I was working with cyclists on the Tour de France, we ensured they had fresh linen every night so they woke up fully recovered each morning.’ Make like the pros and change your sheets at least once a week (time permitting) – clean sheets smell better, feel better and are cooler. He also recommends using a pillow that isn’t too fat nor too flat that also supports the natural curve of the neck. Pillows from Casper, £60, contain silky fibres that increase airflow as well as supporting.
You should also wear nightwear that takes heat and sweat away from the body, preferably in cotton or linen; Sleeper’s super comfortable pyjamas, £144, are 100% cotton and look as good as they feel.
WORK OUT TO NOD OFF
‘Exercise boosts our metabolism, a byproduct of which is a sleepy brain chemical called adenosine,’ says Dr Meadows; hence it increases our sleep drive. While one-off spurts of exercise will help, it’s actually a regular routine that’s beneficial for sleep, thanks to its stress-reducing effects.
One stipulation: we need to exercise at the right time. For most of us, that’s between 4-6pm when we’re biologically at our warmest and our muscles are loose, and a few hours before bed. ‘If you’re going to do it closer to bedtime, make it calming, like a slow yoga practice,’ says Meadows. We love Heartcore’s Restorative Yoga by Candlelight, which combines slow flow yoga movements with breath work; or try online yoga class portal Movement for Modern Life’s Ready for Bed classes.
And if you still can’t get to sleep? ‘Contrary to what most people think, you should stay in bed,’ says Dr Meadows. ‘ You get incredible benefits from just resting.’ He then suggests behaving in a way that will move you closer to sleep – not checking your phone, drinking tea or working. Activities like these create an expectation in the brain for next time it happens – cue vicious insomnia cycle. ‘ Try and welcome wakefulness,’ says Meadows, who extols the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in his Insomnia Course at The Sleep School. Lie there, be still and benefit from the rest, using mindfulness to help still a racing mind. ‘Focus on an anchor to the present, whether that’s the feel of the sheets on your toes or the movement of breath.’
THE POWER OF THE NAP
We don’t have to take all of our ZZZS at night. ‘ The important thing is actually the amount of sleep you get within each 24 hours, not just during the night phase,’ says Professor Gaby Badre, a sleep advisor for This Works. ‘One continuous 4-5 hour stretch is fine and then you can complete your sleep needs with shorter bouts of rest through the day.’
This is where the power nap comes in. Twenty minutes can increase alertness and concentration and reduce stress, which is why many sports people use a catnap to make the most of their precious recovery time. ‘It’s much better for you than two cups of coffee,’ says Dr Neil, and you can get similar benefits from taking just 20 minutes not even to sleep, just to rest the body. This Works new Sleep Power Nap Spray, £28, encourages a restorative nap thanks to lavender and camomile in the formula. Who said snoozing was for losers?