How to improve your sleep

I woke up this morning, having had yet another night of poor sleep for no obvious reason. I used to sleep so beautifully, slipping into a smooth, deep unconsciousness the second my head hit the pillow and waking up 8 hours later, wide awake and ready to go, undisturbed by the dreams and nightmares reported by other people. Those days have long gone. Seven hours is a maximum, and I rarely get through the night without waking up at least once, sometimes twice. Whether I’m boiling hot and throwing off the bedclothes, desperate for the bathroom, or find that my mind is in overdrive, it is equally frustrating. It's been my aim now for a while to Reboot my sleep and make a concerted effort to follow evidence based advice on the subject.

Why does sleep matter?

I'm determined to prioritise sleep because it matters. People who don't get enough solid sleep over a long period of time are increasing their risk of chronic disease, from diabetes to cancer and depression. Too little sleep also correlates with weight gain and a shortened life-span. Apart from anything else, lack of sleep on a daily basis makes you less able to function. Sleeplessness leaves you bad tempered and incapable of clear thought - as well as negatively affecting your personal and working relationships.

If you're feeling constantly exhausted, it's certainly worth taking a thorough look at your sleep habits before you spend a fortune on complementary therapies. If you care about your wellbeing, your sleep deserves some attention.

Nature's way to repair and rebalance

Everyone is different, so experiment to find out what works for you because some things simply won't. No-one really knows all the reasons why we go to sleep, or precisely what happens when we are sleeping. We do know that the body uses the time off from moving, eating, digesting and thinking, to repair and rebalance all its systems. The increasing stresses of everyday living, however, mean that more people than ever are struggling to have a good night’s rest. And if our bodies don’t get the repair time they need, we struggle to cope. It’s OK in the short term, but long term sleep deprivation is often a precursor to the emergence of more serious health issues. Poor sleep means your body rarely gets into the deep REM stage that is the final part of the sleep cycle that enables it to repair where it needs to, and healthy functioning begins to falter.

Poor sleep: precursor to illness

I noticed at The Haven that poor sleep was the problem that all the visitors flagged as the most debilitating. Sleep disturbance had often been happening for a long time before their cancer was diagnosed. Once they were in treatment, the side effects of their treatment and the drugs they were prescribed meant that many people then found their sleep problems got even worse. The dread of going to sleep and knowing you would be awake for most of the night was often the most stressful part of their daily existence. Worse, some said, than the cancer itself. The more they expected not to sleep, the more they didn't. This is a horrible vicious circle, as if you can’t sleep, you can’t function, so life becomes hard to bear.

Body clock: circadian rhythms

There are two main sorts of problem - not being able to get to sleep in the first place, and then waking up multiple times in the second. Getting your ‘Body Clock’ - that 24 hour cycle that regulates your sleep pattern - sorted is an essential part of getting well and will help ensure that you feel tired enough and relaxed at the right ‘bedtime’ for you.

Your ability to sleep depends on how well your circadian rhythms are working – the 24 hour body clock that makes you wake up in the morning and feel sleepy as night approaches. The clock is activated by the light you see with your eyes – that is the signal that it’s time to get up or go to bed. Light is the most powerful regulator of your body clock. Bright light stimulates the pineal gland in the brain, creating serotonin, which keeps you happy and wakeful. Darkness on the other hand triggers melatonin, which makes you sleepy.


4 ways to reboot your sleep

The number one rule of thumb is to make sure you consistently do the same thing at bed-time and start with these initial basic steps:

1. Set up your bedroom

Make it a place for sleeping, so that when you go to bed, your body and mind know that that is it's only purpose. Try not to work there and remove all electric clocks that sit next to your bed. Electro-magnetic frequencies from computers, lap-tops and phones can stimulate rather than calm. The bright lights of screens glowing late into the night wake your brain up rather than let it wind down and get your mind stirred up.

Sunlight at the ‘wrong’ time affects the body clock so make sure the room is properly dark at night. Put in blackout blinds if you need to. Check the room temperature - cool is best (ideally between 16-18 degrees C) because your body releases melatonin at lower temperatures. Like a bear that hibernates when the cold of winter approaches, your body needs cool to sleep. Too hot and it can’t rest, so open the windows or turn the radiators down.

If you are disturbed by traffic or neighbours at night, have a fan whirring in the background to create an even 'white' noise that cuts out that background disturbance. Is your mattress comfortable? Even something as seemingly minor as a lumpy pillow can repeatedly disturb your rest.

2 Don’t drink late at night

Alcohol, fizzy drinks and caffeine are stimulants and stay in your system for hours after drinking. They also cause dehydration, causing you to wake up in the night with a dry mouth and headache. Try not to drink coffee after 3pm in the afternoon and stop the alcohol in the evenings, particularly red wine, which sends you straight to sleep, but leaves you wide awake two or three hours later. Cut them both out for a few days and see if that makes a difference to your sleep patterns.

Try not to drink water too late in the evening, in case it wakes you in the night. If part of your inability to rest is down to getting up repeatedly in the night to go to the bathroom, try taking an aspirin before you turn in. For whatever reason, it seems to stop that particular problem, as well as dropping your core temperature, which also makes you sleepy.

3 Create some pre-sleep rituals

Do the same thing every night before bed. It works in exactly the same way as it does for a baby.  You are signalling to your brain that it’s night time by following the same routine at the same time each evening. Have a warm bath with sleep inducing lavender oils, listen to the same music, lie in bed and do a relaxation exercise. Hot baths help because your body has to drop its core temperature to get rid of the excess heat from the water, and that makes you drowsy. Watching a violent movie and then expecting your mind to chill is not going to work, nor is reading a gripping book moments before you turn the lights out. Use your common sense.

Worst of all late night habits is reading your kindle at bedtime or checking your emails last thing. Either of these can stimulate your mind and throw off your sleep patterns. If you absolutely have to, BluBlockers are sunglasses available on the internet that take the blue light out of the spectrum so that you can read in the evening and still manage to drift off.

4 Keep a sleep diary

How many hours restful shut-eye do you manage a night? Do you wake up nearly as tired as when you went to bed? The officially quoted amount of hours needed for sleep each night is 7, but everyone is different and it’s more about the quality of sleep you manage nightly than the amount. Keep a note of how you are sleeping a couple of nights a week over the period of a month and log how you have improved - or not. With sleep and sleep disorders, perception is often way off reality, so keeping a diary can help you develop a more evidence-based view of your habits.

How to write a sleep diary

Write down how long it took you to get to sleep, how many hours you managed in total and how many times you woke up in the night. Was it easy to drop back off again? Did you wake up by yourself, or had to be woken by an alarm? How did you feel when you woke up? Give your subconscious mind a structure to work with (it likes that!) and go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Always go to bed before 11pm because after that your adrenals get a second wind and you will find it much harder to drift off to sleep...

If you don’t take action and change your bedroom environment and your late night habits, your sleep patterns will undoubtedly stay the same. Make even a couple of these suggestions and you should notice a change. In next week’s blog I will look at the effects of the mind on your sleep patterns. Body and mind, as we know, are closely intertwined

More from our series on sleep: