OPERATION SLEEP HYGIENE // Top Tips for Better Sleep

Beds for sleepy heads - Sleep Hygiene

Whether it's that restless tossing and turning late into the night and then beyond; that unexpected awakening long before dawn; or those all-too-vivid dreams that leave you shaken and disturbed; I'm sure we've all faced our own battles from time to time when it comes to getting a good night's sleep. 

Sleep is one of the miracles of our design. As important for our existence as breathing, eating or drinking, sleep is the time when our bodies grow and repair themselves and our brains process information and wire our memory hard-drive. Good sleep is associated with a strengthened immune system, higher pain threshold, faster reaction times, better mood, improved libido, less inflammation and lower blood pressure. 

By contrast, poor sleep can have serious negative consequences on our physical and mental health. Most people have experienced the irritability, hunger*, poor concentration and lack of energy that follows a night or two of disrupted sleep, but longer-term problems can have an even more profound effect. Sleep deprivation has been linked to heart disease, type-2 diabetes, anxiety, depression, difficulty conceiving, obesity, and an increased likelihood of involvement in fatal accidents. Eek!! 

(*I always thought that was just me, but apparently poor sleep can result in lower levels of leptins, which make you feel full, and higher levels of ghrelin, which stimulates hunger!)

Despite taking two night-time medications known to have sedating side-effects, my own sleep has been pretty rubbish recently - lying wide awake for lengthy periods of the night, yet struggling to rouse myself through the chemical fog when morning comes - and I know too well the knock-on effect this can have on my mood and health.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways in which we can help ourselves to achieve a better night's sleep!

Known collectively as 'Sleep Hygiene' (which has nothing to do with the cleanliness of your sheets, by the way!), there are lots of little changes we can make to our lifestyles, our environments and our bedtime routines which are proven to promote better sleep. None of them are miracle workers or quick fix solutions, but committing to just one or two of these practices - and persevering with them! - can have a significant impact over time.

I've been in that place where it seems a bit pointless to try: where sleep is just one part of a bigger problem parcel and it feels like nothing will ever change. But a course I've taken part in recently has really reminded me of the fact that we all have choices to make - each and every day - and that even the tiniest step forward is an improvement on being stuck in the same place.

Lumie Bodyclock sunrise alarm clock

With that in mind, here are some sleep hygiene techniques I've found useful in the past and am committing to putting back in place: 

Exercise is generally the last thing I feel like doing when I'm already exhausted from a lack of sleep, yet I know that I tend to sleep more readily when my body feels like it's had a good workout. Logically, it makes sense that expending more energy throughout the day would lead to a greater level of sleepiness at night, but exercise also engages a warming-up and cooling-down of the body that is thought to promote sleep, as well as stimulating chemical processes which help to boost mood and reduce anxiety, leading to a greater sense of peace come night-time.
I'm working on getting myself out running regularly again, but studies have shown that just a brisk walk during the day can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and improve sleep's length and quality. Just be aware of the time at which you work out: the last thing you need is a body high on endorphins from exercising too close to bedtime!

A Winding-Down Routine
We're creatures of habit, we humans, and so having a regular pre-bed routine can help signal to our bodies that it's time for sleep. For some people that might mean having a relaxing bath and a cup of chamomile tea. For me, it's as simple as taking my medication half an hour before bed, drinking a mug of hot chocolate, changing into my pyjamas and brushing my teeth. I'm also trying my best to avoid wild variations in the time I go to bed, establishing a pattern between 10 and 11pm.  

A Screen Ban
I confess, I am so guilty of letting myself be caught in the technology trap. My phone is probably the first thing I reach for in the morning and the last thing I look at at night, and recently I've developed the habit of endless Netflix streaming from bed.
Unsurprisingly, that lively media content and brightly glowing screen doesn't make a very good aid for sleep! So it is that I'm putting a ban on bedtime screens. I'll set the alarm on my phone before I get into bed and put it down until morning.  

Gentle Reading
Some more stern sleep hygiene advocates say that we shouldn't do anything in bed except sleep (and have sex). Personally, I know that some gentle reading in bed helps my eyes to settle into the heaviness of sleep. I say "gentle" reading because it's important to choose carefully: no bright Kindle screens; no over-stimulating content; and no page-turners that I'm not going to be able to put down!
I've been reading through the New Testament of the Bible these last few nights, partly because I find it comforting and I'm trying to fill my mind with good things; but partly because it's something familiar - I don't need to race through because I already know what happens in the end.

Breathing/Relaxation Techniques
If reading fails to lull me to sleep, my back-up plan is a catalogue of breathing and relaxation techniques. I use different skills at different times (progressive muscle relaxation if my body is carrying a lot of tension; mindfulness if my head is loud with racing thoughts..), but common to them all is a focus on the breath - allowing nature's gift to soothe the body into sleep.
If all else has failed, this might be the only exception to my screen rule as there are lots of great apps out there that can guide you through these techniques, with some especially focussed on sleep. Headspace is a common starting place, but there are loads out there to choose from. My personal favourites are Buddhify (most of which is not at all "Buddhist") and Stop, Breathe and Think.

Sunlight Alarm Clock
Finally, the secret weapon in my armoury: my Lumie Bodyclock (pictured above).
Scottish winters have a lot to answer for with their limited hours of daylight throwing our body clocks out of whack. A clock like this one helps to adjust your natural rhythm by simulating a sunrise and sunset. The gradual brightening of the lamp over a 30 minute morning period sends cues to the body that gently rouse it from sleep, making it much easier to get out of bed and thus simpler to settle into a sleep/wake routine.

Mine's still in its box since moving out of my flat, but I've found it really helpful over the last few months and need to unpack it ASAP!

Sleep well for when you wake you will move mountains

There's no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to improving sleep and while the practices above are really useful for me, they might not be as helpful to you. There are dozens of other little steps that you could take (from changes in your diet to alterations in your bedroom; keeping a sleep diary to using psychological tools) and it's all about trial and error until you find what works best for you.

There are lots of brilliant resources out there, filled with information and more suggestions. These are just a few to get you started:

It's important to note that more persistent sleep problems are worth raising with your GP; but give some of these ideas a try while you're at it -- you never know what small improvements you might achieve.

Here's to a peaceful night's sleep!
Sweet dreams

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