10 Tips For A Better Night's Sleep
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
A good night's sleep has become the holy grail of modern life. Which is probably why sleep study has seen significant investment and new scientific breakthroughs over the past few decades. Although getting a fabulous night of restorative Zs is often about identifying personal preferences, understanding some of the scientific theories as to exactly why some things work and others don't can really help.
In my post on 'How my super sensitive senses ruined my sleep' I made 10 simple suggestions that I had personally spent time researching and experimenting on. This series of posts on sleep delves much deeper into the scientific basis for how these improve your sleep. Enjoy!
1. Avoid going to bed hungry or feeling too full.
At night our body puts its resources into repairing and replenishing itself. If you go to bed hungry it often leads to a restless night. Hunger may not only cause stomach pains, but it keeps the brain mentally alert resulting in a lack of the all-important deep sleep. The metabolic repercussions are increased appetite, weakened immune system, higher risk of weight gain, and potentially, diabetes.
I certainly have noticed the affect poor sleep can have on my appetite. The next day, I feel more hungry and more drawn to starchy, sugary foods that will give me an immediate 'pick-me-up'.
Eating a lot too close to bedtime, on the other hand, can cause digestive problems such as acid reflux. When you are reclined gravity is not working in your favour to pull everything in your stomach down - the preferred way for your body to digest food. Plus the digestive system slows down to a sluggish pace leaving much of what you have eaten only partially digested. A slower digestive system can cause food to ferment in your stomach and result in painful bloating by morning.
Ideally any large meals should be consumed 2-3 hours before bed to give your stomach a chance to empty. Despite the myths that it may cause nightmares, eating a small piece of cheese or a handful of nuts is a great low carbohydrate snack option before bed. These particular foods eaten in moderation contain the right balance of carbs, protein and fat to fill that hole in your stomach whilst avoiding spiking blood sugars or giving you a sugar rush.
2. Dim lights for at least 1-1.5 hours before bed – including on your screens.
Back in the days when we were cave dwellers, we tended to go to sleep once it got dark. With all the bright lighting in our modern houses and blue-spectrum lighting of our digital devices, we can easily confuse our un-evolved bodies into thinking it is still the middle of the day.
During the evening, Melatonin, a hormone often known as the "sleep hormone", induces sleep by signalling to the brain that it is time for rest. Our muscles begin to relax, feelings of drowsiness increase and body temperature drops. Evening light exposure inhibits the naturally timed rise of melatonin which would normally begin after sundown and peak at approximately 3 a.m; significantly influencing both the quantity and quality of sleep. I have gotten into the habit of turning down the lighting after 9pm, including the screen on my tablet, and avoiding using harsh lighting whilst I'm preparing to go bed. Evening time now has a certain chill-out ambience to it which naturally drives me to bed feeling prepared to sleep.
3. Develop a sleep routine: A time when you begin to wind down and 'chill out' rather then rushing to bed.
Even if you can only manage half an hour, it's well worth it. Begin your chill-out time by dimming the lighting (see above) and the rest instinctively follows. The right lighting has an amazing impact on our frame of mind and our ability to mellow. Amplify that sensation with, for example, some warming scented candles, whilst sipping something you really enjoy, preferably low in sugar and caffeine. After a few weeks of doing this your body will have an almost Pavalovian response. This is your time, so be wary of engaging in things you find over-stimulating – hot political debates on social media, DIY, action thriller films etc.
After a really busy day, in which you find there is not much of the evening left, the temptation is the skip this 'wind-down' time and rush to bed. Regardless of circumstances, make time for your sleep routine, as a shorter more restorative night will always be much more pleasurable than a longer, fitful one.
4. Try to keep your bedroom between 15.5C – 19.5C (60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit).
It's scientifically proven that cooler temperatures enable us to fall asleep more quickly, as well as put us into a deeper, more restorative sleep. Cooler temperatures mean more Melatonin is released into your body. Temperatures above or below this range results in your body using energy to regulate – potentially leaving you tossing and turning all night. Whether you live in either a hot, cool or variable climate, hitting the hay at optimal temperature almost always requires some forward planning. If you practise these for a few weeks it will undoubtedly help form part of a healthy sleep routine that can be effortlessly replicated each night.
Set the heating in your bedroom to be lower then elsewhere in your house. You may need to experiment a little to find the best solution for your particular situation. For me personally, I have the heating come on for an hour before bed at 18 Celsius. This offsets a falling body temperature as bedtime approaches and ensures that I don't go to bed feeling cold. The heating stays off all night, clicking back on at 6am.
Install an electric blanket. As the room gradually cools throughout the night, this helps maintain a constant temperature closest to your body. Turn it on before you go to bed to take the chill out of the mattress and bedding. Once nestled in, turn it down to a low setting to avoid over-heating during the night.
Have different duvets for winter and summer. A thicker 'winter' duvet with heavier Egyptian cotton sheets provide a nice weight that is not suffocating. There is something sumptuously snuggely being hunkered down in a nice warm bed when the surrounding air is starting to cool. Suffice to stay, I sleep better in the winter, as moderating the temperature is considerably easier: just add warmth!
b) Summer In the UK/Europe
UK summer temperatures are much harder to regulate since they can vary by as much as 20 Celsius within a few days. More often then not, night-time temperatures are cool enough to get some respite without the need for permanently installing air conditioning. However, if like me, you are sensitive to noise and prefer to sleep with the window closed, you may want to try this: I usually begin sleep preparations by throwing open the windows the hour before bed, using a fan to 'suck' in the cooler outside air. Due to limited space for a standing fan, I installed a ceiling fan/light where my normal hanging light fitting was. It circulates the air lightly and quietly enough to not be disturbing.
The rest of the options to stay cool are entirely down to personal preference – from taking a tepid shower, to putting bed clothes in the freezer, to bringing an icy-hotwater bottle or chiller block to bed with you. I find that anything cold near my feet is excellent at keeping me cool!
c) Hot climates
Taking the edge of extremely high temperatures can be a challenge. Do your best to naturally cool your room before switching on the air-conditioning. A few of the summer solutions above, especially placing cold items close to you body, can be very effective. However, in relentlessly hot conditions they become less so during the course of the night. This is when using air-conditioning may be the only viable solution. Just be wary of setting it too high. Like artificial heating, they dry out the air potentially resulting in dry eyes, stuffy sinuses, dry throat and dehydration headaches. If you feel you can only sleep properly with the AC on, aim to set it at about 23 Celsius - not too cold, and definitely cooler than without an AC. Add plants or a bowl of water to your room to maintain some moisture in the air.
5. Wear clothes you find comfortable to bed and have comfortable sheets.
It's funny how even bed-clothes can be subject to the pressures of fashion and the desire to look sexy all hours of the day. Women: wearing a tight-fitting itchy, lacy, or scanty negligee will only make you look decidedly unsexy if you're exhausted from poor quality sleep as a result...
I have learnt to take a middle path but to keep comfort my priority. The secret is in choosing natural materials that wick away excess moisture from the skin. My preference in winter is a nicely fitting, delightfully soft set of cotton flannel pyjamas. In summer I sleep best in simple silk camisole and shorts whilst my significant other prefers cotton T-shirts and shorts. Psychology is also just as important as physical comfort here. If you sleep better due to the scent of freshly laundered bed clothes, then make sure to buy something that can be washed often, dries quickly and feels wonderful against your skin.
One of the best sleep-time purchases I made was to invest in Egyptian cotton bedding. It is supremely comfortable when compared to anything else I have slept on. Egyptian cotton feels softer, is finer and lasts longer than other cotton types - so is well worth spending the extra bit of money on. According to the insomnia website they help improve sleep due to the fabric being more porous. Air can pass through the sheet more easily - avoiding a feeling of stuffyness during the night. I find the psychological aspect of sliding into such opulent bedding automatically sets me up to sleep wonderfully. Choose a higher, thicker thread count for winter and lighter, lower count for summer to sleep royally in any season.
6. Invest in a black out blind or shutters.
Many of us live in a place where there is always some kind of ambient lighting during the night – be it street lighting, or even a bright bedside clock-face. At night-time, the see-saw of hormones in our body mean the effects of Melatonin start to wane in the early morning. We become more susceptible to being roused. The faintest glow can trick our bodies in to kickstarting the process by producing the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol is more commonly known as a stress hormone produced in copious amounts during the fight or flight response. It is actually also vital to making sure we have ample energy to get up and face the day. However, consistently elevated levels at night creates disrupted sleep and leads to a slew of avoidable health problems.
Depending on just how dark you want your sleep cave to be, there are a number of options. The most obvious is a black-out blind/curtains, but this comes with a large disadvantage. Just as darkness is important for helping you sleep, morning light is vital to helping you wake up. A black-out blind should be supported by the use of a dawn simulator alarm clock, to enable you to awake naturally and gently.
For me personally I have found shutters to be excellent. They give me the flexibility to completely block out light (as is necessary during UK summer when the sun rises at 4:30am), or to leave them a tiny bit open to allow in some the morning light in winter. I also use a dawn simulator alarm to ensure my sleep times are as consistent as possible throughout the year.
7. Shut out pets!
I'm quite sure I'm being very controversial with this one! Hear me out, as you may need to re-think your arrangements if your sleep is suffering. Unless you're giving your pet a shower each night before they climb in with you, there are the obvious hygiene issues such as outside germs and the odd hitch-hiking flea or tick. There are also more hidden ones such as pet dander which can cause allergic reactions to those with asthma or weak immune systems. Ask yourself honestly whether you have to regularly contend with snoring, bed-hogging, fidgeting, cover stealing, over-heating and an inability to position yourself comfortably due to limited space. Sleeping with your dog in particular, is viewed by some vets as on of the main causes of some dominance issues.
On the flip-side there are studies that show how well-behaved pets can help people to feel safer and reduce anxiety. If you can't bring yourself to be separated from your pet over-night, consider placing a pet bed next to your yours and get them into the habit of using it. I shut my own darling cat out of the bedroom at night, and the next morning she is more delighted then ever to be reunited with us. I've found she has become more affectionate and reward her with a big morning cuddle in bed whilst wearing her favourite Comfy Jumper. I make sure to lint roller the bed afterwards!
8. Invest in white noise generator.
In my post on Hearing and Sleep, I talked about how sound is one of three senses (alongside sight and touch) that can most easily rouse us from our slumber. Unless you are fortunate enough to live somewhere blissfully quiet at night, you probably are affected by night-time noise, especially traffic noise. I looked at a number of options such as ear plugs and listening to soothing music whilst I fell asleep.
Ultimately one solution stood above the rest: the white noise generator. The science behind it is simple. By continuously playing all the different tones a human ear can perceive at once (around 20,000), the brain becomes overwhelmed and interprets it as a general hissing sound we term 'white noise'. By inundating the brain with these tones, it gives up trying to seek out anything distinctive and begins to 'ignore' sound input. It's effectively fighting noise with noise, and has the advantage of not having deal with the physical discomfort of headphones or ear-plugs in your ears all night.
9. Use a gentler type of alarm clock to wake you.
Being woken up too suddenly can lead to a morning of feeling groggy, sluggish and bad tempered. I have always disliked the abrupt manner in which standard 'beeping' alarm-clocks wake me. Fortunately for sensitive types, there are many alternatives to usher you from dreamworld into the waking day without being dragged kicking and screaming.
A simulated sunrise alarm clock which lights up gradually over a set period of time to mimic sunrise is a wonderfully gentle way to awake each morning. It works in harmony with our bodies own natural waking responses to first light. These are prefect for those with blackout blinds or who experience wildly varying sunrise times. It's also extremely helpful to people who suffer from winter blues or SAD and find the absence of natural morning light particularly difficult when trying to get going for the day. A cheap alternative, though not as gentle, is to plug your bed-side lamp into a timer-switch.
My partner uses a wrist mounted vibrating alarm which wakes him with a little more gusto then a sunrise clock, but without the jolt of a normal alarm clock. From coffee preparing, Teasmade or under pillow vibrations alarm-clocks, give some consideration as to how you would like to be roused each day. Your body and your mind will thank you for it.
10. Invest in a bigger bed with decent quality mattress
This is an area of life well worth some serious contemplation, since we spend nearly one third of our lives asleep. Sometimes it not your pets disrupting your sleep but your very own partner. You may love them more then anything in the world, but could share profoundly different sleep preferences.
From experience I have learnt how life changing getting it right can be.
I love to spread out and wrap a thick duvet around me completely like a sausage roll. After a year of living in our first house together, I realised that the small queen-size bed with medium-weight double duvet just didn't cut it. The compromise made us both uncomfortable. I was too cold; he was too hot. So I up-sized the bed. Being short of money at the time, and with a dab hand for DIY, I altered our existing simple wood bed-frame to accommodate a super-king mattress – the equivalent of 2 single beds pushed together. Then I bought two single duvets in thicknesses that suited our individual preferences, as well as personally selected pillows.
This gave us the flexibility to sleep in a manner completely tailored to our individual tastes without interfering on each others sleep quality, all whilst still sociably sharing in the same bed.
The major cost was of course the mattress. However, a super-king size bed also gives us the option to buy either two single mattresses that perfectly match our different comfort requirements, or to buy one big mattress we both agree on. In this instance we share a mutual like of medium firm, pocket sprung mattresses! Undoubtedly, it's well worth the time to research what mattress/pillow/blanket combination works for you. By acknowledging each other's differences and without having to compromise on something as vital as your sleep quality, your relationship will be much better for it.
Do you have any tips you feel improve the quality of your sleep? Have your say in the comments section below: