Sleep is vital for health and happiness, but a bad bedtime routine can get in the way. From journaling to daytime hacks, here’s how to successfully prep yourself for some quality shut-eye.
We all know that lack of sleep can leave us feeling cranky. But it turns out not getting the right amount of rest can also have significant health implications.
“Sleep is increasingly recognised as a critical component of overall health,” explains NHS GP Dr. Hana Patel, pointing to a 2022 study review from the National Institute of Health which found that poor quality sleep can be linked to cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.
Meanwhile, data from the Priory Group explains that due to hormonal changes, lack of sleep can be linked to mental health conditions, including stress and anxiety, and even schizophrenia.
“To stay healthy, adults need between seven and nine hours of good quality sleep each night,” says Patel. But here’s the thing; according to the Sleep Foundation, most adults take up to 20 minutes to fall asleep every night, while 35.5% of adults wake up in the middle of the night three or more times per week.
It's getting to sleep quickly – and staying asleep – that is key here, says Patel. From body clock cheat codes to mental routines, here’s how to do it.
Waking up is the first step to a good night’s sleep, but we’re talking 8am, not 3am. “Maintaining a consistent wake-up time each morning enhances the body’s ability to prepare for sleep at night, helping you fall asleep, and stay asleep when you need it,” says Jeff Kahn, sleep expert and founder of Rise Science.
Kahn points to a 2018 meta review monitoring the sleep habits of over 92 340 participants from 14 countries. The analysis found that “earlier sleep timing and regularity in sleep patterns with consistent bedtimes and wake-up times are favourably associated with health.”
The “earlier sleep timing” part may be difficult, depending on your schedule, but don't worry. “It's important to choose a wake-up time that allows for sufficient sleep, planned around the earliest time you need to wake up during the week,” advises Kahn. In other words, next time you’re tempted to snooze your alarm, think of your health.
It isn’t just when you go to bed that matters, but how.
“Having a pre-bed routine helps us fall asleep faster, reduces waking up at night, and helps us feel more refreshed in the morning,” says Patel. A 2017 study found a consistent bedtime routine makes for a more restful night’s sleep in children, and Patel says the same is true for adults. “Our brains wind down before sleep – it’s part of our natural sleep/wake cycle, so we need to create conditions to help this.”
Whether it’s doing the dishes, or walking the dog, pre-bed chores might not always be the most restful activities, but focusing on your breathing while you do them can promote a calming, restorative state of mind pre-bed – at least according to a 2019 study which found that meditation can improve sleep quality in those suffering from “sleep disturbances”.
Part of your bedtime routine could (and should) include writing down a to-do list for the next day.
“Writing a to-do list can help ease work/chore-based anxiety, and actually help us get to sleep more peacefully,” explains Kahn, pointing to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which found that those who spent just five minutes listing tasks they felt worried or anxious about completing fell asleep an average of nine minutes faster than those who only wrote about the events of their day.
Get your ruminative thoughts down on paper before you get into bed, and your brain will be clear to focus on the business of sleep instead.
If you do find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, lying in bed and willing yourself to fall asleep again could be the worst thing for you. “I hate lying awake and staring at the ceiling,” says Kahn. “Getting out of bed and doing something else can help reset the brain, and also removes the pressure of ‘I must get back to sleep right now’”.
How well you sleep at night is largely affected by what you do in the day. According to a meta-review published in The Journal of Physiology, light is the “most potent stimulus” for regulating our circadian rhythm – the built-in clock that tells our body when to perform a whole variety of processes, including sleep. The study authors note that variations in light can suppress our production of melatonin, the so-called ‘sleep hormone.’ In other words: natural light helps us sleep better.
“Exposure to daylight plays a pivotal role in sleep regulation,” Kahn explains. “More daylight exposure equates to stronger circadian cues, and better sleep onset at night. Conversely, insufficient daylight can delay sleep.”
Struggling to get outside? Kahn suggests positioning your desk by a window. Or, for guaranteed results on an overcast day, Stanford Medicine suggests investing in Bright Light Therapy (such as a full spectrum lamp at 10,000 lux) to mimic daylight conditions and keep your body in time.
Yes, we all love naps. But, when it comes to getting your head down at night, napping for too long might just be your worst enemy.
“Napping can reduce sleep pressure (the natural build-up of sleepiness), making it harder to fall asleep at the desired bedtime,” explains Kahn.
The science agrees. A study published in the journal Sleep looked at the efficacy of 5,10,20 and 30 minute naps in 24 volunteers and found the 10-minute nap “produced immediate improvements in all outcome measures (including sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigour, and cognitive performance).”
With data from the National Institute of Health discovering that naps longer than 10 minutes can make us more sleepy upon waking, thereby throwing our circadian rhythms out of whack, Kahn advises: “If you’re going to nap, keep it short, and take it no later than the early afternoon.”
Words: Tom Ward
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