10 tips to sleep well tonight
How restful was your sleep last night? Chances are it wasn't that great, especially if you're female. Research shows that one in three people regularly suffer from sleep problems, with one in 10 of us subject to long-term sleep deprivation.
A 2016 survey of 4,100 adults by YouGov found that almost half (43%) of UK women regularly don't get enough sleep. Similarly, in 2012, a study involving over 20,000 people by Sleepio, who run an online cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) program for insomnia, found that 56% of women and 49% of men had long-term sleep problems.
So, why do so many of us struggle to get a good night's rest?
Sleep expert Professor Colin Espie of the University of Oxford, who led the Sleepio research, found that a huge 82% of respondents were kept awake by racing thoughts. Worry about the past or future kept 71% of respondents awake, while 79% couldn't stop thinking about the length of time they'd been staring at the ceiling.
The top physical reason for being unable to sleep, suffered by 67% of respondents, was bodily discomfort, for example needing the loo or having restless legs.
Other reasons for poor sleep include pregnancy, menopause, some medical conditions and the side effects of medication. But it could also indicate that the person has a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), in which the throat muscles relax during sleep and breathing stops temporarily. The lack of oxygen wakes the person up, so they start breathing again. Sleep apnoea can lead to major health problems, for example, cardiovascular disease and stroke, if it isn't treated.
Effects of poor sleep
Most of us are familiar with the foggy head, weariness, grumpy mood and aching limbs that follow a bad night's slumber. But chronic sleep deprivation affects our health in a myriad of ways, some of them potentially serious. For example:
Those who regularly sleep less than seven hours a night are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease as well as becoming obese. Lack of sleep affects hormone production, depresses your immune system, and increases the levels of chemicals linked to inflammation in the arteries.
One large-scale study found that those sleeping less than seven hours a night are more likely to suffer an early death than well-rested people.
Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Luckily, experts such as Professor Espie believe that for most people, poor sleep is simply an ingrained bad habit that can be corrected, and that anyone can learn to sleep soundly with the right help, even those who've had the problem for many years.
Sound sleep for good health
Sleeping well is essential for a healthy mind and body. If you're struggling to nod off or stay asleep, you could try the top tips for restful sleep below. If they don't help, have a chat with your GP. They'll do a health check and give you a sleep log to complete for a fortnight, in which you record the times you go to bed and wake up, plus other aspects of your routine.
Your doctor will review your sleep habits to help you improve them, and may refer you to a sleep clinic for further tests. If sleeping tablets are prescribed, the Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends this should be for two to four weeks only. Sleeping tablets don't address the underlying problem, only the symptoms, plus they're addictive.
NICE, who provide evidence-based advice for the NHS, consider CBT the treatment of choice for chronic sleep problems as a large body of research supports its effectiveness for insomnia. Some GPs can prescribe CBT for free, but it's likely you'd have to pay for a private therapist. A CBT clinician would assess your sleep patterns, help you change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, and teach you relaxation techniques.
Top tips for restful sleep
1. Most importantly, establish a sleep routine
Go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day, weekends included. This is so your body clock gets into the habit of when you're going to sleep and when you'll be awake and alert. Chopping and changing bedtimes and getting-up times inhibits this vital process. Therefore...
2. Don't make up for lost sleep on Saturdays and Sundays
While this feels like a good idea, it confuses your body clock, as does daytime napping. Sleep at night times only.
3. Develop a wind-down routine for the hour or so before bed
Done daily, this cues your body into the fact that sleep time is approaching. Dim the lights and do quiet, non-stimulating activities such as a crossword puzzle or reading. Other ideas are a warm bath, deep breathing, gentle stretches, or listening to meditation tapes or relaxing music.
4. Write your worries down
As racing thoughts are the number-one reason we can't sleep, it makes sense to get them out of your head and onto to paper before bedtime. Or jot down a list of tasks for the next day.
5. If you can't sleep after 15 to 30 minutes, get up
Go into another room, put on a low light, and do something quiet and relaxing. Reading is a good option – nothing stimulating, such as using your phone or tablet/laptop, or watching TV. Heavy eyelids mean it's time to head back to bed.
6. Keep your bedroom dark
A darkened room stimulates the brain to produce melatonin, the hormone that aids sleep, so eliminate those chinks of light. Hang blackout linings behind your regular curtains or wear a sleep mask. To strengthen the association between your bedroom and sleep, keep it for slumber and intimacy with your partner only – no TV, work, texting, etc.
7. Turn off all LED devices such as your phone, laptop, TV and tablet at least an hour before bedtime
There is overwhelming evidence that the strong, blue light they emit disrupts melatonin production and therefore keeps you awake longer. If you wake in the night, resist the urge to check your phone as it will take you even longer to drift off.
8. Avoid caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime
This stimulant seriously disrupts sleep and is in tea and hot chocolate as well as coffee. Watch out for it in painkillers and other over-the-counter medicines too. Drink chamomile or other caffeine-free tea or warm milk before bed instead.
9. Go easy on the alcohol
While this depressant may help you nod off, your slumbers are lighter and less refreshing, plus it's tougher to stay asleep. Try to leave several hours between a last drink and bed.
Regular exercise is proven to aid restful sleep, and sleep specialist Dr Simon Kyle reports that thrice-weekly bouts improved the sleep of chronic insomniacs dramatically. Early in the day is best, or leave at least four hours before bed if you do it later, because exercise energises you, making it harder to fall asleep.
There are plenty of helpful, free apps on relaxation, mindfulness, meditation and better sleep available, as well as online courses. So if your nightly sleep is a struggle, take action today. Your body will thank you for it.
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