Sleep

Sleeping is very important for mental and physical wellbeing. This wonderful book is highly recommended and explains the science of sleep very clearly. Good sleep improves your immune system and ability to learn. Here is some advice based on the book:

Maintain a natural sleep-wake cycle

It is important to keep a regular bedtime and waking up time, regardless of weekdays / weekends / holidays etc. It’s not just the number of hours that are important, it is their timing too. Regular bedtimes help to set your body’s internal clock and improve the quality of your sleep. Choose a bed time when you normally feel tired. If you’re getting enough sleep, you should wake up naturally without an alarm. If you need an alarm clock, you may need an earlier bedtime. Avoid the temptation to have a lie-in at weekends. This leads to jet-lag like symptoms as your body’s circadian rhythms are disrupted. Avoid napping in the day time, or falling asleep in the evening on the sofa before bedtime.

Control your exposure to light

Melatonin is a hormone released by your brain due to light exposure and it helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Your brain secretes more melatonin when it’s dark, making you sleepy, and less when it’s light, making you more alert. Try to expose yourself to bright sunlight every morning, eg eat breakfast outside or by a window and spend time outside during daylight each day. At night, avoid bright screens like phones, TVs and computers within two hours of your bedtime. The blue light of these screens is particularly bad for your sleep-wake cycle. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible and only use a dim light if you need to get up in the night.

Exercise during the day

Regular exercise improves the symptoms of insomnia and increases the amount of time you spend in the deep, restorative sleep. Even a short walk each day improves sleep quality. You need to keep the exercise habit going for a few months before you get the full effect. It is best to finish vigorous exercise at least three hours before bedtime. Relaxing exercise like yoga are ok later on.

Think about what you eat and drink

Caffeine can cause sleep problems up to twelve hours after drinking it. It’s best to avoid caffeine altogether if you are having sleep problems. Cigarettes are also stimulants which can disrupt your sleep, especially if you smoke close to bedtime. It is best to eat meals earlier in the evening and to avoid heavy foods within two hours of bedtime. Alcohol, though it may make you feel drowsy initially, is disruptive to sleep and decreases the quality of your sleep. Avoid lots of fluids in the evening which may cause frequent trips to the toilet in the night. Too many sugary foods can also keep you too alert at night.

Take daily wind-down time

Stress and anger from your day can make it very difficult to sleep well. Try getting into a relaxing bedtime routine which will help to prepare your brain for sleep. This can include relaxation exercises like the ones below, a warm bath, listening to soft music or an audio-book.

Lie in bed and close your eyes.

Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.

Breathe in slowly through your nose. The hand on your abdomen should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.

Breathe out slowly through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your abdomen should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.

Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.

This “bodyscan” exercise focuses your attention on different parts of your body in turn, to allow you to identify tension and release it.

Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes closed.

Focus on your breathing for about two minutes using the technique above until you start to feel relaxed.

Turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any tension while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for at least three to five seconds.

Move your focus to the sole of your right foot. Tune in to any sensations you feel in that part of your body and imagine each breath flowing from the sole of your foot. Then move your focus to your right ankle and repeat. Move to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg. From there, move up your body, through your lower back and abdomen, your upper back and chest, and your shoulders. Pay close attention to any area of the body that feels tense.

After completing the body scan, relax, noting how your body feels. You should feel so relaxed you can easily fall asleep.

Improve your sleep environment

Try to keep your bedroom quiet, if this is not possible, wearing ear plugs can help. Keep the temperature cool, at around 18° C, and try to make your bed as comfortable as possible, look at your pillows, the firmness of your mattress, the material of your duvet etc. Reserve your bed for sleeping lie there to watch TV, work or look at your phone.

Learn ways to get back to sleep

It’s normal to wake briefly during the night but if you find it hard to get back, try the breathing exercises and body scan above. Focus on relaxation, rather than trying to get back to sleep. If you have been asleep for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet, calming activity, such as reading a book. Keep the lights dim and avoid screens so as not to cue your body that it’s time to wake up. Try to postpone worrying by writing your worries down on a piece of paper and telling yourself you will deal with them in the morning.