I occasionally struggle to get a good night’s sleep and I don’t feel that I’m alone in this. The usual reasons for my lack of sleep duration and/or quality are:
not being active enough during the day; mentally and/or physically
drinking too much alcohol and therefore getting disturbed sleep patterns
feeling anxious or stressed about something
There are obviously a myriad of other reasons as to why you might be unable to get to sleep/not get enough sleep.
I decided to do a bit of research on ways to improve my sleeping behaviour and tried each method out. Below you can see the advice and how I got on with it.
Avoid blue light
If your eyes are subjected to light, your brain creates less melatonin, sometimes referred to as the “sleep” hormone; the blue light generated from computer screens, tablets and, perhaps most importantly, smartphones is especially stimulating so exposure to these sorts of devices may lead to an inability to achieve quality sleep. The advice is to avoid using these devices in the two hours leading up to your expected bed time. I did not personally manage this magical two-hour mark, but I did manage, on most days, to avoid them for up to an hour before my expected bed time. I would say, for me, that this had a positive effect not just on my sleep patterns, but also the quality time that I was able to spend with my partner where we were not both glued to our phones.
Have a bath or shower
Just before you fall asleep there is a decrease in your body temperature. If you have a bath or shower then your body temperature will be increased; getting out of the bath/shower your body temperature will drop, which will send a signal to your body that you are “ready” for sleep. The advice is therefore to have a bath or shower immediately before going to bed. I’m going to be honest here; for two reasons this one didn’t work for me. I did not need/feel like taking a bath/shower on six of the seven days that I tried this and the one day that I did have a shower before bed, it had the opposite effect on me; I felt more awake and restless and found it harder to fall asleep. However, this is just my personal experience.
Reducing alcohol consumption
Research has found that a small (1-2 units) amount of alcohol may help you get to sleep more swiftly, BUT alcohol also tends to lead to more disturbed sleep, increased snoring(!) and interrupted dreams; a crucial part of your sleep pattern. The advice is to generally reduce your alcohol consumption - 3 to 4 units a day for men and 2 to 3 units a day for women - and to try not to drink alcohol in the two hours prior to your expected bed time. I do not drink much at all anyway (for other reasons rather than sleep) so this one was a bit harder to test for efficacy. However, from personal reflection, I can state that when I have been drinking alcohol I do have disturbed sleep. I would definitely recommend giving this one a go.
90-minute blocks of time
Every night our brains go through numerous 90-minute cycles of sleep; we feel more refreshed and ready to tackle the day ahead if we are able to wake up towards the end of one of these cycles because we are closest to our natural waking state. To improve the chances of this, firstly choose when you want to wake up and then work backwards in 90-minute increments to determine the best time to fall asleep. For me, I need to wake up at 07:00 in order to get ready for my day, so my aim was to fall asleep at either 23:30 or 22:00. My personal routine and lifestyle (and that of my partner) means that I aimed for the 23:30 sleep slot. Working back from this time meant that I had to carry out my “bedtime routine” (not as weird as it sounds, I promise!) starting at around 23:00. This worked fine, and I felt the benefits of this for the majority of nights for the trial period. The issue comes when another event got in the way of starting my routine at 23:00. I then started to over-think it, which in turn led to some low-level anxiety, which consequently led to disturbed sleep! Aaarrgghh! I think this would work for me most of the time with the caveat that I would either have to disregard events getting in the way of the 23:00 start time or learn to be a bit more relaxed about disruptions to my personal routine. Hmmm.
Befuddle your brain
Though researchers have yet to evaluate the impact of counting sheep, studies suggest that you may be able to fall asleep more quickly if you exhaust your mind. A couple of suggested methods include: counting backwards from 100 in threes, or, if you’re not good with numbers, think of a category (countries, foods, movies, etc) and then come up with an example of that category for each letter of the alphabet. This is a tip I have used previously and had some degree of success with. However, when trying this activity with my partner, we rapidly descended into competition and gentle teasing about one of us not being able to name an item – not conducive to a healthy, undisturbed period of sleep.
Make a list
If you struggle to get to sleep because you are worrying about an issue or thinking about what you need to do the next day, then a relatively simple idea is to have a pen and some paper (don’t use your phone!) by your bedside. That way, just before you go to sleep, you can make a list of what’s on your mind and/or what you need and want to do the next day. This really works very well for me as it acts as a sort of brain dump after a day of interacting with friends, colleagues and clients. The other positive thing about this is that when you wake up the next day and look at your list, there is every chance that you will think “Well, I don’t really need to do that today” and can cross it off your list straight away. I highly recommend this to everyone I meet who talks about issues with sleep.
The magic yawn
I would guess that most people know that the act of smiling can make you feel happy just like frowning can make you feel sad; the same can be true of sleep. Advice states that you can fool your body into thinking that you feel tired by letting your eyes droop, imaging that your arms and legs feel heavy, and even by mimicking the act of yawning. My partner and I both gave this a go and after we had got over that we looked faintly ridiculous, we found we both had a fair degree of success with this approach.
The Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov famously rang a bell each time he presented a dog with food, and eventually found that the sound of the bell alone was enough to make the dog hungry. The same idea may be applied to help you to fall asleep. If you choose a soothing piece of music that you enjoy and fall asleep with it quietly playing, then, over time, your brain will start to associate the music with sleep and listening to that piece may help you to nod off. We tried this with a variety of different music and found it worked best with instrumental music (songs with lyrics didn’t work so well as my partner would sing along and then want to listen to more songs!). We found this worked quite well when we played classical music, but we had to be careful with our choices as some pieces were quite long. We probably did not try this for a sustained enough period to see long-lasting effects, but I would say that with perseverance, this tip would be successful.
Don’t just lie there waiting to fall asleep
If you find yourself lying awake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, the advice is to get out of bed and do some form of non-stimulating activity. This could be a slow walk around the house, working on a jigsaw, doodling with pen and paper or a colouring book. This can help to prevent the association between sleeplessness and your bed. If the problem occurs again later in the night, its ok to get out of bed and undertake another activity to distract yourself again. This is a tip that my partner and I had already used previously and have found a degree of success with. Our non-stimulating digression is doodling (for me) and a colouring book (for my partner). We experimented with other activities but found them to be stimulating and counterproductive. You may need to pay around a bit to find an activity that suits you.
Segment your sleep
Preindustrial diaries and medical records show that many people didn’t sleep in one single block of time, but instead slept for about four hours, woke up for roughly an hour, and then slept for another four hours. The hour between was spent thinking, reading, chatting, having sex, anything you cared to do with a free hour. Some current research has argued that segmented sleep may reflect a natural sleep pattern and be good for the mind. My partner and I tried this when we were having trouble falling asleep for a prolonged period and we found that it did not work for us. The reason being that although the hour that we spent in-between the two periods of sleep was productive, waking up after the second period of sleep was quite painful for us both as we felt our patterns had been disrupted. However, give it a go and see if it works for you.
Lying in bed awake can make you feel anxious as you feel that you should be asleep and resting; this anxiety may then lead to further disrupted sleep; this can lead to a vicious cycle. If you are struggling to sleep, it is worth remembering that you are probably getting more sleep than you think and that just relaxing in bed is positive for you. However, I feel the other advice given, that I have purposely left out, is that you should just relax. Telling someone who can’t relax, is anxious or stressed to just relax is not, in my opinion helpful advice. This is one lesson that my partner and I decided not to follow as we both feel quite strongly that this is unhelpful and counterproductive as advice to someone who is already struggling.
So, there you go. Give them a go and let me know how you get on.
If you need any help or support with this, get in touch for a free consultation.