How to Get the Perfect Night’s Sleep
So, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of sleep, the health consequences if we don’t sleep properly, and the causes of insomnia. But what we all want to know is, what can we do about it? How can we guarantee to get the perfect night’s sleep? There are lots of ‘do’s’, and just as many ‘don’ts’!
One of the most important ways to promote a good night’s sleep is to work with the body’s circadian rhythm, not against it. Establish a regular routine of sleeping and waking – don’t indulge in the occasional late night or long lie-in, and don’t nap in the day. If you go to bed and wake at the same time every day, your body will recognise the cycle and work with you.
The brain’s pineal gland produces the hormone melatonin on cue from lower light levels – so when dusk falls, the body prepares for sleep. Conversely, when light levels rise in the morning, the circadian rhythm wakes you up ready for another day.
That’s why although schedule is important, you can’t rely on it alone – you have to make sure that your body is ready for sleep, but that your sleeping environment is right too.
The most important way to prepare the body for sleep is relaxation. Mental or physical stimulation late in the evening will disturb your sleep patterns, so prepare for sleep with a period of complete relaxation first.
Enjoy a hot bath before bed, or read a book for an hour – but don’t watch the television or use electronic devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones. The blue light element in their screen emissions confuses the pineal gland and upsets your melatonin levels.
If you have to get up in the night, don’t switch on lights, as this will upset your circadian rhythm – keep a small torch by your bed.
Exercise during the day is an important element of preparing the body for a good night’s sleep.
Exercise reduces stress and relieves anxiety, common causes of sleep problems. Just five minutes of aerobic exercise (anything that increases your heart rate) will help to reduce stress levels.
If you’re not the jogging type, try relaxation techniques such as yoga or tai-chi. They can calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Exercise and weight loss of course have all sorts of other health benefits, one of which is an improvement in breathing and reduction in the severity of sleep apnoea. The more regular exercise you get, the more it will benefit your sleep patterns.
BUT! – don’t exercise within three hours of bedtime. Contrary to suggestions that a late-night workout will tire your body and help you to sleep, it actually does more harm than good, disrupting your resting heart rate, leaving you dehydrated and releasing stress hormones.
Essential to getting a good night’s sleep is the environment you are sleeping in.
- Keep your bedroom tidy and uncluttered. Don’t use it for anything but sleep and sex. Make sure your bed, mattress and pillows are clean and comfortable.
- Control light and sound. Put up heavy curtains or blackout blinds to make sure sunlight doesn’t disturb your sleep, particularly in the summer. Don’t have any electronic devices with standby LEDs in the bedroom. Shut doors to reduce noise from fridges and other electrical items. You may want to play soothing music or environmental sounds on a timer.
- Control temperature. The ideal bedroom temperature for getting to sleep is 60–67°F (15.6–19.4°C). Check room temperature with a digital thermometer, and adjust heating or air conditioning to suit. Sleeping without nightclothes can help you to regulate your sleep temperature. According to some studies, sleeping naked with a partner increases levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin. Your mattress and pillow can also affect your temperature when you sleep – modern innovations in fillings can help keep your sleep surface at optimal temperature.
- Replace ticking clocks with digital ones.
- Don’t let pets sleep on the bed. Vets don’t place as much emphasis on this for health reasons as they used to – so long as the owner and animal are healthy there’s no reason why the animal shouldn’t sleep on (not in) the bed. But of course, if they move around they can disturb the owner’s sleep, particularly cats which can be active at night. Try putting a pet bed in the room rather than letting them sleep on your bed.
Diet and lifestyle are essential elements of getting a good night’s sleep.
Foods known to promote sleep include:
- Milk, which includes tryptophan, an amino acid essential to the production of sleep regulating compound serotonin.
- Bananas, cheese, eggs, fish, poultry and nuts also contain tryptophan
- Oatmeal, high in carbohydrates and melatonin and said to induce drowsiness
- Cottage cheese, containing muscle repair protein casein
- Chamomile tea, a herbal drink containing antioxidant flavones, a that may offer a variety of health benefits.
- Tart cherry juice, containing Vitamin A, Vitamin C, manganese, anti-inflammatories, and the hormone melatonin which helps to regulate your body clock.
Equally, there are plenty of foods which are fine to eat during the day, but which should be avoided near to sleep, including:
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, which contain a large amount of hard-to-digest fibre
- Red meat, also high in hard-to-digest protein
- Tomato sauce, because of its high acidity
- Smoked meats and cheeses, which contain the stimulant tyramine
- Coffee and dark chocolate, packed with the stimulant caffeine
- Alcohol, which can have the effect of stimulating drowsiness, but which disrupts REM sleep
- Orange juice, because of its acidity
- Fizzy drinks, because of their high carbohydrate content
- Water. Yes, water. Good for you during the day, but likely to make you need to get up to urinate at night.
Needless to say, one of the most important factors in getting a good night’s sleep is to cut out smoking, particularly before bed. Studies show that smoking reduces the amount of time sleeping generally and particularly the amount of time in REM sleep.
Smoking is also a major causative factor in sleep apnoea, increasing inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airways, leading to swelling and narrowing of the airways.
If you stop smoking and find that withdrawal symptoms disturb your sleep, this will pass, so stick with it. See your GP or pharmacist for help with quitting smoking and dealing with withdrawal.