I think we all know that sleep is important. And I’m sure that most of us know at least some of the reasons why it’s important. But in the modern world of screens, social media, long working hours and multiple commitments, most of us probably aren’t getting enough of it – or, if we are, it’s not necessarily the quality, deep rest that we really need.
Sleep tends to fall by the wayside and become a low priority for many of us as we work or study late into the night, mindlessly scroll social media, or binge watch box sets until the early hours.
So how can we get more sleep? And how you can improve not just the amount of sleep you’re getting, but the quality of your rest?
Why getting enough sleep is so important
In a nutshell, regular sleep is essential for human health; we literally can’t survive without it. (Dying from sleep deprivation is extremely rare, but it can happen!)
While you’re sleeping, your body and brain are both hard at work. Your body is busy repairing itself, keeping your immune system and circulation functioning, and releasing hormones that help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, while your brain is busy filing away the day’s memories.
Getting enough quality sleep keeps our bodily systems and organs functioning, as well as boosting our brains and mental and emotional wellbeing. Sleeping helps us to stay alert and have plenty of energy when we’re awake, and gives us the capacity to think clearly, learn new things, work, plan, build and maintain relationships with others, and do all the activities we want and need to do in our daily lives.
Here are some of the things that quality sleep does for you:
The effect of sleep on the body
- Heart healthy
- Immune system strong
- Blood sugar steady
- Fights off germs (so you get ill less often)
- Repairs damage to your tissues
- Lowers your risk for serious health problems (such as diabetes and heart disease)
- Helps you maintain a healthy weight
- Improves your athletic ability
The effect of sleep on the brain
- Keeps your brain sharp (helps you think more clearly)
- Improves your attention span and ability to concentrate
- Helps you learn and make memories
- Improves your executive function (our ability to plan, focus our attention, remember things, and juggle lots of different tasks)
The effect of sleep on your mental health
- Improves your mood
- Reduces your stress levels
- Helps you maintain good relationships with others
What happens when we don’t get enough sleep?
Of course, when we don’t get enough sleep – or enough good quality sleep – all these things can suffer. Lack of sleep can lead to or worsen all sorts of chronic health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. It deprives us of the hormones we need to help prevent these conditions.
And – as I’m sure you’re experienced, I know I have! – when we don’t get enough sleep, our brains suffer too, and we can find ourselves getting irritable, anxious or depressed, feeling tired during the day (especially in the afternoon), and finding it hard to concentrate or remember things. Lack of sleep slows our reaction times too, and can lead to accidents; studies have shown that staying awake for 24 hours can have a similar effect on us to having a blood alcohol level of 0.10%, which is above the legal limit in the UK.
How to get more (and better) sleep
Sleep hygiene is the idea of creating the best possible conditions for great sleep. None of this is difficult or complicated! But it does mean focusing on improving your habits around sleep, and making sleep a priority in your life.
So let’s take a look at the two areas you’ll need to focus on to help you get more and better sleep: your sleep environment, and your habits.
How to create healthy sleep habits and routines
Sleep hygiene starts well before you’re even thinking about bed. Healthy habits throughout the day, such as getting up at the same time each day, taking regular exercise, eating healthy foods and having regular screen breaks if you work on a computer can all help you get a good night’s sleep.
Here are a few more specific habits to build in nearer to bedtime:
- Go to bed at the same time each night
- Work out your bedtime based on getting 7-8 hours of sleep – work backwards from the time you need to get up.
- Make a clear distinction between daytime and sleep time. Turn off the TV and other devices at least an hour before bed, and use low lighting as you prepare for sleep.
- Take a glass of water to bed with you and drink a small amount before going to sleep.
- If your head is full of plans and worries for tomorrow, keep a notebook next to your bed to make a list, or write your thoughts in a journal. If you syphon all these things out of your head before turning out the light, you’ll be less likely to ruminate over them in bed.
- Do a calming activity, such as reading or meditating, before falling asleep.
Set up your bedroom environment for better sleep
If you want better sleep, create a calm and peaceful environment that makes you feel restful.
- Remove any clutter from your bedroom. Put things away in drawers or cupboards, or spend some time doing a declutter and get rid of what you don’t need – or move it somewhere else in the house.
- Invest in the best mattress, pillows and bedding you can afford. Don’t scrimp on sleep!
- Keep lighting low/dimmed as you’re getting ready for bed – use low wattage lamps rather than bright overhead lights.
- Turn off your phone and other devices. And remove the TV from your bedroom! Make a ‘no screens in the bedroom’ rule to eliminate the blue light which interferes with our sleep patterns.
- Invest in an analogue alarm clock, with no lights
- Turn your WiFi off overnight (you’ll also save on your electric bill – and help keep your connection stable)
- Use blackout curtains or blinds, especially if there are streetlights or other sources of light outside your window.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom cool. Consider turning heating off in the bedroom in the evening, and/or keeping a window open at night (all year round) to let in fresh air.
A few things to avoid if you want to have better sleep
- Nap in the day (once you establish healthier sleep habits you shouldn’t need to)
- Drink caffeine before bed
- Watch TV in bed (move that TV out of the bedroom completely!)
- Exercise too soon before sleeping (give it a few hours)
- Eat too soon before sleeping (there should be at least two hours between your last meal and going to sleep)
Don’t feel you have to make a lot of changes all at once – you can start with the ones you think you’ll find easiest and add a new healthy sleep habit each night (or even each week!). If you want to get to bed a lot earlier, start by going half an hour earlier, and build up gradually over a few nights or weeks.
What about when there’s a medical reason for lack of sleep?
Of course, sometimes there might be a medical reason for poor sleep. You might have tried all the things I’ve suggested and still not be getting the rest you want and need.
If you find that after a couple of weeks of following healthy sleep habits, you’re still struggling to fall or stay asleep, or you’re not feeling rested after regularly getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night, you might need to talk to your GP.
One common cause of poor sleep is chronic pain, but there may be an underlying cause you’re unaware of, such as sleep apnoea or a thyroid disorder. If there’s no physical cause, visiting a therapist trained in CBTi (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia) might help you.