Improve your sleep (in a way that works for you)

Improve your sleep (in a way that works for you)

You may be well aware of the general sleep advice out there (if not don’t worry, read on we’ve got you covered!) but what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone. So how can you tailor this advice to work better for you? 

Turn off/ remove your electronic devices

When I struggled to sleep the first thing my therapist asked me to do was to turn my screens off. I used them as a distraction from worrying about the next day; my brain was too busy and it felt impossible to switch off.

Blue light, produced by our phones, laptops, TV’s etc., actually stops our brains from winding down to fall asleep. Generally we are advised to stop screen time at least 30 minutes before going to bed. I was asked to try mindfulness podcasts or relaxation music when I went to bed, to replace the screens; however I quickly found that, although mindfulness podcasts were relaxing for my therapist, I got irritated by a voice I didn’t recognise and I’d stay awake paying attention to the words. And pan flutes/whale sounds put me on edge. 

In the end I played an old TV series I pretty much knew off by heart (Peep Show is always my go-to) but with the screen turned off to remove the blue light. That’s what I found worked best for me.

If you’re using screens as a distraction from stress or anxiety (amongst the worst culprits of sleepless nights) consider other ways to wind down before bed. Writing to-do lists before bed can significantly improve your sleep if you’re prone to lying awake worrying about what you need to do the next day. If writing lists isn’t your thing mindfulness, meditation and yoga can all reduce stress and anxiety, and improve sleep without that pesky blue light!

Avoid caffeine/ alcohol/ nicotine before bed

Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that make your brain more active and harder to switch off. Ideally we should be having our last caffeinated drink at least 6 hours before bed and (if you’re a smoker) avoiding smoking 2 hours before bed. Alcohol may also help you fall asleep quicker but will give you lower quality sleep if you rely on it regularly, meaning you’ll still be exhausted the next day. 

But you can’t take something away without replacing it with something else, right? These may be a longstanding part of our current routine so what are we going to replace them with that isn’t going to get in the way of us getting those Z’s?

Here are some suggestions to start you thinking:

  • Horlicks, caffeine-free tea or herbal tea, and low sugar hot chocolate are good alternatives to a caffeinated drink before bed. If, like me, you’re not a fan of the traditional chamomile or peppermint tea there’s some really great alternatives around including vanilla chai or blackcurrant
  • If you enjoy an alcoholic drink before bed why not try one of the many alcohol free alternatives that are around now and are actually pretty decent? Alcohol-free gin actually tastes like the real thing (in my opinion), and some of the alcohol free beers are ok too
  • If smoking’s your thing in the evening, a distracting activity that keeps your hands busy is key – this could include writing (maybe journalling or to-do lists), mindful colouring, or even mastering a fidget spinner or yoyo
Get active

This one’s pretty self-explanatory; we won’t sleep well if we’re not tired. Now, I’m not here to tell you to go outside for a run or a walk; maybe this isn’t possible or enjoyable for you. So what is? Even if we’re stationary most of the day because of our jobs, commitments, or health there are alternative ways to include some activity in our days. Even being active for 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week has been shown to significantly improve our sleep. Some ideas:

In the past, advice was to avoid late-night workouts but recent research shows if you’re a bit of a night owl then evening workouts will benefit your sleep as much as an earlier workout. If you’re an early riser then morning/ afternoon/ early evening workouts would work better for you. Do what works for your own lifestyle and routine.

Follow a night-time routine

This may sound more daunting than it is. Basically we’re thinking about the last hour to 30 minutes of our day where we should be winding down (and all of the above will come into this). Can you do these things in roughly the same order at a similar time each evening? Even having a drink (remember to put down that caffeine!), changing into some pyjamas, and brushing your teeth; hey you’ve got yourself a routine! It doesn’t have to be complicated or long-winded, and most importantly of all it needs to work for you and fit in with your life. 

I get it, life can be busy, but our brains love habits and routine and we’re trying to train our brains to recognise the signs it’s time to slow down to allow us to sleep well. Routine also reduces feelings of stress and anxiety before going to bed, which will quieten those busy brains.

Sleep hygiene should be used as a guide that you can apply to your lifestyle. There’s no one size fits all with anything in life – we don’t all find mindfulness podcasts and pan flutes relaxing just as we don’t all meditate or journal. Once you get your head around the principles, you can make it work for you.

Photo by Claudia Mañas on Unsplash

Sources

Barrett, B. et al (2020) Mindfulness meditation and exercise both improve sleep quality: Secondary analysis of a randomized controlled trial of community dwelling adults, Sleep Health, 6(6), pp. 804-813.

Bussing, A. et al (2012) Effects of Yoga on Mental and Physical Health: A Short Summary of Reviews, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (online)

Clark, I. & Landolt, H.P. (2017) Coffee, caffeine, and sleep: A systematic review of epidemiological studies and randomized controlled trials, Sleep Medicine Reviews, 31, pp. 70-78.

Cohen, A. et al (2019) The Relationship Between Tobacco Smoking, Cortisol Secretion, and Sleep Continuity, Substance Use & Misuse, 54(10), pp. 1705-1714.

Hartescu, I, Morgan, K. & Stevinson, C.D. (2015) Increased physical activity improves sleep and mood outcomes in inactive people with insomnia: a randomized controlled trial, Journal of Sleep Research, 24(5), pp. 526-34.

Park, S.Y. et al (2015) The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep, Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 36(6): pp. 294–299.

Scullin, M.K. et al (2018) The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(1), pp. 139–146.

Shechter, A. et al (2018) Blocking nocturnal blue light for insomnia: A randomized controlled trial, Journal of Psychiatric Research, 96, pp. 196–202.

Trahan T. et al (2018) The music that helps people sleep and the reasons they believe it works: A mixed methods analysis of online survey reports, PLoS ONE, 13(11)

Vitale, J.A. et al (2017) Sleep quality and high intensity interval training at two different times of day: A crossover study on the influence of the chronotype in male collegiate soccer players, Chronobiology International, 34(2), pp. 260-268.

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