10 steps to a perfect night’s sleep
What keeps you awake at night? Is it thinking about work or worrying about money? Perhaps you spend too much time checking the football scores on your smartphone.
Whatever the reason, scientists are only beginning to understand what lack of sleep does to us.
Most recently, a team of researchers from the University of Surrey claims that a run of poor sleep can alter the internal workings of our body. The experts analysed the blood of one group of people after they had had plenty of sleep, and compared the results with those of another group who had been restricted to less than six hours.
The results showed that 700 genes had been altered by the change in sleeping patterns, meaning our basic chemistry had been tampered with.
The fact that lack of sleep is bad for us is long established, and it has previously been linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This University of Surrey study is merely yet more proof that getting enough sleep is a vital part of staying healthy.
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The Sleep Council’s (sleepcouncil.org.uk) Lisa Artis stresses the importance of getting to the bottom of a person’s sleep problems before it takes its toll on their health. “As with proper nutrition and exercise, sleep fulfils a vital role in keeping us healthy and happy,” she says.
“We need a good night’s sleep to ensure we’re feeling fit, thinking sharply and generally give us the appetite and enthusiasm to make the most of everyday living.
“However, poor sleep and fatigue are common problems, affecting millions of people worldwide. So what is keeping us awake at night? Stress and worry is the most common reason, with partner disturbance a close second – including snoring and duvet hogging.”
Surprisingly, there is no magic number when it comes to how many hours of sleep we need per night, though you would struggle to function on less than six. Artis says: “Everyone’s requirements are different; some of us cope far better on less than others, but there is a fairly general consensus that around seven to nine hours is the average needed to feel refreshed and function well, both mentally and physically. If you’re getting a little less, there’s probably no need to worry, but a lot less is a problem.
“Research has found that those who frequently get fewer than six hours a night are at significantly increased risk of stroke and heart disease, with evidence that not sleeping enough may ramp up the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, releasing hormones that speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure.”
But it’s not just the physical risk you have to worry about – lack of sleep also affects our mental wellbeing. “Research has also shown it impacts on attention and memory in most people,” says Artis. “Lack of sleep diminishes levels of concentration and makes you liable to mood swings and depression. Sleep affects our learning and problem solving capabilities.”
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The good news for light sleepers is that getting a long, undisturbed night’s sleep is not as elusive as you might think. In fact, all it probably takes is a few simple tweaks to your evening routine.
For starters, Artis says: “Keep regular hours. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time, all the time, will programme your body to sleep better.”
It’s essential meanwhile, that you get your sleeping setup just right. “Create a restful sleeping environment,” says Artis. “Your bedroom should be kept for rest and sleep and it should be neither too hot, nor too cold, and as quiet and dark as possible. Make sure your bed is comfortable. It’s difficult to get deep, restful sleep on one that’s too soft, too hard, too small or too old.”
Avoiding stimulants at the wrong time of day will stop you from tossing and turning when you retire. Artis says: “Cut down on stimulants such as caffeine in tea or coffee, especially in the evening. They interfere with falling asleep and prevent deep sleep. Have a hot milky drink or herbal tea instead.”
Social media is a thoroughly modern form of stimulant, but it can be just as destructive to our ability to fall asleep. Artis has this advice: “Turn off mobile phones, tablets etcetera, well before bedtime! Leaving them on will not only prevent you from falling asleep, but they may become disruptive at inopportune times and wake you up again. Also, exposure to even the weakest glow at night – for example, your TVs standby button – can subconsciously play havoc with your body’s circadian rhythms.”
All of these distractions combine to make it almost impossible to do one thing – relax. To help you switch off, Artis says: “Have a warm bath, listen to some quiet music, do yoga… all help to relax both the mind and body. Your doctor may be able to recommend a helpful relaxation tape, too.”
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Away from the bedroom, take more exercise. “Regular, moderate exercise such as swimming or walking can help relieve the day’s stresses and strains,” says Artis. “But not too close to bedtime or it may keep you awake.”
Working out isn’t the only thing you shouldn’t do too close to hitting the hay. Artis says: “Don’t over-indulge. Too much food or alcohol, especially late at night, just before bedtime, can play havoc with sleep patterns. Alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, but will interrupt your sleep later on in the night.”
And while smoking should be a total no-no anyway, those of you who do enjoy the odd puff now and again should be aware that this is also a sleep-blocker. “Smokers take longer to fall asleep, wake more often and often experience more sleep disruption,” says Artis.
If it’s stress keeping you awake at night, then Artis and The Sleep Council advise making a list of things to be tackled the next day. You’ll be amazed at how this simple technique helps to clear your head and stop you thinking about work, odd jobs and other tasks you can do nothing about while you’re in bed.
Finally, don’t just lie there and let yourself suffer. Artis says: “If you can’t sleep, don’t lie there worrying about it. Get up and do something you find relaxing until you feel sleepy again. Then – go back to bed.”
So, forget counting sheep. You will only get to sleep if your body, and your mind, are prepared for it. And on that note - time for bed.