How many times have you enthusiastically set New Year’s resolutions but by the end of January your best intentions have been forgotten? We asked our resident sleep expert Christabel Majendie to set out six tips to improve your sleep and how to improve your chances of actually carrying them out.
1. Get the right amount of sleep at the right time
Everyone is different when it comes to sleep. Although the average sleep duration is between 7 and 9 hours, there are people who just need less sleep or more sleep than the average. Equally, not everyone is ready for sleep at the same time and not everyone is ready to wake up at the same time.
So, work out your own individual sleep pattern and aim for a consistent schedule based on this. To do this, you first have to clear any sleep debt that may have accumulated from not sleeping enough during the week (because our body compensates for sleep loss, we need to make up about a third of what we have lost).
For two days, go to sleep when you feel sleepy in the evening and set no alarm clock in the morning (it’s best to do this when you have no social engagements in the evening and nothing to get up for in the morning). Once you have cleared any sleep debt, observe the time when you tend to feel sleepy in the evenings.
Sleepiness, which is different to tiredness, is when you start feeling like you will nod off and often comes with increased yawning. To work out your natural wake time, see what time you consistently wake up without an alarm clock.
2. Anchor your wake time
Setting a consistent wake time in the morning is key to regulating your circadian rhythm or body clock. Despite what people think, lying in at the weekend to catch up on sleep is actually quite disruptive to your sleep systems.
It is far better to aim to get the right amount of sleep across the week than relying on catching up on Saturday or Sunday morning. So set your rise time as close to your natural wake time as possible and stick to this seven days a week.
3. Get as much light exposure as possible during the day
We need bright light exposure during the day for melatonin production later in the evening, a hormone involved in sleep regulation. The best source of bright light is natural daylight, even on a cloudy day. But many of us spend most of our daytime hours indoors and, as a result, we are not getting an adequate level of light exposure for optimal melatonin production.
This can make us feel tired during the day and struggle to sleep at night. Aim to get as much natural daylight as possible by spending more time outside. Since exercise improves the quality of your sleep, combining light exposure with exercise is recommended.
Try taking a walk or going for a run in the morning or at lunchtime. Walking or cycling to and from work is a good option too.
4. Write a ‘to do’ list before bed
Many people find themselves thinking about what they have to do the next day when they are trying to sleep and this can delay sleep onset. A study by Baylor University (Scullin et al., 2018) indicates that spending five minutes writing down a to-do list of everything that needs doing over the next few days can help people to fall asleep more quickly compared to those who spent time going over the things they had completed in the last few days. So rather than lying in bed worrying about everything you have to do, get it down on paper before going to bed.
5. Cut down on alcohol
There is no denying that alcohol is disruptive to your sleep. Although it can help send you into a deep sleep initially, alcohol tends to fragment your sleep so you may wake several times in the night or early in the morning and find you cannot return to sleep.
In addition, alcohol suppresses REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep) which is important for memory and learning, as well as emotion regulation. All this can leave you feeling groggy and irritable the next day.
So, to improve your sleep quality, aim to cut down on alcohol consumption. Have at least 2 alcohol-free nights a week and on other nights remain within the recommended daily limits. In addition, it’s a good idea to stay off alcohol in the last couple of hours before bed so your body has a chance to metabolise it before sleep.
6. Arrange your bedroom for sleep
Your bedroom should only be for sleeping so ditch the TV and any other daytime activities that you do in bed such as eating, drinking tea, working or playing games on laptops, iPads and phones (sexual activity is the only allowable exception). If you do these things in bed, you will weaken the associations your brain makes between the bedroom and sleep.
Instead, the bedroom may become associated with wakefulness. In addition, aim to make your bedroom as comfortable as possible. Use pillows that suit your sleeping position to prevent putting a strain on your neck or back.
Consider investing in a new mattress if yours is old, lumpy or too hard/ soft for your personal preference. Use adequate bedding for the time of year and use materials made from natural fibres as these are better at regulating body temperature.
Tips for sticking to your sleep resolutions
Research shows that intentions do not predict change. But other factors such as self-belief and importance do. So ask yourself how will these changes impact positively on your life and why is this important?
To improve confidence in your ability to make these changes, you need specific goals: what exactly are you going to do? Break it down into small steps then specify when you will start, what days you will be carrying out your goal, and for how long.
Set a review date to see if you have met the goal: if you have succeeded, congratulate yourself and set new goals; if not, you may need to break the goal down into smaller, easier steps to succeed. Be persistent and don’t give up. Improving the quality of your sleep is worth it.