Have a better, deeper sleep.
BY INGRID KESA
A good night’s sleep is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. This form of rest and rejuvenation is essential in restoring cells at a molecular level, and for things like boosting memories and creativity. Reversely, a lack of sleep can lead to weight gain, mental instability (like mood swings and irritability), decreased cognitive function, and an increase in the risk of depression and heart disease.
Experts say that adults need seven to nine hours of sleep to function at their best. But many of us feel like we’re not getting enough of it. When you’re laying in bed wide awake in the early hours, thoughts-racing like Formula One cars in the Grand Prix, the prospect of slipping into restful REM can seem unattainable. But there are a few simple actions you can perform, right now, which can help to make your sleep dreams come true.
GET INTO A ROUTINE
Humans are creatures of comfort. When we set up a routine before bed our body will become accustomed to the idea of sleep. The simplest and easiest thing you can start by doing tonight is hopping into bed at the same time. This levels out our internal circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostasis, making it easier to fall asleep.
It might help to think of your pre-sleep routine as a series of rituals that honour your right to a good night’s sleep. You have worked hard during the day and overcome many challenges, and now it is time to rest. Give yourself a series of rewards to signify this. Having a warm bath is not only relaxing but when you get out after soaking, the air temperature cools your body, sending a message to the brain to sleep. Magnesium can aid relaxation, so try adding Epsom salts—fine crystals of magnesium sulphate—to your bath, which can be absorbed through the skin, easing muscles, alleviating pain, and setting you up for a solid night’s sleep.
MAKE A SLEEP SANCTUARY
If you’ve had trouble sleeping in the past and hitting the hay has now become something that you dread, try to re-frame your thoughts about sleep by changing your environment. Think about sleep in terms of treating your senses during bedtime. New bedding soft to the touch (like sheets in French Flax linen or bamboo cotton) and fresh pillows will transform your bed into a heavenly little cloud. You could try spritzing some lavender mist—like the This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray—onto your pillow or drinking a herbal (caffeine-free) tea before bed. Make it a priority to clear the clutter from your bedroom to create a calming space. Your body temperature needs to drop to induce sleep, so cultivate a cool, dark environment where you feel safe and serene.
SWITCH OFF SCREENS
The blue light that emits from iPhones, iPads, and laptops stimulates cortisol (the stress hormone) and suppresses melatonin (required for sleep). Avoid using any technology for an hour before the bedtime that you have set yourself. Instagram will still be there in the morning, and no email is so important that it can’t wait until the next day. If you have a TV in your bedroom, think about removing it. Make it a mission not to use your laptop in bed.
AIM FOR GOOD GUT HEALTH
The microbial ecosystem is having a peak cultural moment, and scientists are now suggesting that there’s a link between gut health and sleep. A recent study from the University of Colorado, published in Frontiers of Behavioural Neuroscience, posits that prebiotics could contribute to the quality of non-REM and REM sleep. BBC journalist and chronic insomniac Dr Michael Mosley documented the effects of taking prebiotics during his 2017 documentary The Truth About: Sleep, noting that he saw a huge improvement in his ability to sleep. Think about taking probiotics and prebiotics, along with eating fermented foods like saurkraut, tempeh, and kefir, and collagen-rich foods like salmon and bone broth.
PRACTICE MINDFULNESS & MEDITATION
Studies show that mindfulness and meditation help to improve sleep and battle insomnia. The practice involves focusing on your breathing and bringing your awareness to the present moment. Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, came up with the term ‘the relaxation response’ in the ‘70s. It explains a physiological shift in the body that’s the opposite of stress. “Mindfulness meditation is just one of a smorgasbord of techniques that evoke the relaxation response,” he says, suggesting practicing mindfulness for 20 minutes during the day. “The idea is to create a reflex to more easily bring forth a sense of relaxation. That way, it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep. In fact, the relaxation response is so, well, relaxing that your daytime practice should be done sitting up or moving (as in yoga or tai chi) so as to avoid nodding off.” There are lots of apps and websites that offer guided meditations tailored to sleep—such as Headspace.
CUT DOWN CAFFEINE
Adenosine is a substance that promotes sleepiness. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptor. As a stimulant, obviously caffeine makes it harder to fall asleep but one study also found that it can delay the timing of your body clock, working to reduce your total sleep time and amount of deep sleep. A study at the University of South Australia found that shorter sleep is associated with higher caffeine consumption. So it’s a no-brainer to avoid caffeine before bed, but for how long ahead of sleep should we withhold? The Journal of Sleep Medicine found that consuming caffeine six hours before bedtime reduced total sleep time by one hour. The Australian Sleep Health Foundation explains that while caffeine affects the body very quickly (within 30-70 minutes), its effects last three to seven hours and it can stay in the bloodstream for prolonged periods time. It’s best to avoid caffeine after midday for an optimal night’s sleep. Instead try to combat the mid-afternoon slump by snacking on a piece of fruit, a hard-boiled egg or handful of nuts; taking a brisk walk around the block, or doing some light stretching or yoga.
WAKE UP WELL
Complete the sleep cycle by setting up practices to ensure you wake up on the right side of the bed, feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. Send a message to your internal clock that it’s time to begin the day by opening up a window to let natural light in or sitting in the sun for a few minutes. Just like you turned off your screens before bed, try to go for the first hour of the day without checking any technology as this will create a reactive mindset, rather than a proactive one, causing you to start the day in a defensive state. You could use this time to replenish your body with water while practicing gratitude, writing down, or thinking about the things you are grateful for in your life, which will trigger dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, lifting your mood and lowering your heart rate. Much better than scrolling endlessly.
BE GENTLE ON YOURSELF
Like any form of self-betterment, increasing your sleep hygiene can be hard work. Don’t be put off if you’re not instantly transported into a dream state. It can take time. But by just thinking about it and trying to put these practices in place, you’re already on the right track.