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How to get better quality sleep



The press is full of the perils of poor quality sleep, but how does a person go about improving their sleep? Here's a scattering of options for you to select from on a pick 'n mix basis, because - as ever - we're all individual, and that goes for what methods will work in achieving a better quality of sleep.

I'll start with the old standards and go from there ...

  1. Warm bath An oldie but goodie this one - so long as you find taking a bath restful (I don't). The ritual of drawing a bath, adjusting the bathroom lighting to be restful, adding bubbles or oils (remembering to choose scents which are restful, such as lavender, not citrus which will stimulate) all go towards making this an excellent wind-down routine. But it won't work if you have people interrupting you - to use the facilities, asking what you're doing, how long you're going to be, or where their [whatever] is. So if soaking in a bath appeals, then set the rules with your fellow-dwellers in advance. A friend of mine had a simple instruction for children (which could apply equally well to helpless adults) of the "only disturb if a body part is broken or bleeding" variety.

  2. Hot drink The key is that it cannot be caffeinated - for like the citrus oils in the previous point, caffeine will act as a stimulant rather than a relaxant. It also has to be enjoyable - if you think chamomile tea smells of old socks and tastes blah (as I do), it's unlikely to do the trick for you. So pick something you like - hot chocolate always works for me, but if you're going to fixate on the calorie count, select something less loaded.

  3. Limit screen time The suggestion to ban screens for an hour before bed can be unwelcome, but sadly there are a wealth of good reasons for this one. The first being that they emit blue light, which has a negative impact on your production of melatonin - the hormone that controls your sleep cycle (or circadian rhythm to use it's correct name). The second is the content you read on your screen is likely to engage your brain, to wake it up - when what you actually need to be doing is the opposite. Finally, the buzz or ping of alerts happening throughout the night could cause a disturbance.

  4. Do a brain dump Are you the type of person whose sleep is prevented by your mind going into overdrive? Whether you're worrying about what needs to be done in the morning, or your worries are of the serious concern type, make time to do a brain dump. While it's probably clear how jotting down a to-do list for the morning can stop you worrying, how does this work for the serious concerns? The main purpose of a brain dump in these circumstances is to close the "open loops" in your mind, because a large part of the feeling of overwhelm (which is what's keeping you awake) isn't the doing of the thing, it's the figuring out how to do the thing. At the most serious end of the spectrum where stuff is out of your control, acceptance is key to obtaining relief. Writing it down is a good first step, but other steps could involve journalling (which involves going into more detail than a basic brain dump), seeing a talking therapist, praying if you're religious. For maximum relief, following a regular brain dump ritual as detailed here can be highly effective.

  5. Meditation A mindfulness meditation practice can be hugely beneficial at any time of day. Whether you use an app or other form of recorded guidance, this can help you screen out thoughts and worries, preparing your body and mind for sleep. I've used a mindfulness meditation app for 6 months, and while I rarely had trouble sleeping previously, there is no doubt the quality of my sleep has improved hugely subsequently. Many apps also contain sleep stories - anything from 15 minutes to up to an hour. These not only have the power transport you right back to the childhood practice of being read bedtime stories, they're also specially designed to aid the process of falling asleep. In the absence of wi-fi, I've listened instead to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone stories (gently humorous tales of innocent youth and small town USA) or to Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter tales on Audible, even classical or jazz instrumentals have done the trick for me. Experiment and see what works for you.

  6. Food choices Having a small snack before bedtime - a banana, some cherries, a small handful of almonds, crackers with peanut butter, wholegrain cereal with milk, a small turkey sandwich - all will provide a source of complex carbohydrates, calcium/magnesium and tryptophan, which will have a calming and soothing effect. It's equally important to avoid eating a heavy meal before bedtime - feeling overly full, having indigestion or reflux are sure-fire ways of preventing sleep. I'm sorry to tell you that while drinking alcohol may make you feel sleepy, alcohol is a sedative, meaning you switch off. This switching off will effect your quality of sleep by activating your fight/flight response, or blocking REM (dream sleep) which you need for emotional and mental health.

  7. Room temperature A room which has been aired before bedtime (if you're uncomfortable leaving a small window open at night), and which is kept at a lower temperature than your living rooms will aid the sleep process - something science has long supported. If you find it chilly, bundle up the layers - a woolly blanket, a quilt, bed socks, cozy pyjamas - especially as they add to the feeling of being comforted to sleep.

  8. Read a book in bed I hesitated over this one - for reading tends to work counter to this for me - but there really is good science that it benefits the many. Reading is a huge stress-buster, for you can escape from your everyday worries in a book. Research has shown it can reduce stress by up to 68%. When reading becomes part of a bedtime ritual, the Mayo Clinic confirms it can signal to your body that it's time to relax and go to sleep. A real (paper) book is preferred, due to the issues with screens before bed, although it has been suggested newer Kindle devices have now solved the blue light issue.

  9. Lighting Lighting also plays its part, whether the problem be too much or too little. The addition of black-out lining to your curtains, or a black-out blind, can aid falling asleep, let alone improving sleep quality for those negatively impacted by light. For those who are uncomfortable in the dark, a night light's comforting glow may help, or you can try a light with multiple settings - not just on or off, as well as those which will fade away to dark over a set period of time.

  10. Have a fixed schedule for sleeping and waking This one's dull, but it does work because your body prefers a routine. It likes knowing what time is bedtime and what time is getting up time. Why? Well, our body's circadian rhythm is naturally aligned with sunrise and sunset, and while I'm not suggesting you alter your sleep pattern to match sunrise/sunset, providing your body with a regular rhythm of its own will make a significant difference. Again, science suggests that many who follow a fixed schedule will find they have no need for an alarm clock.

  11. Bed and Bedding Mattresses aren't designed to last forever, so if you can afford to, you should budget to replace yours at regular intervals. If you share a bed and are significantly different in height/weight to your partner, you may benefit from a mattress which is - effectively - two different mattresses joined in the middle, providing each of you with the level of support/comfort you need to sleep comfortably. The selection of pillow - filling, firmness, quantity - is also worth considering, as a feather pillow may cause you to snuffle, and the wrong height or number of pillows may cause a stiff neck. Finally, if you're inclined to over-heat, 100% cotton bedding may prove a worthwhile investment.

  12. Exercise Exercise just before bed is to be avoided, as it'll stimulate rather than relax, but those who take regular exercise sometime during the day do sleep better. Research shows that even severe insomniacs found exercise more beneficial than many drugs. Remember, that exercise can be as little as a short(ish) walk - you don't need to go crazy.

  13. Naps While napping during the day can be irresistible when you're tired, if they're preventing you from getting a good night's sleep, it may be necessary to find ways to break the cycle. As with all things, try to be aware of your patterns, so you can establish whether those naps are beneficial or troublesome.

  14. Caffeine The facts about caffeine and sleep are simple in that caffeine is a stimulant. It has a half life of 5-6 hours, which means 50% of the caffeine you consumed 5-6 hours ago is still in your system. It can also change the quality of your sleep by decreasing the amount of non-REM sleep (the restorative portion of your sleep cycle) so you can wake up feeling not rested, despite not knowing why. When struggling with tiredness, it's difficult not to turn to caffeine for the boost to get you through the day, but if it's preventing you from sleeping, you may need to try a caffeine detox. Here are some different options to give you an energy boost instead - whole grains, fruit, and protein. Sad to say that not only does chocolate contain caffeine, the good dark stuff has the highest levels.

  15. Get Up If all else fails and you're unable to get to sleep, don't stay in bed - get up. Trying frantically to go to sleep for too long can make things worse. Instead, get out of bed and do something else. If you live with other people, you'll have to limit this to something quiet, but just taking yourself away from bed is important. In fact, best advice states you should only use your bed for two purposes - sex and sleep - so if you're having trouble sleeping and you use your bed for other purposes, you may need to give this rule a try.

  16. Accupressure wristband My sole experience of insomnia stretched over several months. Two things helped - accepting there was a problem which I needed to address was the first, wearing an accupressure wrist band to break the cycle was the second. I'm afraid it was too long ago for me recall the brand, so I cannot offer a specific recommendation but Google is your friend.

You'll notice from the random personal comments that these aren't just suggestions I've re-cycled from elsewhere. My own daily bedtime routine incorporates 5, 6, 7, 10, 12 & 14, and I've used 2, 4, 9, 11, 13, 15 & 16 when needed. I hate baths so 1 isn't helpful, being a bookworm 8 has entirely the wrong effect, and I continue to struggle with 3.

One final note of reassurance for parents - until your child gets into a reliable sleep routine themselves (which may take some time), you will inevitably be fighting a losing battle with sleep. I hope some of these suggestions help the sleep you do get to be of better quality, but please accept that your own routine is necessarily dependent upon your child/children for a while - and that's not just absolutely OK, but how it must be. Worrying about your lack of sleep isn't for those who are parenting a new human.

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