Getting off to sleep can be a task in itself, and cause much worry and frustration. Sleep consultant Maryanne Taylor advises on the ways you can speed up the process of getting to sleep, as well as whether counting sheep really works…
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For so many of us, getting enough shut-eye can be a tricky mission. The elusive eight to nine recommended hours of sleep can be the difference between a good day and a bad day; a productive one and a painfully sluggish one. Nevertheless, our fascination with sleep continues to grow exponentially, with research last year finding that more than half of adults in the UK struggled with sleep during 2020’s lockdown and anecdotal interest in how to get ‘better’ sleep at the top of many of our agendas.
Beyond the day-to-day frustration at not feeling awake or full of energy, getting sufficient rest is an undeniably good thing for your body and is an invaluable way to look after yourself. Maryanne Taylor, a certified sleep consultant and founder of resource and service The Sleep Works, can vouch for this. Improved sleep patterns can benefit both your physical and mental health, from concentration, mood levels and ability to deal with anxiety to benefitting our immune system and blood pressure.
There are various myths to bust when going after a good night’s sleep – for example, counting sheep is not actually known to work effectively in getting you off to sleep quicker, according to Taylor.
“It appears that this advice may have exactly the opposite effect,” she says. “The concept of dulling our brain with a repetitive and monotonous thought would not be sufficient to push other worries and distractions away, to enable us to feel more relaxed for the onset of sleep.”
So what can you be doing to ensure you get off to sleep as quickly as you can, taking advantage of those nighttime hours to get as much rest as possible? Here are Taylor’s recommendations.
Put pen to paper
It may sound super analogue, but turning away from your devices and reflecting on your day by writing down what has happened and what you’re grateful for can help draw your day to a natural close – and committing these events to paper will help you process it.
“List the positives and negatives that have affected your mood, and maybe a to-do list with short and long term goals,” Taylor suggests.
Focus on your breathing
“Slow down and focus on your breathing to help calm the mind, nervous system and relax the muscles,” Taylor advises.
There are a number of breathing exercises you can use to get yourself off to sleep, one is called the 4-7-8 technique, which works as follows:
1) Completely empty your lungs of air
2) Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds
3) Hold the air in your lungs for 7 seconds
4) Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
You can repeat this cycle as needed, but this technique is known for getting problem sleepers off to sleep very quickly, sometimes within a minute.
Another exercise to try is the ‘equal breathing’ practice, which relies on you concentrating on inhaling and exhaling for the same amount of time, evening your breath and relaxing your body.
Find a way to separate yourself from timings
While getting enough hours of sleep is important, fixating on how many you are going to get each night can cause way more damage than good. In whatever way suits you, try and separate yourself from devices and thoughts that concentrate on what time it is.
“If you find yourself lying in bed and focussing on the time and doing a mental count of how many hours you still have left to sleep, either turn the clock away from you if you have one or, if you are using your phone, leave it on the other side of the room rather than next to your bed,” Taylor says.
Give yourself a cut off if you’re finding it difficult to drop off
If you can’t get to sleep within around 15 minutes, Taylor says it’s fine to occupy yourself with other (calming) tasks to wind your mind down. While laying still and praying sleep to come to you can be tempting, your body might need that extra wind down.
According to Taylor, this technique will help you to reduce your stress levels around not sleeping – which is a key problem for many struggling sleepers. “It also helps reduce the association you may have established with your bed being a place you struggle with sleep,” she adds.
Think about what you’re eating, and how close to bedtime you’re snacking
“When and what we put into our body impacts on our sleep patterns,” Taylor explains. “Overstimulating our digestive system with heavy, spicy meals too close to bedtime will affect our blood sugar levels, and can make us feel uncomfortable, which is obviously not conducive to strong sleep patterns.”
When thinking about snacking in the evenings, consider trying to close the gap between dinner and going to bed – you are likely to feel hungry around four to five hours after you eat dinner, according to Taylor.
Alternatively, a healthy snack in the hour leading up to bedtime will help: “bananas contain magnesium, which helps relax muscles, nuts – like almonds, pistachios and cashews – contain magnesium and zinc,” Taylor says.
These foods can also help boost your levels of melatonin, the naturally occurring sleep hormone. Zinc is crucial in producing melatonin, while magnesium is known to quiet the nervous system.
Want more on sleep? Read these next
Stylist’s Dream Journals: we’ve been working with psychologist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari to reflect on some of our most puzzling bedtime visions – and figure out how, if at all, we should respond to them in our waking hours.
NHS’s Live Well advice: for NHS support and advice on getting a night of healthy sleep.
Mind: the mental health charity’s tools and resources for anyone concerned about sleep and mental health problems
Maryanne Taylor, certified sleep consultant
Maryanne established a sleep service for children in 2010, moving into adult sleep services in 2015 with her organisation The Sleep Works. She educates, supports and motivates adults to improve their sleep, through one-to-one consultations and webinars for groups and organisations.