Preparing the body for a sound night’s sleep is a round-the-clock activity; so if the quality of your shut-eye is keeping you awake, these lifestyle adjustments will extend your trip to dreamland. Christobel Hastings asked an expert to share their best tips…
It’s a well-known fact that good sleep is a foundation for long-term physical and mental health.
But for a significant number of us, sleep deprivation is a serious issue.
According to recent research, almost one in two people get less than six hours’ sleep a night – that’s three hours below government guidelines for a healthy night’s rest – while it’s estimated that 16 million adults in the UK suffer with insomnia.
Lockdown hasn’t helped the situation either, with 40% of people reporting a bad or terrible night’s sleep during the pandemic.
A sound night’s sleep rarely hinges upon one or two factors, but is the result of a finely-tuned routine that runs the whole day long.
From the moment we wake up, to the moments before we doze off, our ability to rest will have been pre-determined by our lifestyle choices during the day.
“Our bodies come fitted with in-built clocks regulating the body’s daily rhythm,” explains Dr Anna Persaud, CEO of This Works.
“Today, we override and disrupt our natural sleep-wake pattern with 24 hour access to light, irregular and more sedentary working hours, regular intake of stimulants such as caffeine, constant access to food, and addictive use of devices.”
To find out how to prime the mind and body for the best night’s sleep possible, we spoke to Dr Persaud to discover five simple steps that can genuinely enhance our rest.
1. Establish a routine
The lead-up to lying down is just as important as the specifics of your sleep schedule, which is why crafting a comforting pre-bedtime routine – and sticking to it – is so essential.
“On a practical level establishing and maintaining a nightly wind down or sleep routine helps to reset and rebalance our minds and natural wake-sleep cycles,” explains Persaud.
Unsurprisingly, slumping on the sofa and binge-watching five hours of Selling Sunset isn’t the best way to get in the right frame of mind for sleep.
But lifestyle habits can be easily adapted, and there are several slumber-inducing ways to ensure our downtime doesn’t take a toll on our shut-eye.
“Steps such as dimming the lights, limiting brain stimulation (turning off Netflix an hour earlier and disconnecting from our devices) and developing associated (conditioning) stimuli have the potential to help signal to our brain that it is time to sleep,” Persaud continues.
“Ban loud sounds and instead listen to calming music,” Persaud advises. “A warm shower or bath is also great but if you like it hot then try to have them at least two hours before bed to avoid raising your body temperature which can inhibit sleep.”
2. Set the mood
If you’re looking for a long, full night of sleep, you need to nail the basics - keep your bedroom cool and make sure your mattress is fit for purpose.
“Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature of 19 degrees or just below and adjust your lighting depending on whether you want to remain alert (bright light) or allow drowsiness (dim light),” advises Persaud.
“Ensure your bedroom is well ventilated to allow air to flow through the night.”
“Our choice of mattress is important as different mattresses suit different bodies,” explains Persaud.
“Look for one that offers full body support accounting for your weight, height and ease of movement - too firm a mattress can cause pressure on our joints whilst too soft and you’ll sink into it as it adjusts to your body contours which again can cause heat to be trapped.
“The temperature of your bedding is also important,” says Persaud.
“Avoid piling on the blankets, as becoming too hot in the night can also disrupt sleep; rather look for breathable bedding i.e. bedding made of natural fibres such as cotton, linen or bedding made with cooling fibres.”
When it comes to sleepwear, breathable, all-natural fabrics like cotton and silk will allow for air circulation, while a looser fit is best for ease of movement - dress your bed in cooling cotton bedding from M&S and make sure your pyjamas are following suit with this star print cotton set.
Finally, wait for the Zs to come.
3. Engage the senses
If you’re looking to create a relaxing environment, you shouldn’t leave scent out of the picture.
Many studies have shown that certain calming fragrances can quell anxiety and reduce the heart rate, helping to put us in a more relaxed state.
“The very act of inhaling a fragrance may impact on many physiological parameters - such as blood pressure and pulse rate,” says Persaud.
“In an independent functional brain imaging study our Deep Sleep Pillow Spray was seen to activate specific brain areas related to socio-emotional processing, suggesting the fragrance has the potential to evoke a feeling of social comfort, trust and calmness, conducive to relaxation and sleep.”
According to Persaud, the more we incorporate fragrance into our bedtime routine, the more we cement the link between our olfactory systems and our emotional core.
So, if we consistently use essential oils, candles or a pillow spray in the evening, our bodies will begin to instinctively associate it with winding down to sleep.
“Over time we may then also create a connection in our brains that links the fragrance to the experience of falling asleep or feeling sleepy, which again can help sustain a healthy sleep pattern – a stimulus control conditioning and strengthening the fragrance as stimulus for sleep.”
4. Adjust your diet
Ever had a coffee late into the afternoon and been wired when you try to go to sleep?
That’s because caffeine is a stimulant, and while keeping you alert during the day, can actively sabotage your shut-eye at night.
“Our scientific advisor Professor Gaby Badre advises against going to bed either too full or with an empty stomach, to avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, and foods that may lead you to bloat or experience acid reflux,” says Persaud.
While you’re nixing your 3pm triple shot latte, it’s also worth cultivating a sleep-promoting diet.
Broadly speaking, this should be rich in fruit, vegetables, grains and proteins, and contain less sugar, carbohydrates and heavily processed foods that can cause a spike in blood sugar and interfere with your sleep patterns.
“[Badre] also advises eating foods that are rich in vitamin B6 (found in fish, nuts, prunes, bananas, spinach, some lean meat) which is involved in the conversion of tryptophan into melatonin (the sleep hormone),” says Persaud.
5. Just breathe
As we’ve previously mentioned, it’s much easier to doze off if you’re in the right frame of mind, which is why devising a calming pre-bedtime ritual is so important.
But the relaxation techniques don’t stop once you climb into bed, which is when meditation, guided imagery and controlled breathing exercises can help calm wandering minds.
For peak relaxation, try lighting a candle for your breathing session - This Works Deep Sleep Heavenly Candle has a therapeutic blend of calming lavender and soothing roman camomile essential oils to help ready you for sleep.
“Place your right hand on your abdomen and left hand on your chest, exhale fully and then inhale from your abdomen,” explains Persaud.
“Keep your chest hand still, allowing your abdomen hand should rise and fall with your breath. Relax into your body and focus on how you now feel.”
A breathing exercise can also come in handy if you find yourself waking up during the night, or even during the day, if you find yourself getting anxious.
This should be your first port of call instead of further arousing the mind with distractions.
“Try, if you can, to stay in bed and keep your mind still, for example by focussing on a specific point of a ‘virtual’ picture or replaying in your mind part of a film or documentary, or even a book you have recently read. There is also something to be said for the old adage of counting sheep,” advises Persaud.