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Stylist Sleep Diaries: How to fall asleep, by a lifelong insomniac

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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How well do you sleep? In a new series of diary entries from women across the UK, Stylist is exploring one of our most prolific obsessions…

Here, a lifelong insomniac shares each step of her meticulously planned nighttime routine, all of which is geared up to help her drift off – in theory. In reality, things don’t always go to plan…

Name: Sarah Biddlecombe

Age: 29

Profession: Journalist (digital commissioning editor at Stylist)

Ideal amount of sleep: 8 hours/night

Actual amount of sleep: around 5-6 hours

Describe your sleep in three words: Erratic, elusive, troubled

Rate your sleep out of 10: 6/10

I’ve been an insomniac for as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure it’s genetic; my dad has issues with sleep, and my nan used to thrive on just a couple of hours kip a night (although sadly I didn’t inherit that trait). When I was little I used to read books under my duvet with a torch when I couldn’t sleep, or lie in bed inventing stories – something I still do now, especially when it’s 4am and my thoughts are crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies. Keeping to a strict bedtime routine is the best way for me to keep my sleep in check; I can’t stand the phrase “good sleep hygiene” but practicing a few recommendations from sleep experts really does help to keep me sane and I’m always on the lookout for sleep studies.

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8pm: Just like all my fellow insomniacs, sleep is never far from my mind; it’s fair to say I’m obsessed with it. So my routine starts freakishly early, with all caffeine being cut out from 4pm onwards, and plenty of exercise and fresh air thrown in throughout the day – studies have shown that being outside and exposing yourself to natural light throughout the day, and getting plenty of movement while you’re at it, can help people drift off at night by regulating our body’s natural sleep/wake cycles.

On a regular evening, by 8pm you will usually find me eating the latest food that scientists have decided is good for helping humans nod off – at the moment I swear by a banana or a handful of almonds, both of which contain magnesium, which is apparently a good muscle relaxant that helps regulate our stress-response system. Don’t ask me why, but it seems to work… most of the time.

Sarah’s four-step beauty routine, completed during the Love Island ad breaks

9pm: As a dedicated Love Island fan, I’ve learned to be productive in the ad breaks, and I now use those 17 minutes of dead space to complete my pre-bedtime beauty routine. I’ve got it down to a fine art: break one is spent removing my makeup with a face wipe, break two is for washing the city off my face with some Liz Earle Hot Cloth Cleanser, and break three is for applying a layer of Elizabeth Arden Superstart Skin Renewal Booster, followed by a final layer of Neutrogena Deep Moisture Comfort Balm. I hate mindfulness (trying not to think of anything makes me overthink everything) but I once read an article that suggested you can be “mindful” in your everyday tasks, by focusing clearly on what you’re doing and thinking only of the task at hand. So I now use this routine to try and clear my mind as well as my face, which is very soothing and – pleasingly – puts me in the right frame of mind for sleep.

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10pm: I’m neurotic about avoiding any blue light [the light emitted by electrical devices such as phones, computers and TVs] for at least an hour before I go to bed – whatever I’m doing, this part of my routine is not up for debate. Studies have shown it suppresses the hormone melatonin, which we produce in the evening to help us sleep, and I’ve bought into this idea completely – I don’t know if it’s just a placebo effect, but if I so much as look at the screen of my phone or laptop or watch any TV in the 60 minutes before I shut my eyes, I know for a fact that I won’t sleep. At all.

At 10pm, I usually switch my phone to airplane mode, turn my alarm on and then place it on the other side of the room so I have to get up when the alarm goes off. Then I brush my teeth, use some mouthwash and tie my hair back, in that order. I can’t sleep with my hair loose, which is probably a throwback to getting smoked on in grimy pubs when I was a teenager – there’s nothing worse than waking up with the hangover from hell and an inescapable veil of hair that smells like stale, second-hand smoke. I use a specific type of hairband that I’ve been buying from Superdrug since I was a teenager; the band is really thick so my hair is less likely to escape through the night.

10.15pm: Once my room is an electricity-free zone (apart from my lamp, which doesn’t give off any evil blue light), I make my bed. I like to leave the duvet off the bottom sheet during the day to air the bed out, and I sleep on top of two mattress protectors to make it extra comfortable. After the bed is perfectly made, I lie on the end (not under the covers) and read a book – the paper kind, not one that’s on a Kindle (do e-readers give off blue light? I’m not taking any chances). At the moment, it’s Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I almost always read fiction, and my books are mainly ones that I’ve borrowed from the library – sometimes I’ll find scribbled notes that someone else has written in the margins, which I love. I usually read until I feel my eyes drooping, which is around 30 to 45 minutes in, and then I’ll get into bed. I don’t read in bed because sleep experts recommend that you only ever use your bed for sleep, and I’m a teacher’s pet at heart. Plus there are few things nicer than getting into a cool, crisp, freshly made bed at the end of the day and going straight to sleep.

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Sarah’s current (and highly recommended) nighttime read, on her bedside table

11pm: I usually try to be asleep by 11pm because I once read how an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours of sleep after midnight, and that little “fact” is now permanently wired into my brain.

By this point, my room will be a sleep hygienist’s dream. As well as the lack of tech, I have a blackout blind that blocks out any light. This not only helps me fall asleep but also means I can’t guess what time it is if I wake up in the night, which helps prevent me panicking about how little sleep I might have gotten. My window is always slightly open to let in a breeze, even in the depths of winter, because I prefer falling asleep in a cold room and studies have shown that a drop in body temperature can help people fall asleep – a warm bath before bed is recommended for exactly this reason, because your body temperature drops slightly when you get out of the water and go to bed.

By this point I should be ready to fall straight asleep… in theory. In reality, I’ll probably start to drift off and then my brain will snag on a random thought, such as an email I need to send or a Whatsapp message I’ve forgotten to reply to, and I’ll be jolted back awake. This can happen untold times throughout the night, meaning by morning I’m bleary eyed and convinced my entire life hangs on said email/Whatsapp message. Sometimes though, around once a week, the impossible happens: I get into bed, put my head on the pillow, and fall asleep within seconds. That’s the dream.

Eye mask courtesy of Oliver Bonas