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Sleep. What’s the big issue?

What is….found in every household, but often in short supply….absolutely essential, but costs nothing… not a business, yet has been described at Netflix’s biggest competitor?

You guessed it… sleep.

So despite it being accessible to everyone, and carrying zero monetary cost, why do so many of us miss out on this health essential?

Often the answer is simply this: that we just don’t prioritise it. Much like many other areas of health and wellbeing, there isn’t some fancy and expensive sexy-solution for nailing sleep: it just comes down to forming a good routine, and nailing it. Repeatedly, consistently. So what can we do to maximise a good night’s sleep, and pin down this habit?

1. Create a Bedtime Routine

For anyone who has kids of their own or has lived in a house with babies or children, you will know the importance of adopting a consistent bed time routine. From a regular dinnertime, to bath time, pyjamas, bedtime milk, reading before sleep, then lights out… we go through a huge amount of effort to get little ones into a consistent pattern so they (and their bodies) know what to expect in the evening, and help them settle into a regular rhythm. Is it such a big surprise then, that creating a night time routine for ourselves as adults is just as excellent an idea?

Think about when you’ve woken up and felt most rested. Notice what you did, and what the circumstances were. Think of this as your ‘ideal bedtime routine’. Now this might be a Sunday morning in an Air BnB in Devon, when you’ve had a lie in, and woken up naturally to the dulcet tones of birdsong outside. So not entirely realistic for every day… but it’s a good place to start! What time did you have your dinner? Did you have caffeine the day before and if so, what time? Was the pillow the comfiest you’d ever experienced? All of these will have an impact.. but it’s the routine that is key! So let’s now move on to explore some key features of this ideal routine…

2. Turn Your Bedroom Into a Cave

The optimum environment for sleep is a room that is completely dark, and relatively cool. Many of us will think our room is totally dark at bedtime, but you might be surprised at how much excess light you have coming in after the lights are switched off. Do you keep your mobile phone in your room? Maybe you have a wireless router, a TV or DVD player, or charging port? Many of these electronic devices have small, seemingly insignificant LED lights that have actually been shown to disturb sleep quite significantly. So: remove as many electronic devices from your room as possible. For those that you are unable to or don’t want to remove, see if you can switch them off completely so those sneaky standby lights go out, or cover them up with a little ball of blue tack or piece of electrical tape. 

Is there a lamppost, security light or streetlight outside your window? If you can answer yes to this, chances are it has disturbed your sleep at some point. Consider investing in some blackout curtains or blinds in your windows. Alternatively – try using a sleep mask. These aren’t for everyone, but there are all sorts of types out there, so you never know, if you can find one that is comfortable for you, it could change your sleep forever.

3. Watch Your Liquid Intake

There are two sides to this tip, the first being caffeine. Many of us respond differently to caffeine, from the one-cup-a-day ultra-caffeine-sensitive souls, to the ‘I can drink an espresso before bed’ claimers, but even if you fall into the latter camp, it’s worth noting that caffeine can have a half-life of up to 6 hours (the time taken for half of the caffeine to be metabolised by your body). So in real time: that double shot coffee you have to get you through the afternoon slump at 4pm could have just as much of an impact as taking a single shot espresso at 10pm as you hit the pillow.

So even if you feel invincible to its effects, try giving yourself a caffeine cut off sometime in the early afternoon, but as always, listen to your body: if you find that having a cuppa at lunchtime will make you wide-eyed even by nighttime, then consider bring your cut off even further forwards!

Part 2 of this tip might seem really obvious, but if your sleep is often disturbed by the need to take a leak, it’s worth trying to reduce your intake of all liquids a couple of hours before bed time. If you find you’re then left feeling dehydrated, perhaps set yourself alarms earlier in the day as little reminders to up your water levels, with a view of getting in the habit of nailing hydration throughout the day.

4. Cut Down Screen Time and Blue Light

Until artificial light was invented, the sun was our only source of light, and night times would be a time of darkness. Now that artificial light is everywhere around us, simply put – our bodies find it harder to identify when we should and shouldn’t be awake. So what can we do about it?

Understanding Blue Light

Not all colours of light have the same effect. Blue wavelengths are beneficial during daytime hours because they can aid in boosting attention, reaction times and mood – but for these exact reasons, can be disruptive when we’re trying to sleep. 

Enough blue light at the right time of day helps to keep our circadian rhythms (our internal body clock) in sync, so it’s important to get outside during the daytime to help keep ourselves in check. However,  being exposed to light – blue light especially – suppresses the release of melatonin (the ‘sleepy’ hormone), so it’s a wise idea to try and limit our exposure when we are winding down for the evening.

Screen Time

Device screens are the biggest culprit when looking at unwanted blue light offenders. Trying to reduce or eliminate screen time a few hours before bed will help combat your exposure. Not to mention, taking your brain away from the hundreds of thought-provoking, over-stimulating adverts and attention-grabbing videos you can lose hours scrolling through can only be a good thing, as you look to clear your mind before bed.

If you work night shifts, or find it difficult to avoid using screens late in the evening, consider trying blue light blocking glasses – they can be found on Amazon or eBay from just a few £s. Or, try switching your phone or tablet to ‘night mode’ or, if your phone doesn’t have this feature, try installing an app that filters out the blue wavelength light at night, such as Bluelight Filter, Twilight or Night Owl.

Bed Time Reading

If you read before bed (i.e., have the lights on for a little while before you go to sleep) consider getting yourself a coloured bulb that is further down the red end of the light spectrum. If you don’t fancy that dimmer warmer hue at all time, you can even buy smart bulbs (around £10) which can be controlled from your phone to change colour as you desire – so you can pop on a dim red light to help you wind down, but switch back to bright white when you’re trying to find a matching pair of socks in the morning!

To Conclude…

As with all advice or tips – see what works for you. You might notice a significant difference adopting one of these suggestions, and might notice no change for another, so be sure to observe what works well for you. If you use a fitness or sleep tracker such as a Whoop, you might even be able to log when you have tried something, so you can easily look for changes and patterns in your sleep.

Consistency, consistency, consistency 

We know that being consistent with our diet works. We know that settling into a consistent routine of exercise works. So when you find a bedtime routine that works for you: be consistent. And on days where you can’t be, relax. Getting stressed and worked up about having a bad night’s sleep certainly won’t make you feel any MORE rested, so take a deep breath, let it go, and let’s do our best to set ourselves up for a better night’s sleep the next day.

Sources:  ‘Blue Light Has A Dark Side’ – Harvard Health. Caffeine and Sleep – The Sleep Foundation (Jan 2021).

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