If the statistics are to be believed then many of us are regularly failing to get enough sleep. But it’s not just the length of time that we’re in bed for that counts; it’s also the quality of our sleep. Sleep quality either leads to us bouncing out of bed in the morning ready for anything, or groggily crawling out from under the covers against our better judgement.
Missing out on sleep is about far more than just being grumpy during the day, or nodding off in front of the TV in the evening. Ongoing sleep issues are associated with all manner of serious health conditions, from diabetes to high cholesterol. In other words, that espresso that you down each morning before you feel ready to take on the world probably isn’t the ideal solution; instead of “masking” your tiredness we should be aiming to resolve it once and for all.
But just how do we do that?
In this guide we’ll be discussing some of the most intriguing tips for getting more (and better quality) sleep, based on years of scientific research. By the end you’ll be a veritable “sleep ninja” ready to make the very most of your time in bed each night…
Set Your Sleep Schedule
Studies have long shown that individuals doing shift work – where their periods of sleep necessarily change over time – often struggle far more than the general population when it comes to sleep quality.
While these individuals are arguably the most visible group whose sleep patterns change regularly, even the best of us can suffer in a similar manner if we’re not careful. Ask yourself if you have a set “bedtime” and “getting up time” each day, or whether there is a large degree of flexibility in your sleep schedule. Will you, for example, stay up late one evening to finish watching a movie, or allow yourself the pleasure of sleeping in on weekends? If so, you may be doing yourself more harm than good.
Experts claim that a need to sleep in on weekends is simply a sign that you’re sleep-deprived for much of the working week. Furthermore, it is believed that our bodies and minds find it easier to switch off properly when our sleep regime follows a regular routine.
If sleep has just been something that “happens” in the past, a great first step to better sleep is to consciously set aside specific times for going to bed and getting up. Most people will start to experience ever-improving sleep quality over time, and will also find it much easier to drift off, when bedtime occurs at the same time each day. And yes, sadly, this applies just as much to weekends as the working week.
Try it, and modify your time in bed as necessary, so that on weekends you’re able to enjoy getting up at the normal time, which indicates a lack of sleep deprivation.
Sort Out Your Diet
Your diet can impact your ability to get to sleep – and remain asleep throughout the night – in so many ways.
At its simplest, studies have shown that being overweight increases the chances of suffering from many conditions that make sleep less restful. Possibly the best-known of these is snoring. Quite simply the more body fat you’re carrying around, the more pressure your throat is under when you lie down in bed. This, in turn, increases the odds of suffering from breathing-related problems like snoring or sleep apnea. So the first step if you’re struggling with sleep is to ensure that you’re sitting at a healthy BMI.
Besides this, however, scientists have also demonstrated a whole list of other impacts that your diet can have on sleep. For example, spicy foods are associated with restless sleep, as are diets that are rich in fat.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the consumption of caffeine can help to keep you awake, even hours after your last coffee, but you might not realize that alcohol can also impact sleep. One fascinating study provided participants with either vodka or a placebo to drink, one hour before bedtime. The volunteers were then encouraged to fall asleep, while the scientists monitored the level of melatonin in their bodies.
Melatonin is often known as the “sleep hormone” and increasing levels in the body are associated with restful, rejuvenating sleep. The results showed that even a small glass of alcohol reduced melatonin levels by almost 20%, consequently having a severe impact on sleep quality.
In other words, if you want your very best night of sleep then avoid fatty, spicy foods, and steer well clear of the alcohol and coffee. Based on these findings it would seem that a late-night curry followed by a few drinks could be the single worst recipe for a night of restful sleep.
Get Out In Natural Daylight
Our bodies need vitamin D to absorb calcium from our diets, which in turn creates strong teeth and bones. In recent decades, however, scientists have discovered ever more impacts of vitamin D on the body.
Studies have demonstrated that vitamin D also plays a crucial role in our immune system and that you’re more likely to get ill if you’re seriously deficient. At the same time, some experts believe that one of the key reasons why we need to sleep is to allow our immune system to function effectively, as responses to pathogens seem to increase while we are asleep. It would therefore seem logical that getting out in natural sunlight – so that your body can produce more vitamin D – may also help to support healthy sleep.
Fortunately the impact of vitamin D on sleep isn’t just conjecture; it has also been demonstrated in clinical settings. For example, a group of 1500 patients suffering from abnormal sleep were prescribed with a vitamin D supplement and soon reported improvements in their condition. The same study also observed that vitamin D had an impact on parts of the brain known to be associated with sleep, suggested a very direct impact. Indeed, the experts carrying out the research suggest that “sleep disorders have become epidemic because of widespread vitamin D deficiency”.
When researching health-related conditions one of the most common themes is that exercise seems to offer a plethora of benefits. From helping with mood, to lowering cholesterol, through to improving joint condition it seems that regular exercise is the magical elixir that aids so many health complaints. But does it also help with sleep quality? If the research is to be believed then the answer is a very definitive “yes”.
While it would be possible to write a book on the impacts of exercise on sleep, let’s just highlight a few of the many results observed. Firstly, a group of insomniacs were encouraged to participate in a 30 minute run at moderate intensity each morning for a period of three weeks. The sleep logs they kept showed that the joggers experienced improvements in sleep quality, mood, and concentration, while feeling more energetic throughout the day.
In another study a group of more mature individuals were engaged in an exercise session just once a week. Even with this small investment of effort it was found that the participants enjoyed more restful sleep at night and found it easier to wake up again the following morning.
The wealth of evidence for the benefits of exercise on sleep patterns suggests that almost any exercise can be beneficial. Therefore if you’re not a regular gym bunny then don’t worry; just a gentle walk, jog or cycle ride when you have half an hour available can still lead to positive benefits for your sleep.
Give Up the Cigarettes
It’s no secret that smoking is bad for us in all sorts of ways, but once again there is evidence to suggest that it may also negatively affect sleep. Smoking increases the chances of suffering from conditions such as breathing difficulties or acid reflux, both of which can negatively impact sleep.
However the stimulatory effect of nicotine is also considered to cause problems. Smoking a cigarette shortly before bed can have similar effects to consuming caffeine, make falling asleep more challenging, while many smokers also sleep worse because they wake up at night with cravings.
The best solution of course is to quit smoking, though for many people this is easier said than done. Under these circumstances you may wish to experiment with some of the more popular sleeping aids like a low-nicotine patch that provides a gentle, consistent dose of nicotine and so may support fewer sleep disturbances.
Play With Your Temperature
Body temperature and sleep are intricately linked. Studies have shown that our body temperature naturally drops by a few degrees as we fall asleep, and then recovers shortly before waking. This suggests that getting too warm – or too cold – in bed can impact sleep. In light of this, consider experimenting with different bedroom temperatures and night attire to see what combination leads to the best result for you.
At the same time there is evidence that we might be able to use this knowledge to “trick” our bodies into falling asleep more easily. Studies have found that taking a warm bath or shower an hour or so before bed artificially increases body temperature. As this begins to fall back to normal sleep becomes ever more likely, helping to mimic the natural drop in temperature seen when falling asleep. It has therefore been suggested that a nice bath in the evening may lead to improved sleep quality.
Dampen Mental Stimulation before Bed
Of all the tips outlined here, possibly the most important of all is to minimize mental stimulation before bed. I’m sure we’ve had the experience of staying up to watch TV, feeling absolutely fine, only to realize just how tired we are when we finally switch the box off.
Firstly, for healthy sleep to try avoid access to bright screens before bed. This means no more TV, no phones and no computer use before bed. At the same time, try to eliminate any noise or light that might affect you in bed. Blackout blinds can help, as can eye-masks. Unplug chargers with glowing LEDs, and consider the use of earplugs to block out unwanted noise.
Try Natural Sleep Remedies
While the above tips should all take priority if you want to enjoy more restful sleep, there are a number of natural sleep remedies that may offer further support.
Valerian is probably the best-known natural sleep remedy on the market, having been used for generations. This attractive plant contains two different substances believed to have a positive effect on sleep, known as valepotriates and sesquiterpenes.
Its fame has resulted in it being studied in laboratory settings. In one such study volunteers struggling with sleep problems were provided with valerian root extract before bed. The scientists noted that 89% of those taking the remedy reported improved sleep, while an impressive 44% reported “perfect sleep”.
L-Tryptophan is an amino acid that is either consumed in the diet or can be made within the body. In order to understand the benefit of L-Tryptophan we need to talk briefly about melatonin – the “sleep hormone” mentioned earlier. Melatonin is produced through a complex chemical process that can be thought of rather like a production line. L-Tryptophan is one of the “raw ingredients” in the production of melatonin. Firstly L-Tryptophan is turned into another substance known as 5-HTP, which is subsequently turned into serotonin, which is finally used to create melatonin.
Studies have shown that the consumption of L-Tryptophan, which can be bought in supplement form, can help some people to fall asleep sooner, to stay asleep for longer and to reduce awakenings during the night.
Bearing in mind the chemical process discussed above it should be no surprise that the consumption of 5-HTP also seems to offer benefits for sleep. Indeed, some authorities claim that it may be even more effective as it needs to pass through fewer steps to successfully add to melatonin levels in the body.
Furthermore, there have been suggestions that L-Tryptophan, as an amino acid, is at risk of being used for protein synthesis in the body. 5-HTP in contrast is not an amino acid so is likely to have a more direct impact on serotonin levels.
Researchers have found that taking a 5-HTP supplement, which leads to increased serotonin in the brain, leads to greater levels of R.E.M. sleep. It is in REM sleep that dreams are experienced, and it may also help to make us feel more energized on awakening.
However the effect of boosting 5-HTP levels can be far more widespread. For example, some scientists have found that 5-HTP administration can positively impact obesity, chronic headaches and even depression.
Lastly studies also suggest that 5-HTP can help children suffering from night terrors. A group of affected children aged between 3 and 10 years old were administered 2mg of 5-HTP for every kilogram of body weight. This was given at bedtime for a period of 20 days, and demonstrated 93.5% effectiveness in improving their condition.
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