The Secret of a Good Night’s Sleep

Posted
21/08/2017

Not getting enough sleep can have a big impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. It’s obvious that sleep deprivation reduces our productivity at work – symptoms include difficulty concentrating and remembering things – and it can also affect mood.

However a recent University of Leeds study added to growing evidence that not getting enough sleep can contribute to metabolic diseases such as diabetes. The researchers found that those who slept for six hours or less a night had waists that were on average 1.1 inches (3cm) larger than those who slept for nine hours.

Sometimes the problem is getting off to sleep. For others it’s waking up in the middle of the night and worrying or being unable to drop off again. And of course there are life events that can affect our sleep – new babies or pets disrupt sleep patterns, and so can working shifts or having dramatically different bedtimes at the weekend. A good night’s sleep can be the first thing to go when life gets busy – or even when we fancy watching just one more episode of the latest box set.

As some people need more than others, how do you know if you’re getting enough sleep?

In this clip from the recent BBC programme The Truth About Sleep, Michael Mosley tries the Sleep On-set Latency Test to see if he is sleep deprived. The test involves a spoon and a tin tray. Holding a metal spoon, you go to bed in the middle of the day, make a note of the time, and then try to go to sleep. The idea is that as soon as your body relaxes into sleep you will drop the spoon onto the tray, making a noise that wakes you up. You then check the clock and see how long it took to fall asleep.

Less than five minutes means you are severely sleep deprived. Less than 10 minutes means you are somewhat sleep deprived, and 15 minutes or more means you are getting enough sleep. Give it a try and see how long it takes.

When I’ve not had enough sleep I know I find it more difficult to eat healthily – it seems much easier to grab a biscuit to get the sugar rush to boost energy. It’s also tempting to drink more tea or coffee to use caffeine to make up for lack of sleep. Both of these responses can create a vicious cycle where the quick-fix approach leads to difficulty sleeping again the next night.

More and more research has shown that the blue light emitted by electronic devices, such as TVs, mobile phones and laptops, interferes with our biorhythms.

Getting into a sleep routine

So what can we do? Good ‘sleep hygiene’ does help. That includes watching your caffeine and alcohol intake, creating a wind-down routine before bed, and sticking to a regular schedule of going to bed and getting up times to reset your sleep clock. Staying up late during the week and trying to catch up with lie-ins at the weekend can just make the problem worse.

Make sure your bedroom is conducive to a good night’s sleep – keep it cool, with a comfortable bed. If light or noise disturbs you, you might need to invest in an eye mask, blackout curtains or earplugs to block these out. Taking more exercise (but not just before bed) and eating healthily can also help.

Getting to the root of your sleeping problems

If you’re not sure what the habits are that are causing sleeplessness, perhaps you can try keeping a sleep diary to identify them. This might also help you get to the root of any anxiety that is causing you to lie awake. Chronic anxiety is one of the most common causes of insomnia, either not being able to fall asleep when you go to bed, or waking up in the night and worrying.

If you think that’s what’s causing your sleeping problems, talking it over with someone may help. Avoid stressful situations just before bed – that includes working, checking email or having conversations about potential anxiety-inducing topics with your family.

You can try out relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga or mindfulness to see if any of them work for you. By learning and practising these techniques you can relieve physical tension and fall asleep more quickly. A variety of apps are available to help with these different methods. Or just try to focus on breathing deeply and fully, from the abdomen, and relaxing your muscles one at a time.

To tackle long-term insomnia you may need to see your GP. If you’ve tried everything with no success, you should see a doctor as there may be an underlying medical issue that is stopping you sleeping.