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Jacquie

By Jacquie, a volunteer at the Wellbeing College

During this time of uncertainty when our routines are different and we’re all desperate for information, it can be tempting to stay up late reading on our phones, tablets or laptops. The problem with this is that it can have a real impact on our sleep, which is so important for our wellbeing and general health.

When we sleep well, we tend to take a good night’s sleep for granted. We only really start to realise just how important sleep is and how difficult the daytime can be without it when we haven’t slept well. I learned this recently when I struggled with chronic insomnia for over a year. I am now sleeping well, getting between 7 and 8 hours a night routinely. I still have the occasional blip, but know what to do to get myself back on track when that happens.

I would like to share with you a little of what I have learned about how to get a good night’s sleep.

What is sleep hygiene?

The term ‘sleep hygiene’ is referring to healthy habits that can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. They include your behaviour during the day, especially before bedtime. This is because your routine, or lack of it, can have a big impact on your sleep. Even a few slight adjustments can sometimes mean the difference between a sound sleep and a restless night.

Getting a good quality night’s sleep is important for both our physical and mental health. It can also improve our productivity and overall quality of life. So, if you have difficulty sleeping or want to improve your sleep, you might want to try out some of these healthy sleep habits:

Keep a consistent sleep schedule
That means going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, even at weekends or during the holidays. This can be challenging especially at the moment when many of us are at home due to current COVID-19 restrictions. 

Get some day light
Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, help to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.

Try not to nap during the day
By napping during the day you are reducing your sleep drive and making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep all night. If you really have to take a nap, then try to make it for no more than 30 minutes.

Set a bedtime that is early enough for you to get at least 7 hours of sleep
An adult between the ages of 18 to 64 is said to need 7 to 9 hours sleep a night, while those older than 64 need around 7 to 8 hours a night. Set a time that you will go to bed that will mean you get at least 7 hours.

Avoid going to bed if you are not sleepy.
You want to teach your body that bed means sleep, so try to not go to bed unless you’re tired. If you don’t fall asleep after 30 minutes, get out of bed.

Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning as it just leads to anxiety about falling asleep. It is better to get up and do something relaxing and try again when you feel sleepy. Worrying about sleep makes the whole process that much harder.

Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
A regular nightly routine helps the body to recognise that it is bedtime. This could include taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, or doing some light stretches. When possible, try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and simulating activities before trying to sleep.

Instead, you could do something relaxing and non-stimulating that lets your mind relax. It could be meditating, reading a book or magazine, or listening to calming music or an audio book. 

Make your bedroom as comfortable, quiet, and relaxing as possible
It goes without saying that your mattress and pillows should be comfortable. Your bedroom should also be cool, aiming for between 15 and 20 degrees. As we get ready for sleep our body naturally cools down, so a cool temperature helps with this process. You could also consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, or ‘white noise’ apps.

Limit exposure to bright light in the evenings
This helps our body to make melatonin, a natural sleep inducing hormone. This means turning off electronic devices, like your phone, at least an hour before bed. The blue light from our devices can interrupt our natural sleep pattern and it’s a good idea to have less mental stimulation so that you can allow your mind to quieten down.

Avoid having a large meal too close to bedtime
It is best to have your main meal at least 3 hours before you plan to go to sleep. Heavy or rich foods, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, fruits, and soft drinks can lead to painful heartburn and indigestion that can disrupt your sleep.

Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet
As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, like walking or cycling, can drastically improve the quality of your sleep. For the best night’s sleep, try to avoid exercising too close to bedtime, though.

Avoid consuming caffeine in the afternoon or evening
Caffeine is a stimulant and can have long half-life (the time it takes for the body to eliminate half of the caffeine). Remember caffeine is not only found in tea and coffee but in some soft drinks and chocolate too!  

Avoid consuming alcohol before bedtime.
While alcohol is well-known to help you fall asleep faster, too much close to bedtime can disrupt sleep in the second half of the night as the body begins to process the alcohol, often causing you to wake up multiple times or find it hard to get back to sleep.

Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime
If you find your night’s sleep disrupted by visits to the loo, try reducing your fluids in the evening or setting a time when you have your last drink for the night.

Although lack of sleep can have a huge impact on our wellbeing, there are things we can put in place to help. You don’t need to try all of these at once, perhaps pick one or two that feel achievable and give them a try!

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