4 Tips for Better Sleep
Do you struggle to get to sleep, or find that you wake up through the night? If this sounds like you, you are not alone – sleep problems are on the rise, and our modern lifestyles and environments do not lend themselves to getting a sound night’s sleep.
There are of course lots of reasons why people cannot sleep – worrying about things, a health issue that is particularly troublesome at night, or being stressed (look out for future blogs about these issues).
But there is also an often overlooked aspect of sleep that we have a LOT of control over, which this article will explain.
In order to work towards getting better sleep, it's first important to understand the science behind our brain and sleep.
There are two key hormones that the body produces that are important for our sleep/wake cycle – these are cortisol and melatonin.
Now, let’s go back to caveman times to understand how our sleep/wake cycle is supposed to work (be aware that our brains haven’t evolved much since caveman times, but our lifestyles have!). In olden times, when the sun rose in the morning, the body would produce cortisol, a stress hormone, which would wake us up and give us the energy to start our day. The sunlight would help to reduce melatonin levels (the hormone that helps us to sleep), so our brains knew that it was time to be alert.
In the evening when the sun would set, our ancestors’ bodies would naturally begin to produce melatonin, the sleep-inducing, relaxing hormone. Once melatonin starts to be produced, it takes around 60-120 minutes for us to feel sleepy.
Now let’s think about how we typically live today. We wake up to our alarm after not enough sleep and often use coffee to wake us up more. We might get outside, but many people don’t get out of the house until later in the day. Then, when it starts to get dark, we turn on all kinds of artificial lights (lamps, laptops, mobile phones) until we go to bed.
So, if we think about how our brains work, our current way of living is not conducive to optimising our sleep/wake cycle. We are often not getting the vital vitamin D from sunlight first thing to regulate our sleep/wake cycle, and most of us are unknowingly blocking melatonin from being produced at night as we bombard ourselves with artificial blue light. Many of us only turn off lights & electronics just as we get into bed, and remember that it take 60-120 minutes for melatonin to really kick in, so this may well explain why many people lie in bed for a long time trying to sleep each night.
Whilst for most us, living like a caveman is a step too far, there are certainly things we can do to help ourselves!
Here are my top 4 tips for working towards improving your sleep/wake cycle:
- Get early morning sunlight to help regulate your sleep/wake cycle – ideally, this would be 15-20 minutes outside in the morning, perhaps sat in the garden with a drink, or going for a short walk. If this isn’t always possible, even just sticking your head out of the back door for a few minutes for some sunlight will still help!
- Aim to get to bed and wake up at the same/similar time each day. Our brain and body thrives on routine, and this helps to strengthen our sleep/wake cycle. Ideally heading to bed at 10-10.30pm is a good time to allow for enough hours to sleep and still wake up at a reasonable time.
- Whilst for many people, getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night seems impossible (particularly for those with young children!), prioritising sleep is one of the most profound things you can do for your mental health, physical health and immune system.
- Do what you can to limit blue light exposure in the two hours before bed. Remember that blue light prevents melatonin from being produced, and we need melatonin for good sleep. There are some different options available to help with this including simply trying to reduce the amount of electronics you use later in the evening, applying a blue light blocking setting on your phone, investing in a pair of blue-light blocking glasses (you can get these fairly cheaply online), or replacing some of your lamps with bulbs that do not contain blue light.
Dr Theresa Comer, Clinical Psychologist