No-one feels at their best when they haven’t slept well. Common sleep problems include difficulty going to sleep, frequent waking and waking unrefreshed. Although there are some serious sleep issues that require specialist treatment, for most people the key to getting a good night’s sleep lies in following a few clear-cut measures.
The first thing to consider is your sleeping environment. Make your bedroom more sleep-friendly by thinking about the levels of light, noise, temperature and ventilation. If light comes through the window (e.g. from street lighting) then consider the use of blackout curtains or blinds. These are also useful in the summer months, when dawn comes early. Do you have any electronic or electrical equipment such as an alarm clock or a TV with a standby light, that shows lights constantly? Can you switch the items off ‘at the wall’ at night? This will help you save money on your electricity bill too. Or remove them from the room altogether. If all else fails, consider using an eye mask. Light sensors at the back of your eyes transmit signals to the brain controlling your level of alertness. Soft lighting is far more restful than bright lights, and spending time preparing for sleep in a low-light environment ‘teaches’ your brain that night time, and sleep, are on the way. Ideally your room should have several sources of light, so that you can have bright light when you need it, but lower light for your pre-sleep time, and no light during sleep.
There may not be much you can do to control noise if the source is outside, for example if you live on a busy road, or near a railway line. However, as far as possible your room should be peaceful, and apparently ‘white noise’ is less disruptive than other sounds. It is possible to get recordings of white noise to play, but be careful to place the playback device somewhere out of line of sight to avoid any light issue Alternatively, ear plugs are available, including the very soft foam ones that take the shape of your ear, and are comfortable to use. Be careful not to push them in too far, which can damage your inner ear.
The temperature at which people sleep best varies to some extent with the individual, but the room itself should be on the cool side if possible. One tip is to wear warm socks in bed. Apparently, keeping your feet are warm helps to maintain a constant temperature throughout the body. Your room should also be kept well-ventilated to refresh the supply of oxygen. This needs a flow of air from somewhere; if you sleep with your bedroom door shut then have a window open, even if it’s only on ‘trickle’.
Secondly think about the bed itself. A firm mattress supports your body properly, preventing stress on any particular area, which in turn could create pain and stiffness. Sagging mattresses cause postural problems during sleep that carry on into the daytime, and can cause an unrefreshed-after-sleep feeling. The same applies to pillows. Your pillow(s) should provide support for your neck to keep it in line with your spine. Too low or too high holds your neck at an unnatural angle, straining your neck muscles, and potentially obstructing the easy flow of air when you breathe. If you are not breathing correctly, your brain and body get low on oxygen which prevents them from working at full capacity. This can also trigger an ‘alarm’ in your brain, which disturbs your sleep, either waking you completely, or bringing you out of deep stage sleep to force you to change your posture. Think about what your pillow is made of. Feather pillows are comfortable, because they adjust to the shape of your head, but occasionally people find they have some level of allergic reaction to them, which may result in a runny or blocked nose – another potential source of sleep disturbance. Consider memory foam as an alternative, although some people find that this makes them sweat. Another possible option would be a water pillow. Whatever your choice, make sure that your neck is well supported, and at a height that doesn’t put it under any strain.
Next consider your food and drink. Restrict your caffeine intake late in the day. It can take up to eight hours to leave the blood stream, so avoid tea and coffee too late in the day. Alcohol may make you feel sleepy, and fool you into thinking that it helps you to sleep better. Research has shown that it causes increased disturbances in the second half of the night. When possible stop drinking an hour or two before bedtime to allow your body to process the alcohol before sleep. A large meal shortly before bed can cause indigestion which will disturb your sleep. Your digestive system works less effectively lying down than being upright, and body systems slow during sleep, meaning that the process of digestion will take longer and be less effective. This can have other negative health effects, not just on your sleep.
Finally prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep by having a regular schedule. Resist the temptation to nap during the day. If you sleep during the daytime, it will be taken away from your sleep at night. If you have been busy through the day, with work, looking after a family, or whatever else you have in your life, then you can’t just magically switch off and go to sleep at some arbitrary time. You should allow both your mind and body to wind down gradually, and a set bed-time routine can really help by teaching our brains that when we carry out a specific sequence of events, that means we’ll be going to sleep soon. This may start with a bath, or a relaxation exercise; maybe a period of time spent reading, or the classic warm milky drink. Ten to thirty minutes spent quietly, allowing your mind and body to quieten down at the end of the day, is time very well spent. After that, clean your teeth and do whatever else you need to do, and then go to bed. Once in bed, you can then spend a further short period of time in some quiet activity, in your peaceful, softly lit bedroom. The point of these activities is that they should be sufficiently interesting to take your mind off anything that is causing you anxiety or stress, while not being exciting enough to cause mental stimulation that will then keep you awake. Limit screen time (computer, TV etc) as your brain registers the light levels as ‘daytime’.