THE BLOG

Improve Your Sleep and Three Keys to Making It Better

13/01/2016 11:10 GMT | Updated 12/01/2017 10:12 GMT

We all have different sleep patterns and almost anyone can improve theirs. We're not alone in our sleep patterns either:

And in terms of the times I sleep best, Friday night is definitely always the best, and Sunday night is the worst. Ella

Sunday night is always my worst night's sleep, and I try to be strict with myself - I stop myself going online for a few hours before I go to bed, and I don't read anything work-related in that period too. I try to avoid email, especially, because there's always pressure to get back to emails immediately, and once you're in that zone, you're wired.

One other problem I have is that my partner's alarm goes off at 5.30am, so even if I wanted to sleep later, it wouldn't be possible. What I did find was that, over Christmas, for the first time in years, I was able to sleep in until 7.30 or 8am, and I felt so much better for it. Annie

So let's begin with 3 keys to better sleep which might work for an "average" person.

The first is a healthy life style. You're more likely to sleep well if you eat healthily, exercise, and have time for a good social and/or family life. Good nutrition and food habits benefit all bodily functions, including sleep and health; exercise helps reduce stress; and good relationships do the same - while also improving mood, and enabling relaxation before sleep.

The second key is the length of time you sleep, with about eight hours a night being a good amount for the average person. Don't be surprised if you sleep less though. Most working people in modern society are sleep deprived by an hour or two each day. But six hours of sleep is too little. Sleep matters more than we realise, so making time to sleep for about eight hours is good advice for almost everyone.

The third key is the time you try to go to sleep (think of shift work and the problems this causes). Most people have two different time patterns - one during the working week, the other for weekends and holidays. It's no surprise that holiday timing is better for sleep.

The average person wakes naturally at 8-9am and goes to sleep at midnight to 1am (more like holiday sleep). Adjust these timings for your chronotype ('lark' or 'owl') using the MCTQ short questionnaire as it will tell you more about your sleep.

The next step is to consider whether there are changes you can make to your daily life that will help you sleep well. You can probably make a list based on the three keys: better lifestyle, making eight hours of sleep possible - and knowing your chronotype.

Start times in work and education are the biggest barrier to good sleep in modern society. They should be moved later. Even work shifts can be improved using staff chronotypes, as shown by Till Roenneberg's team. They used chronotypes of workers in the steel industry to ensure that evening type workers did more night shifts, and early types did more early starts. The result? The workers slept an hour longer each night.

Greater flexibility in working hours makes sense, and is a growing trend. Ask your employer for a more flexible approach if you want. If you work in education, it's worth actively looking at later start times for secondary students. There is a clear scientific case for later start times and your school can join Oxford's project Teensleep, which is recruiting 100 secondary schools this year. If you're based in the US, try looking at Start School Later.

There are other actions you might consider. Direct sunlight, especially in the morning, helps keep your sense of time tuned to the 24-hour day, so try to be outside more often. In the last hour or two before your natural sleep time have a routine that helps you settle, such as a quiet, dark, comfortable bedroom. In the last hour, don't use screen technologies or bright lights. As a general rule, don't use drugs unless prescribed by your doctor. In the morning, don't use stimulants like cigarettes or at night depressants like alcohol every night.

And if all this doesn't help you can read more from the NHS and the U.S. Department of Health. Talk to your doctor and get advice. Look after yourself.

Another version of this blog was published in The Guardian's Why don't I sleep well?