We’ve been doing it since the day we were born, yet for many of us the art of sleep remains elusive: we spend our nights not getting enough of it, and our days bemoaning our inability to do it better.
Adopting some good sleep hygiene habits – essentially, behaviours that can promote positive sleep patterns – could help. “Our daily and nightly activities all impact on how we sleep,” explains Maryanne Taylor, a sleep consultant who founded The Sleep Works. “Making changes to some of these – whether it be lifestyle or diet changes – can make a tremendous difference to our quantity and quality of sleep.”
As anyone who has spent an fitful night while their partner sleeps blissfully through will attest, there’s no single golden rule that helps everyone – but if you’re looking for ways to improve your sleep hygiene, these are some of the core concepts that might help.
Stick to a regular bedtime
Our circadian rhythm (or our inner body clock), is a biological function that dictates when we naturally feel tired and awake, says Taylor. “Keeping to a regular time schedule for when we go to bed and when we wake in the morning will stabilise our circadian rhythm, helping us feel more rested and therefore more productive during the day.”
That can be tricky if, for instance, you work varying shifts. But if sticking to the same bedtime is something you can commit to, it’s worth noting that a 2018 study conducted by Duke Health and the Duke Clinical Research Institute found that people with irregular sleep patterns weighed more, and had higher blood sugar and blood pressure, than those who slept and woke at the same time every day. Irregular sleepers were also more likely to report depression and stress than regular sleepers.
More research is needed into these suggested outcomes – but when our sleep patterns fluctuate, that can result in disturbed sleep, says Taylor.
Generally, it’s recommended that the average adult should aim for between six and eight hours of sleep every night – but, Taylor argues, our circadian rhythm also has a hand in dictating whether we are a ‘morning lark’ or a ’night owl.’ The key is finding the bedtime that works best for you, then sticking to it.
Avoid using devices before bed
According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, using technology before bed is linked to “difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep”. Avoiding tech before bed – removing it from your room if you can’t avoid the distraction – is a common sleep hygiene tip.
There are two main problems with tech in the bedroom, explains Kathryn Pinkham, an NHS consultant and founder of The Insomnia Clinic – blue light and stimulation. “Blue light is the type of light that’s emitted by tech,” she says. “Studies have found blue light inhibits the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which is naturally developed with darkness and the dimming of light.”
If you can’t imagine not using your device in the evening, it’s worth considering getting a blue light filter, which changes the type of light emitted from your screen so that it doesn’t impact the production of melatonin. But this won’t combat the other issue with tech: stimulation. “The idea is, if you’re on your phone or your laptop all night you’re not really winding down anyway,” notes Pinkham.
Get enough natural light
Getting a good dose of morning light is, perhaps surprisingly, important in helping us sleep better at night, says Taylor. “Exposure to natural light (even on a cloudy day) stimulates our body and mind and encourages feelings of alertness and energy,” she explains. “When the environment transitions from darkness to light, our internal clock tells us it is time to wake up, whether we have had our regular sleep or not.”
And, just as light is important during the day, darkness is essential for sleep at night, in order to boost production of that all-important sleep hormone: melatonin.
If your curtains are letting the light seep into your room early in the morning, or you’re trying to get to sleep in a room that never really gets dark, you might want to try and combat that – which is why Taylor recommends the use of blackout blinds or eye masks.
Eat sleep-promoting foods (and avoid stimulants)
Earlier this year, I spoke to Marcela Fiuza, a dietician and spokesperson from the British Dietetics Association, about tryptophan – an amino acid found in protein foods – which is thought to promote sleep, and is found in sources such as eggs, poultry, meat, fish and cheese.
Eating more of these may be beneficial – and there are other foods and drinks it is worth avoiding before bed. Caffeine is the most obvious, given that it acts as a stimulant both mentally and physically. And it’s not just about ditching coffees late at night: the best strategy is to try and avoid caffeine for at least four hours before bedtime.
Giving alcohol a wide berth may also be smart. While booze can actually make you feel a little drowsy, it is also associated with more frequent awakening, nightmares, and a less restful sleep through the night, according to Fliuza, who notes that: “It can also affect melatonin levels and interferes with your circadian rhythm.”
Eating spicy food before bed can also have a negative impact on sleep. A study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that when healthy individuals ate a meal with tabasco before bed, they had elevated body temperatures and took longer to fall asleep than when they avoided spicy food.
Keep the room (and your body) temperature cool
It might seem obvious to make your bedroom cosy and inviting – but in fact, you should avoid keeping the room too warm. According to The Sleep Council: “Your body heat peaks in the evening and then drops to its lowest levels when you’re asleep, so a cool 16-18°C (60-65°F) is thought to be an ideal temperature in a bedroom”.
Sammy Margo, author of The Good Sleep Guide, maintains that in a room of 16°C, the best way to maintain your optimal temperature in bed is to sleep entirely naked – apart from adding bed socks to your feet – saying: “The important part of sleep is protein synthesis. It’s when your body goes through recovery and repair and restoration. And that happens more centrally [in the body], so your peripheries – your feet mainly, get chilly.”
“Your body heat peaks in the evening and then drops to its lowest levels when you’re asleep.”
Getting too hot can impact your ability to sleep, but taking a lovely warm bath before bed can be a good thing. The natural drop in body temperature you experience later into the evening before you fall asleep promotes the release of melatonin. Bathing in warm water raises your body temperature slightly, which means you then experience a more dramatic drop, boosting feelings of sleepiness.
Don’t, however, consider vigorous exercise that boosts your body temperature and increases your heart rate late in the evening. “Exercise increases your core body temperature and that takes a while to come down – it increases you from the inside out,” Margo explains. “But with a bath, it’s the sudden drop that makes a difference and that cools you from the outside in.”
Avoid long naps during the day
While research shows that daytime naps might bring benefits such as improved alertness and performance, and help curb impulsive behaviour and increase tolerance, the key to successful napping is brevity, advises Pinkham.
“If you imagine sleep is like an appetite and you’re building up this appetite for sleep by being awake, and then you go and have a big nap, you’re basically taking the edge off that appetite,” she explains. “You haven’t got enough in the tank for the evening.”
When you’re exhausted, a lovely nap on the sofa can be hard to resist – not least because it’s hard to believe a short (OK, possibly quite long) snooze will make any dent in the huge deficit you’ve built up. But while people often believe they have an “unlimited amount of sleep appetite” this is incorrect, argues Pinkham.
“If you take two hours to nap during the day, you’ve taken two hours away from the night. You’ll either struggle to fall to sleep or you’ll get a poor quality of sleep.”
If you can’t resist the allure of a daytime forty winks, set an alarm: Pinkham recommends napping for a maximum of half an hour, in order to avoid disrupted sleep in the evening, or establishing negative sleep patterns.
Don’t overthink it
Adopting good sleep hygiene is a positive step – but if you can only keep to some of the recommendations, or even a small handful, don’t stress. Making small changes might be helpful, but worrying about whether you’re doing everything “right” or letting the principles dictate your life, is not healthy.
If followed too rigidly, sleep hygiene routines can sometimes play a part in developing and fuelling insomnia, says Pinkham.
“If you imagine someone has very strict sleep hygiene because they’re so worried about not sleeping, what that does is that it increases a lot of pressure and sometimes anxiety around sleep,” she explains. ”And the problem about sleeping is, the more we try to do it, the harder it becomes.”