It’s ironic that in a world where we need our minds and bodies to be rested and fresh to keep up with the many demands on our time, we’re more sleep-deprived than ever. Whether it’s young children, worrying about money or information overload that’s keeping us up at night, as a nation we’re chronically under-slept, with recent research from The Sleep Council finding that nearly half of us (47 per cent) are too anxious to sleep. In fact, a third of Brits now sleep for just five-to-six hours per night which is way less than the seven-to-eight hours that we should get.
“There are very real consequences to being constantly sleep-deprived,” says Lisa Artis, sleep advisor to The Sleep Council, an impartial organisation that focuses on raising awareness of the health benefits of getting enough sleep. “We can cope with one or two nights of broken sleep but in the longer term, our concentration levels diminish and we are more liable to experience mood swings and low mood. More worryingly, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a number of serious health issues such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and depression.”
Sleep is for the weak
It’s easy to feel, in our ‘always on’, 24/7 culture, that sleep is for the weak. However, the reality is that most of us need around eight hours a night – some more, some less. If you spend your day longing to crawl into the nearest available cosy space and curl up, you probably need more than you’re getting. And according to the NHS, getting enough sleep has so many health benefits you might never want to change out of your PJs again. In no particular order, it can help us stay slim (under-slept bods have reduced levels of leptin, the chemical that makes us feel full, which is why our heads are in the biscuit tin – again), it boosts immunity and mental wellbeing, wards off heart disease and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, and even increases sex drive and fertility. It appears the humble shut-eye is quite the elixir of life – so how do we get more of it?
The good news is that small tweaks to our everyday routines can help put an end to the agony of insomnia and early-hours waking common to many ‘problem sleepers’. Follow these expert tips and restful and restorative nights will be yours again…
How to get a better night’s sleep
- Focus on your bedroom environment, advises The Sleep Council. A temperature of between 16-18°C is ideal – if you’re too hot or too cold, you won’t sleep soundly. And make it dark, to promote the production of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. Use black-out blinds or curtains, or an eye mask if you need one. Also: not having small children star-fished in your bed helps enormously.
- Ditch the booze before bedtime. It may help you nod off but studies consistently show that it disrupts REM sleep (the restorative phase).
- Eat the right foods. Those containing an amino acid called tryptophan are thought to be most helpful because tryptophan converts into the hormone serotonin, often known as the ‘happy hormone’. At night, serotonin undergoes metabolic changes to become melatonin (see point 1), the hormone that induces sleep. Chicken, turkey and milk all contain tryptophan, as do peanuts, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
- Exercise – but don’t overdo it. The Sleep Foundation found that people with insomnia who undertook moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, reduced the time it took them to fall asleep, and increased the length of time they stayed asleep. More vigorous exercise, or lifting weights, did not have the same effect.
- Create a new bedtime routine. “Routines that are associated with sleep tell the brain that it’s time to wind down – think a warm bath, having a milky drink, reading a book or listening to soothing music,” says Lisa Artis. “Try to get up at a similar hour, too. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time, all the time, will programme your body to sleep better.”