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How To Get A Great Night's Sleep

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Sleeping can be difficult with everyday stressors and it can be nigh-on impossible to get a solid few hours kip without our mind whirring away.

So we’ve collated information from the world’s foremost specialists, and spoken to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, to create a ready-to-use guide on how to maximise your slumber.

Why is sleep so important?

Harvard sleep specialist Josna Adusumilli recently said that regularly going to the office (or to your WFH space on the sofa…) on as little as six hours sleep each night has the same detrimental effect on mental and physical performance as turning up drunk. Yes, really.

As well as needing our sleep to remain healthy and alert we also need it to keep our skin in good condition. Without getting our well known beauty sleep our skin starts to show the effect through fine lines, puffy eyes, dullness and dark circles under the eyes. More information on how sleep affects the skin is available here.

Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, has said that there is evidence that lack of sleep can actually reduce your life expectancy. It's linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart attacks and Alzheimer’s amongst other things.

How do I know how much sleep I need?

This is entirely personal, but most people need between seven and nine hours. Our personal sleep needs depend on genetics, gender and age. As a general rule, less than 1% of the population possess the gene that mean they can sleep for 4 hours or less and thrive. Women also sleep less effectively than men, and so need around 20 minutes extra per day. And as we age, our quality of sleep increases - meaning we need less to feel restored. There is no definitive test to help with your exact figure, but try out these five steps and you should be better at reading your body’s sleep signals.

  1. How do you feel at 11am? This is the point in your body’s clock that you should feel the most alert, energised and awake. If you’re feeling tired at 11am, you’re not getting enough sleep or something is draining your energy.
  2. Are you grouchy? If you’re finding yourself snapping, becoming tearful or argumentative or getting stressed easily, this can be a sign that you’re losing sleep. Tiredness can be caused by low energy from various sources, but emotional disruption is a surefire sign that you’ve been lacking sleep specifically.
  3. Do you need an alarm clock? Unless you have to get up at an unsociable hour for work, you should be able to wake naturally rather than use an alarm. If not, you need to hit the hay earlier.
  4. Do you lie in at weekends? An extra hour is fine, but if you find yourself languishing in bed for hours on end then it’s a sign you’re collecting a sleep debt in the week that your body is trying to make up for. When you’re sleeping the right amount, you should sleep the same number of hours all week - yes, even on a Sunday!
  5. Do you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow? It should take between 15 and 30 minutes to fall asleep when you get into bed. Any quicker, and you’re sleep deprived. Any longer, and there’s possibly something like stress interfering.

Once you’ve answered these five questions, if you think you need to tweak your sleep needs, then adjust them for a few weeks and then do the quiz again. It takes a while to change your sleep clock, so do it in 15-30 minute increments each few days.

How can I improve my sleep?

Once you’ve sussed the amount of sleep you need, it’s time to focus on maximising your forty winks. We’ve whittled down a few simple tips...

Take Omega 3 supplements

Research from the University of Oxford found that the DHA in Omega 3 fats might lower anxiety or help with the release of melatonin, the hormone that signals to your body that it’s time for sleep.

Sit by a window

Whether you’re in the office or working from your home study, research has found that those who get the most natural light throughout the day sleep best at night.

Create a sleep signal 

Next time you feel sleepy, touch your ear, stroke your cheek or rub your thumb and finger together. Do this every time you start to feel sleepy, and you’ll light up a neural pathway in your brain. Do this several times, over a few weeks, every time you feel tired. Then, when sleep isn’t coming naturally, you’ll be able to do the sleep signal and you should drop off quicker.

Listen to ‘Sleep’, by Max Richter

Created with neuroscientist David Eagleman, this 8-hour lullaby has the rhythms and tempo needed for a great night’s sleep.

No caffeine after 2pm

While we can’t just pop to the coffee shop, now’s the perfect time to ditch that afternoon caffeine habit. Caffeine has a half-life of 6-8 hours, so if you stop drinking it at 2pm, at least half of it will be gone by 8pm.

Ditch the nightcap 

It takes your body around an hour to digest one alcoholic drink, so if you have 2 glasses of wine with dinner, drink two glasses of water and then wait two hours to sleep. This means you won’t get the nighttime dehydration that means your sleep is terrible quality.

Exercise daily

But not within four hours of sleep - if your body is too hot, it doesn’t release melatonin, and exercising too close to bedtime raises your core body temperature meaning you may find it hard to sleep.

What about my supper?

There’s also some really easy suppertime swaps you can do to encourage sumptuous slumber.

Swap cows milk for oat milk

Warm milk is a traditional bedtime treat, but dairy can trigger dopamine, a hormone that stimulates brain activity, not ideal just before bed. Oats, however, have a relaxing effect because they contain calming magnesium.

Swap cheese & biscuits for pumpkin seeds

Yes okay, it’s not quite as much fun sitting in front of a box set with a bag of seeds, but rich, fatty foods are hard for the body to digest so eating them close to bedtime can cause you to stay awake longer. Pumpkin seeds are naturally full of amino acids, helping melatonin. They also make you feel full, which helps promote sleepiness.

Swap wine for herbal tea

Again, we know it’s not the fun option but the comforting warm feeling of a glass of red can disrupt your sleep in the night.

Swap chocolate for cherries

Chocolate contains sugar and caffeine, neither of which are ideal for decent shut-eye. Cherries contain melatonin naturally, and if you can’t get your hands on fresh ones right now, cherry capsules are available for just this reason. No, Cherry Drops don’t count.

And if nothing’s helping?

If it’s not an urgent issue but you’re worried about your sleep, use the rule of three to determine whether you need to seek professional help. Are you waking up more than three times a night, for more than 30 minutes total, and does it happen more than 3 times a week, for more than 3 months? Let your doctor know.

Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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