We have all experienced that groggy feeling the day after a bad night’s sleep. While this may be a relatively infrequent occurrence for some people, for others, it can be a regular pattern, which becomes all-consuming and a defining aspect of their daily life. And sometimes it can go beyond that groggy feeling. Sleep deprivation can affect our overall mood, stress and anxiety levels, and our productivity levels due to decreased focus and concentration. In some cases, there can be detrimental effects to physical and mental health.
But, don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to help improve our sleep.
Insomnia is often used to describe all manner of sleep problems however it is important to differentiate between occasional periods of wakefulness, and chronic insomnia. Insomnia is defined as difficulty getting to sleep, difficulty maintaining sleep or waking too early in the morning. A significant factor in determining the extent of a sleep problem is to initially understand how much sleep we actually need. This is where confusion often arises – what I call the 8 hour myth – the belief that that we all need 8 hours of sleep at night in order to fulfil our sleep needs and operate at our optimum functioning level. When I ask a room full of adults how much sleep they felt they needed in order not to feel tired the next day, responses generally vary between 6-7 hours to 7-8 hours. This varied response helps us understand that we are split into ‘long sleepers’ who feel better with more sleep, or ‘short sleepers’ who function optimally on less hours at night. And while the quantity of sleep hours we have at night is significant, the quality of our sleep is equally as important. You may be lying in bed for the number of hours you feel you need however you may still feel tired the next day, which suggests you may not be getting sufficient deep sleep during the night.
While many of us know the basics of what may be affecting our sleep, such as drinking coffee too close to bedtime, raised stress levels, or screens in bed etc, there are in fact many factors which contribute to what happens to our minds and body at night.
Sleep hygiene is a holistic approach to improving sleep which focuses on what we do in the evening and during the day, to enable us to sleep better at night. Starting with regulating our body clock, aim to go to bed at around the same time every night (sorry to say, this includes weekends as unfortunately our body clock doesn’t gain any benefit from extra hours at the weekend). Setting yourself an electronic switch-off an hour before bed. Help your body and mind power down by listening to relaxing music or an audio book, reading, listening to meditation exercise. If your mind is whizzing with a thousand thoughts, get them down on paper before bed. This simple act of writing them down and seeing them visually can free up some space in your brain.
If you’re one of the many that uses your phone as an alarm clock, invest in a regular alarm clock (they do exist!) and move your phone out of your bedroom. Phones and sleep are not a good mix and even if you are not regularly looking at it, it is still emitting a blue light and radiate waves which are stimulating to the brain and interferes with sleep.
Light is a significant factor in helping our bodies produce melatonin, our all-important sleep hormone. Ensure your room is as dark as it can be and dim the lights of the bedroom at bedtime.
In the morning, avoid hitting the snooze button and force yourself out of bed. Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of getting up to give your blood sugar the boost it needs. Get outside into natural sunlight in the morning, which helps our inner body clock feel more alert.
Finally, if you ask someone who doesn’t have a sleep problem what steps they take in order to sleep well, they will probably not be able to think of any. If you ask someone who does suffer with sleep issues the same question, they are likely to give you a list. Ironically, the more energy you spend on making sleep happen, the more you are potentially exacerbating any sleep issue, so stop trying too hard.