Sleep – getting the basics right

Most of us now know the importance of quality sleep thanks to extensive media coverage over the last few years. I know from my own experience the challenges and frustrations from poor sleep and also the huge benefits from quality sleep. However, like many areas of health we get bombarbed with differing ideas and perspectives from a variety of sources on the best course of action. I wrote an article on this early last year but decided a follow-up would be helpful – here’s the link. This is a big subject and could fill an entire book, however to help demystify this, here are the key steps to better sleep – in no particular order of importance as this can vary for each of us:

  • Light – get a few minutes of daylight as soon as possible on waking and avoid bright lights later in the evening. This includes switching off phones and computers at least 1 hour before going to bed and dimming the lights in the evening. Both of the above affect the body’s circadian rhythm and getting right light assists in activating the body’s natural sleep function.
  • Dark – black out the room where you sleep, wear black-out mask if necessary .. or both as I do!
  • Temperature – keep the bedroom cool. The act of cooling down naturally sends the body to sleep – this is why a warm shower before bed can be helpful.
  • Eating – stop eating 3 hours before sleep (also great for weight loss!) Note – if you generally eat low carb and have trouble sleeping, try eating your carbs with your last meal of the day – this can help provide the body with its natural sleep pre-cursors. On the other hand, excessive carbs throughout the day can lead to significant blood sugar swings and disrupt sleep.
  • Drinking – unfortunately alcohol rarely improves sleep! It may help the initial onset of sleep but ultimately it will lower the quality – mainly reducing REM and deep sleep. Part of the impact of a hang-over is the reduction in sleep quality.
  • Meditate – whether that be full lotus position Buddhist meditation or simply listening to relaxing music – it all counts! This is particularly helpful before going to sleep.
  • Relax – how we sleep can be a reflection of how we spend our days – lower stress in the day leads to better sleep at night.
  • The Past – from moderate stress through to PTSD – our experiences affect our sleep. So addressing any on-going stress or unresolved trauma by whatever means suits – whether this be a yoga session or holiday through to professional help – can make a substantial difference. (EFT can be a very powerful tool to help work through issues).
  • Exercise – as with light this helps set the body’s natural sleep / wake cycle. (ideally any intensive exercise should be earlier in the day – at latest the afternoon).
  • Rhythm – timing is key. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule helps the body to know when to expect sleep and how to maximise the benefits. Where possible, go to bed and get up at a similar time each day. Where this isn’t possible, return to your usual schedule as soon as you can.
  • Timing – keep an eye on when you feel most refreshed following sleep (your chronotype). Some people are more suited to sleeping late and waking late, others are early risers. Find your chronotype and stick to it when you can – this will help you to maximise your quality sleep.

If you like to track your sleep then a quality sleep tracker such as the Oura ring can be very useful – as it shows an approximate time spent in deep, REM and light sleep as well as many other helpful metrics. Beware though, if you have real trouble sleeping and find yourself worrying about time asleep then it may be helpful to wait until your sleep improves before trying this so that it doesn’t become another source of stress! Personally, I find it very helpful as I can compare and correlate the sleep results to aspects of my day such as exercise, stress, food, meditation, supplements etc.

Finally, supplements. There are many to choose from and they can be very helpful. However the foundations for quality sleep are the lifestyle factors mentioned above. I’ll follow-up with a detailed review on sleep supplements in a future post.

As ever, it’s important to experiment with all the methods mentioned here to find what works for you – we are all different. There is rarely a magic bullet to improve sleep overnight but by applying the principles outlined here, over time better sleep habits will ultimately lead to a much better night’s sleep and the dramatic improvements in our health and well-being it can bring.

Thanks for reading!