Ten tips for getting good sleep
Now that you recognise that sleep is essential and you know roughly how much sleep you require, you might now be asking how to improve your sleep. The following section highlights several things that you can do. Please remember that these tips are simply things to try. They are not treatments for sleep disorders and should not replace your medical practitioner’s treatments or advice. If you are already sleeping well, do not feel the need to change anything.
A simple rule of thumb is that sleep and relaxation are close friends. To fall asleep, you need a relaxed body and a peaceful mind. Take some time before attempting sleep to calm your thoughts (e.g., write your worries down in a journal or meditate) and relax your body (e.g., yoga or reading). How you relax is a personal choice – there is no “right way.” Experiment with different methods of calming down and getting comfortable.
Allow yourself time for sleep.
If you think you need eight hours per night, you need to give yourself time and a location to get that amount of sleep. If you know you need to be awake at 0700 to commute to the office, you must prioritise getting into bed by 2300 (or ideally 2230 to give yourself time to fall asleep). You will not get sufficient sleep if you are sat up until 0200, answering emails.
Establish a regular sleep and wake up schedule.
Try to be consistent in your sleep and wake times. You do not need to be a perfectionist and aim to wake up at precisely the same time each day, but you could desire to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time – even on weekends. Try selecting a bedtime when you know you fall asleep easily (i.e., there is no point lying awake in bed for hours). If you feel you are not getting enough sleep, try to go to bed earlier. If you break from your regular schedule, for example, during a holiday, try to return to normal as soon as you can.
Attempt to ensure that your sleep is continuous by eliminating as many sleep disturbances as you can. For example, if street noise wakes you up, try closing the windows. Alternatively, if you need to use the toilet during the night, consider reducing fluid intake in the evening. This tip is not for everyone – as a parent of young children, I know first-hand that some disturbances are unavoidable. The point here is to control the controllable and eliminate the many disturbances you control. If you cannot get unbroken sleep, consider napping to increase your time asleep in the daytime (see below).
Think about what you consume and when you consume it. Stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine will influence your ability to fall asleep. Depressants such as alcohol might help you fall asleep, but they harm sleep quality. Caffeine stays in your system for up to ten hours. While people metabolise caffeine at different rates and react to caffeine in diverse ways, it is probably worth avoiding large doses (i.e., strong coffees or energy drinks) in the late afternoon/evening. In terms of diet and supplementation, try to consume a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables. If you are not deficient in micronutrients (such as magnesium), you should not need to take any sleep supplements. If in doubt, go and see your doctor.
Napping can be an easy and effective way to get a refreshing boost during the daytime, and researchers have shown that naps can improve individual performance. Avoid napping for prolonged periods (i.e., more than 30mins) and avoid napping in the late afternoon. Long naps can result in grogginess and impaired performance, known as sleep inertia. Naps in the late afternoon can influence our ability to fall asleep later in the evening. When napping, either lie down or sit in a reclined position, use an eye mask, close the curtains, and remove other distractions (e.g., a phone) while you are asleep. Between 15-20 minutes is the perfect nap duration for most people.
Set your bedroom up to encourage and facilitate sleep. If you can, avoid using your bedroom for work, TV watching, or hobbies. Ensure that the sleep environment is dark, quiet, cool (i.e., around 18°C), and comfortable (i.e., a comfortable mattress, pillows, bed linen). Remove distractions from the sleep environment or tidy them away and out of sight if you cannot remove them.
Light (or the lack thereof) influences wakefulness and sleep onset. Try to get exposure to natural sunlight early in the morning to help set your circadian rhythm. Also, avoid bright lights (and blue wavelength enriched light) in the evenings—exposure to light suppresses the production of a sleep hormone called melatonin. Melatonin acts like the starter pistol of a sleeping race. If melatonin is suppressed by light exposure, the start of the sleep process is delayed (and you fall asleep later).
Physical fitness supports sound sleep. Some sleep disorders are linked to obesity (i.e., obstructive sleep apnoea), so it is beneficial to maintain a healthy weight. Exercise can have a detrimental effect on sleep, however. Exercise very close to bedtime can have an alerting effect and raise body temperature, both of which will influence your capacity to fall asleep. If you notice that you are struggling to fall asleep at night, consider whether your exercise habits, particularly the timing of exercise, contribute to your sleep onset latency.
If in doubt, see a doctor
These sleep tips are not designed to treat illnesses, and they are not intended to replace medical advice. Some sleep issues can be symptoms of underlying health problems or sleep disorders. If you recognise that you have problems falling asleep, staying asleep, or have other sleep-related complaints, it might be worthwhile to bring them up with a medical practitioner.
The belief that “time is money” or we “sleep when we’re dead” can lead some people to downplay the need for sleep, which ultimately degrades human performance and health. It is beneficial to acknowledge our need for good quality sleep and view sleep as arguably our number one performance-enhancing strategy. Healthy sleep is sleep that restores and energises a person to feel awake, dynamic, and energetic all day long. By optimising our sleep, we can maintain and enhance our health and performance. And now to bed.