When we consider the key pillars of health, sleep is of paramount importance along with nutrition, movement and relaxation. Although there appear to be individual differences in terms of how much sleep ‘feels good’, research unanimously suggests that chronic lack of sleep may cause a significant increase in both physical and mental health conditions.
Sleep plays a fundamental role in virtually all bodily functions, from immune system to memory, appetite regulation and cell turnover. Take the immune system, for example, where sleep promotes cytokine production; compounds that have a protective effect on the immune system by helping fight inflammation and infections.
With stress being a leading factor in poor sleep quality, it’s important not to approach ‘sleeping better’ from a point of panic or stress. Yes, getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night is optimum, but it’s equally as important to be realistic about how you get there - worrying about the occasional restless night or jet lag would be counterintuitive. Stress impacts sleep → poor sleep increases stress → the cycle continues.
Approaching the steps to improve sleep hygiene should come from a place of positivity and, as with any holistic lifestyle changes, should be introduced slowly and mindfully. After all, it’s a chance for making positive change that comes hand-in-hand with improving overall wellbeing, sense of balance, and the opportunity to reconsider habits that you may have adopted that aren’t necessarily serving you well.
Are you getting enough sleep?
For adults the optimum sleep length is 7-8 hours per night, with the hours before midnight increasingly understood to be extra beneficial. Meanwhile the recommendations for teens, children and infants are longer and vary according to age - find NHS guidelines here.
For anyone already getting 7-8 hours per night, whilst this is a great place to start, it’s still worth considering the quality of your sleep. For example, blue light emissions from your phone / TV / laptop screens can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Whilst you may find it easy to fall asleep in bed half way through your chosen Netflix programme, the blue light exposure will still impact the production of your sleep hormones and your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
What can you do improve your sleep?
1. Regulate your sleep-wake cycle
Establishing a sleep schedule is a great place to begin, making an effort to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day of the week / weekend. Do remember not to let this become a source of stress - if there are evenings where you stay out late or mornings where you spring out of bed before your alarm of really fancy a lie in, it’s important to be intuitive in the moment too.
- Adopt a bedtime routine (see below) to wind down for the day
- Choose dim lighting or candlelight for the last hour before bedtime
- Purchase a Bodyclock light by Lumie. These are especially brilliant for regulating your bodyclock during the darker winter months when daylight is reduced. Their lights have been cleverly designed to mimic a sunrise and sunset, helping you to wake up feeling naturally energised in the mornings and to fall asleep without the disruption from blue light. You can also select calming sleep sounds and alarms to ease yourself gently to sleep / wake
- Upon waking, open the curtains to let the natural light in straight away. During winter months try spending as much time exposed to daylight as possible, which might mean getting outside on your lunch break and taking a stroll around the block
2. Create a nighttime sanctuary
Try not to overlook the environment in which you sleep. Although it may seem like an inconsequential thing, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of your sleep surroundings, which could be key to transitioning towards better quality sleep. In the connected world in which we live, the bedroom has become a multipurpose space where TVs, laptops, emails, telephone calls are welcomed. It can take a little bit of time to shake off old habits but for quality sleep you should try to keep the bedroom a relaxing and intimate space and ruduce the amount of stress or stimulation. Although an ‘ideal setting’ may be different for every individual, there are a few common variables that should definitely be considered. These include lighting, noise, temperature and comfort.
- The body’s circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) prefers to follow the natural dark/light rhythm. Choose low lighting before bed, darkness whilst you sleep, and letting natural sunlight in as the sun rises
- Keeping noise to a minimum is important as we tend to respond to external stimuli whilst we’re asleep, which in turn can compromise deep sleep. If you live in a noisy building or area, using comfortable ear plugs may be helpful
- Consider opening windows to let fresh air in and lower the temperature on warmer nights. Though a warm bath or shower before bedtime can be beneficial since the process of cooling off can help transition into sleep
- Whilst there is no right or wrong when it comes to comfort, finding a mattress and bedding are right for you should be a priority. What you choose may relate to your personal preferences and finances, but comfort should always be the priority
3. Introduce a bedtime routine
Winding down for the day with a bedtime routine is a lovely way of transitioning towards more mindful living and can have brilliant effects on sleep quality too. What works for you may be different from the next person, but part of the process is finding things that help you to reduce stress and feel calm in the 1-2 hours before bedtime. Some suggestions include:
- A magnesium / Epsom salts bath
- A warming, caffeine-free drink such as a turmeric latte or Rooibos
- Candlelit yoga / stretching
- Meditation or breathwork
- Reading in bed, keeping low level lighting
- Calm App is a brilliantly effective sleep aid for many people. It has tons of sleep stories for all ages, guided meditations for sleep / calming anxiety, as well as some handy sleep sounds to send you off
Magnesium and/or Ashwagandha supplements can be useful sleep aids. Both have been clinically proven to lower stress levels by balancing cortisol (stress hormone). Quoting 'CYT35653-10' will give you a 10% discount on your supplements at Cytoplan.
Finally, remember that taking steps to improve your sleep is a process - one that should be enjoyable and individualised. Considering your environment and replacing old habits with more mindful practices can have such a powerful impact not only on sleep but your productivity, relationships, and overall physical and mental wellbeing.