The first steps on the journey to better sleep start here.
Developing better sleep patterns starts by working with your body, behaviour and environment to give yourself the best opportunity to sleep well. Here we look at something that is known as Sleep Hygiene, the practice of setting yourself for good sleep.
We all know that a cup of coffee a day keeps those drooping eyelids at bay. But how does it work and how might this affect my sleep?
Over the course of the day, we build up a molecular by-product of our metabolism in our bloodstream called adenosine. Adenosine naturally interferes with our neural activity and as it gradually builds up in our bodies it causes us to feel sluggish and sleepy. Eventually, at the end of the day, we retreat to bed and our body eliminates the adenosine overnight, helping us feel refreshed and ready for the next day.
Now, caffeine happens to “fit” the neural receptors that our body uses to detect the presence of adenosine. So when we have a coffee, the caffeine essentially masks the presence of the sleepiness inducing molecule and we feel alert. The trouble is that caffeine has a half-life of around six hours in an adult human, meaning that it takes around six hours for half of the caffeine in our bloodstream to be eliminated by the body. Imagine that, half of the caffeine in the cup of coffee you had at 4pm is still washing through you at 10pm at night!
Although caffeine can be useful in helping us to make it through the morning, it’s important to be aware of how long it’ll be sticking around. If you’re struggling to get to sleep at night, it might well be sensible to limit that cup of Joe to first-think in the morning.
Creating a sleep friendly bedroom
Making sure that your bedroom is conducive for sleep is an obvious but really important part of giving yourself the best chance of good sleep. A good rule of thumb for a bedroom is to keep it dark, keep it cool and to keep it quiet.
Light: If you’re someone that has light material for your curtains, why not invest in some blackout blinds or perhaps even an eye-mask to limit the disruption that light might cause.
Temperature: If you have a warm house during the day, bear in mind that the body loses heat during the night and so turning that thermostat down before bed will not only help you keep the heating bill down but will also aid sleep. An approximate temperature of around 18 degrees Celsius is considered a good nightly bedroom target and a cooler room with lovely warm bed-linen is better than a warm room with lighter sheets.
Noise: A calm and quiet bedroom is a haven for sleep. If you’ve got a clock ticking noisily away or a radiator that keeps clunking then you don’t want to be irritated or kept up by them when you’ve finally managed to drift off. If you’re easily disturbed by the slightest noise, there’s no shame in investing in a good pair of earplugs to help you sleep.
Sunshine: keeping us on time
One of the principal ways in which we regulate our sleep-wake cycle is through natural light. Light enters the eye, is picked up by specialised cells in the retina and the information is passed on to our biological clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Essentially, the brain is told that it’s daytime and therefore time to be active, as we’ve evolved to be active during the day and to sleep at night. When evening comes and we’d naturally get dim twilight, the message is that it’s time to wind down and go to sleep.
The problem is that if we get too much intense light in the evening, however, this can confuse the body clock and ‘delay’ our sleep. Being aware of the effects of bright light from mobile phones and tablets in the evening is therefore really important. Similarly, getting a good dose of natural morning light is a great way to keep active, get some fresh air and to keep your body clock running on time.
Taking time to gently come to a rest before bed
We all have busy lives and often the busy energy of the day can linger on until we eventually slink off to bed. Giving yourself the best chance of getting a good night’s sleep also means giving yourself time to wind down and switch off at the end of the day.
Rather than doing things to help you fall asleep, why not use the pre-sleep period as a dedicated time to do something that you enjoy and that helps you unwind. For some people this might be having a nice bath, for others it could be catching up on that book they want to read. Whatever you choose, give yourself time to enjoy and appreciate it - no rush, no stress.