Problem sleep is a modern-age plague, but before reaching for the sleeping pills, Abi Jackson sources seven simple steps to a more successful snooze.
Eight hours; the Holy Grail of snoozing. If only we could master it, we’d be healthier, happier, calmer, sharper and generally-all-round-better versions of our usual groggy, yawning, puffy-eyed selves.
The Great British Sleep Survey’s results, published in 2012, revealed that more than 51% of Brits struggle to get a decent night’s sleep, and it’s hitting us hard. In 2011, 15.3 million NHS prescriptions were issued for sleeping pills, and research suggests that long-term bad sleep can damage health, while in the short-term our immune systems suffer and it leaves us zapped, irritable and unable to concentrate.
“Sleep disturbances are common and can impact on daily function and general health,” says Kate Monaghan, sleep physiologist at Bupa Cromwell Hospital. “The main barriers tend to be work, family pressures, external stimuli such as caffeine and the environment.”
During particularly stressful phases, like exams or relationship breakdowns, or after trauma or grief, as well as factors like physical illness and pain, it’s normal for sleep to suffer, and insomnia can become a chronic problem for some. If this is the case, speaking to your GP is important. Aside from pills, therapies like counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be effective.
If poor sleep is simply a niggling problem you could really do without though, here are some simple steps you can take to help.
1 - Put stress on snooze
Often bad sleepers are trapped in a worry cycle. “The anxiety of thinking you’ll not be able to sleep is one of the things that feeds the problem,” says Dr Nerina Ramlakahn, a sleep consultant at Capio Nightingale Hospital and Silentnight’s resident sleep expert.
Also, lying in bed worrying about the day’s events, or things that ‘might’ happen in the future’s not going to help, but it’s a habit you can address.
Nerina recommends a 12-step toolkit which includes adapting your activities throughout the day, like exercising to reduce stress, and writing a to-do list for the next day at bedtime.
2 - Create a slumber-enhancing haven
Your physical surroundings have a big impact on your mind, so it makes sense that the place you sleep in should be a peaceful retreat.
“If there’s clutter around you, it can be cluttering your mind,” says Birdee.
Dr Nerina agrees: “The bedroom should be as tranquil as possible - a place where you can relax and unwind.”
She recommends clearing the room of technology, which means no computers or TV.
3 - Are you lying comfortably?
We’re sensitive creatures, and even slight physiological factors can have our brain and body chemistry churning away - which is why physical comfort is vital for sleep. Decent mattresses can be pricey but we spend almost half of our lives in bed, so it’s worth investing.
“People often forget they’re in bed on average eight hours a night. Multiply that by 365 days, that’s almost 3000 hours a year,” says Birdee.
A decent pillow is important too, and there are different types designed to suit different sleeping positions. Not only will these things aid sleep but they’re important for back and neck pain.
Temperature also comes into play - while nobody wants to lie awake shivering, a room that’s too hot will prevent you from peaceful sleep. Save thick duvets for winter and keep cool in summer and, if possible, allow air to flow through the room.
4 - Let there be less light - and noise
There’s a reason we switch lights off at bedtime. Sleeping in darkness is crucial for the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which plays an important part in the sleep-wake cycle.
Plus, too much light can make it hard for the brain to wind down, and can prevent us from achieving good quality sleep, and wake us up too early.
Consider investing in darker curtains or black-out blinds if light’s a problem, especially if you’re a shift worker who sleeps during daytime.
Similarly, too much noise is one of the biggest factors guaranteed to ruin sleep. If you have problems with noisy neighbours, or sound pollution from the streets nearby, contact your council’s Environmental Health Department - they may be able to help.
5 - Turn off your gadgets
Laptops and smartphones do us no favours when it comes to sleep - because many of us don’t know when to, or simply can’t, switch off.
A recent Nytol survey found that while just one in 10 people say they get ‘good’ sleep, over half (53%) admit to going online in bed, with a quarter thinking they’re ‘addicted’ to checking emails and social media in bed.
6 - Don’t panic if you wake up
We’ve all been there - suddenly wide awake at 3am, only to spend the next few hours panicking how we’ll get through the next day.
“If you wake, try to avoid looking at your phone or clock and registering the time, as you’re more likely to start worrying about how little sleep you’ll get,” advises Nerina.
If you find lying in bed impossible to handle, try going to another room to read a book to distract your thoughts, then return to bed when you’re calmer.
7 - Watch what you eat and drink
What, and when, we eat and drink can affect sleep. “A heavy meal before bedtime is going to be uncomfortable and can cause restlessness, as your body’s working overtime to ensure it’s digested,” says Birdee. She advises eating your evening meal a little earlier and perhaps going for a stroll afterwards.
“Drinking caffeine and sugar-laden soft drinks can act as stimulants,” adds Birdee. “If you enjoy a drink before bedtime, choose a decaf or fruit tea instead.” Warm, milky drinks can be soothing and sleep-inducing, too.
Three natural sleep enhancers
:: Boots Pharmaceuticals Re:Balance Dream Pillow Mist Lavender, £6.15, Boots
A spritz of this specially formulated blend of essential oils on your pillow is designed to calm and relax.
:: Rescue Night Liquid Melts, £8.45 for 28 capsules, available from Boots and independent pharmacies
Made up of five BachTM Original Flower essences, including Star of Bethlehem, Rock Rose and Cherry Plum, the formula promises to ease whirring worries.
:: Potter’s Nodoff Mixture by Potter’s Herbals, £6.32, Boots, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose
This traditional mixture, which combines Passiflora, Jamaican Dogwood, Hops, Scullcap and Valerian, is said to aid sleep.