Getting a good night’s sleep

Having a restless night’s sleep can be one of the most frustrating experiences imaginable. The constant clock-watching as you lay awake day-dreaming of sleep. Whilst it is universally accepted that sleep is important, just how important is it?

There are a variety of detrimental effects of prolonged bouts of poor sleep or insomnia, both physical and mental. These can include depression, cognitive decline, poorer quality of life as well as cardiovascular disease.

Poor sleep behaviour has also been shown to affect your diet. Chaput (2014) showed that short sleep duration, poor sleep quality and later bed times have all been linked to increased food intake, poor diet quality and excess body weight. So why might it be that insufficient sleep increases snacking and the number of calories that are consumed? Several suggestions have been put forward, for example; the fact that there is more time and opportunity to eat, a higher likelihood of eating through emotional distress, changes in appetite hormones, or perhaps that more energy is needed to sustain extended wakefulness. Regardless of the reasons why it may be the case, it can be helpful to consider how sleep (or lack of) might affect you.

If you find yourself regularly feeling like you haven’t had a very good night’s sleep, you may want to have a think about how you can help yourself get back into a natural sleep pattern. Too much noise or light can lead to sleep disturbances. Having electronic devices on and around you whilst you are trying to sleep can also be detrimental, as the light from these devices can disrupt your natural sleep rhythm. People who have been diagnosed with insomnia are also more likely to be disturbed by these things, although white noise can be both soothing and conducive to promoting sleep.

It can be fairly common for people who do a lot of work in their bedroom to experience sleep problems. This may be down to the fact that by doing work in the area where you sleep, you are building associations of arousing/active behaviours that aren’t related to sleeping. If you can identify with this, it might be an idea to use a separate area for work that is removed from your sleeping area, enabling you to develop new associations of sleep with your bed.

One of the first questions you can ask yourself is perhaps ‘How comfortable is my bed/mattress/pillow?’ If you are not feeling very comfortable then you are less likely to fall into a deep and restful sleep.

It is a common belief for some people who struggle with sleep, that it is a natural part of growing older, and therefore they may have lowered their expectations for their sleep. This isn’t necessarily the case, and it can be useful to understand the basic process that occurs when we fall asleep.

So in a nut shell…

There are two distinct phases that we go through when we fall asleep, ‘Non Rapid Eye Movement’ (NREM) which is associated with minimal mental activity and has three stages of increasing depth of sleep; and ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ (REM) which is associated with brain activity and, as the name suggests, movement of the eyes. For most adults, the onset of sleep occurs through NREM, with REM occurring at least 80 minutes later, alternating between the two states with the cycle becoming longer over time.

This cycle can be disturbed by a variety of things, form the onset of an illness, certain environmental factors, or some medications/substances. Issues such as social isolation, bereavement care giving etc. may also perpetuate the problem.

Before you start reaching for the sleeping pills, maybe have a think about what else you could do to help you sleep. Whether it’s reducing sugar/caffeine intake in the evening, or moving the laptop off the bed, some simple changes can make all the difference.

Simple things like turning down the lights an hour before bed, can help to get your mind ready to switch off, as can other activities that can be associated with sleep time such as brushing teeth, getting changed, showered etc.

We normally expect our brains to keep going and going throughout the day, bombarding it with a wide variety of stimuli, then wonder why it struggles to switch off on cue. Finding a routine that suits you, an hour or so before it’s time to go to sleep can be a natural way of allowing our minds to switch off, recharge and synchronise with our bodies’ hormone production.