I suspect most of us underestimate sleep as a vital part of our wellbeing and also its importance in rehabilitation/convalescence, preferring to devote our energy to more marginal gains. We spend nearly one third of our lives asleep, why wouldn’t it be hugely important?
It follows that if we improve the quality of our sleep, we will improve our quality of life. To name just a few benefits, better sleep can:
- boost productivity
- improve mood
- make it easier to lose weight
- improve immune function and recovery
- reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes
- reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s
So, how much sleep do you need and how do you know if you are getting enough? Waking up feeling refreshed is a good indicator of overall health and waking up at the same time without an alarm is a sign you are getting enough sleep. Conversely, not being able to drop off within 30 minutes of trying could indicate a problem.
If you are concerned about your sleep, you can take the NHS sleep self-assessment.
The problem is, when you are not sleeping well, you worry about not sleeping – not helped by people like me telling you how important sleep is! All the experts agree that you sleep better when you stop worrying about your sleep – easier said than done.
What can you do if you don’t sleep well? A lot of it is about body clock, physiology and melatonin (our sleep hormone); in our fast paced, modern world, it’s hard to give our brains a chance to switch off and we are fighting our natural biology. Things that can help include:
- Try and get at least 20 minutes of natural light early in the morning to regulate melatonin production (without sunglasses, ordinary glasses are ok)
- Limit caffeine to before lunch and reduce alcohol (it stays in your system for a long time)
- Eat before 7pm if possible, so you have time to digest
- Try and keep your evenings relatively calm and have a bedtime routine, as you would for a child, to help your brain wind down
- Charge your phone away from your bedroom and get an old fashioned alarm clock
- Make your bedroom really dark (use black out blinds or an eye mask and don’t have a TV or electronic devices in there) and keep it cool (17° is optimal)
Like everything, what works for one, won’t work for all. My sleep had never been great and after 2 pregnancies and feeding 2 babies through the night, it was shocking (by which time both children were sleeping through – oh the irony!). This is what works for me:
- decreasing caffeine
- having a craft project on the go – I find knitting and crochet really meditative
- reading a good book – it makes me want to go to bed and read a few chapters and means I relax for half an hour (often more) before turning out the light
- going to bed when I am tired – avoiding the rush of “2nd wind” hormones
Interestingly, it has worked so well that whilst many of my friends are now struggling with sleep due to menopause and perimenopause (more on that here), my sleep has remained good.
I am sharing some of my favourite resources if you would like to delve deeper.
“Sleep yourself well – don’t wake yourself to death.” A 15 minute TedX talk on the science of sleep, why it is so important and how to sleep better.
For many people this is THE book on sleep. I know many people who have changed their sleep habits after reading it.
A compilation of sleep top tips from experts.
Insight Timer is a free app with thousands of guided meditations to help you drift off to sleep or clear your busy mind.
The Sleep Charity have lots of information and advice as well as a helpline.
If you would like any further information or resources, or have any suggestions on how I could improve this blog, please let me know.
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