While seemingly effortless and utterly essential, sleep comes wrapped up in a thick duvet of complexity and contradictions. It’s completely free, yet at the same time priceless; constantly available, but for some achingly unattainable; deeply healing, yet a lack of it causes spiralling suffering.
In recent years, cracking the complex code to better sleep has become a status symbol. It’s almost cool to admit to going to bed early and getting 8 hours sleep every night. But for far too long sleep wasn’t given the kudos it deserved.
The ability to function on 3-4 hours a night was a badge of honour worn by the so-called “sleepless elite” – successful executives, political figures, and entertainers who claimed their rise to the top was all down to shunning sleep.
Part of the problem is that sleep wasn’t seen as a very profitable commodity. Diet and exercise have long been profitably marketed as the golden pillars of a healthy lifestyle – I mean, surely, if you’re juicing green veggies in a top of the line juicer and squeezing in four spin classes a week you’re doing alright?
Now we’ve woken up to the fact that the answer is yes, but only as long as your sleeping well too. Sleep is now positioned as an equally essential pillar of optimal health, and rightfully so, because getting good quality sleep is good for just about everything.
Stress, immune system, memory, concentration, recovery – whatever it is that’s ailing you, getting the recommended dose of shut-eye (7-8 hours for adults) can probably help.
So, what is the secret to better sleep? Even after decades of research, exactly why we sleep remains illusive, but experts have a pretty good idea. Read on for some of the most science-backed techniques recommended to get a good night’s sleep.
1. Put Your Phone to Bed Before You
The crux of my sleeping problems problem was bringing my phone into my room, and we’ve all heard how blue light from devices can negatively affect health and sleep patterns.
I’d also far too easily get sucked into a black hole of social media, and on the nights I had good intentions to read a book I’d only ever manage a few pages before I was distracted again.
My excuse for keeping my phone by my side at all times was that it functioned as my alarm too. I was a big fan of the Sleep Cycle alarm clock app which analyzes your sleep patterns and wakes you up in the lightest sleep phase.
Although this purports to promote a natural way to wake up I couldn’t help but feel that waking up and immediately checking your phone to assess how you slept wasn’t a ‘natural’ or positive way to start my day.
So, step one in my quest to master the art of a good night’s sleep was to banish my phone from my bedroom, as sleep guru Arianna Huffington ‘putting your phone to bed’ an hour before you head to bed yourself.
By avoiding bringing your phone into your bedroom, and created a charging station elsewhere in your home, you also avoid bringing in all the work stress, to-do lists and the glare of the phone’s blue light (I bought a pair of Ambr eyewear glasses to help with this throughout the day too).
The second step to better sleep was to buy an alarm clock…
2. Buy an Alarm Clock
Of course, I couldn’t just opt for the standard battery operated alarm clock – like my father suggested (apparently he’s been stung too many times by power outages during the night to trust plug-in alarms) – and instead started Googling ‘best alarm clocks’.
Dimmable bedside lighting options kept popping up, I was intrigued, and I purchased the one that seemed to top all the lists: The Lumie Bodyclock.
Lumie makes a range of ‘dawn simulator’ alarm clocks designed to wake you up gradually with increasing light.
Regular use of the clock is said to reset your internal body clock each day creating a healthier sleep cycle, combat the effects of the ‘winter blues’ and Seasonal Affective Disorder, help you to rise feeling alert, refreshed and energetic all day – so you can see why I quickly abandoned my dad’s suggestion…
There are lots of ‘dawn simulators’ out there these days but having started over two decades ago Lumie were the first company to create ‘wake up light.’
From the Lumie range I opted for the Bodyclock Active 250, which features a FM radio and extra sounds so that you can personalise your sunrise and sunset. Simply set a wake up time and in the mornings the clock will gradually get brighter.
You can choose a short 15-minute sunrise or up to 90 minutes for a more gradual effect – I have mine set to a 30-minute sunrise. Early birds could also add dawn chorus or rooster wake-up sounds, or you can wake up to your favourite radio station.
If you have trouble nodding off, Bodyclock Active 250 also has a slowly fading sunset option – plus two optional sleep sounds – to help you naturally relax and unwind ready for bed.
In the mornings I’m woken up by the soft glow of the clock, and I must say waking up to a warmly, lit room rather than a screaming alarm really is a lovely way to start your day.
I often get asked ‘what if the light doesn’t wake you’? I would suggest that you trial it and see what works for you. Maybe you’ll be okay with just the light, maybe you’ll need to add in the gentle mutterings of the radio or the sloshing of waves in the background to rouse you from summer completely.
I bought mine here on iwantoneofthose.com for €69.99 (RRP €115.99).
3. Make a Dent in Your Reading List
When you put your phone ‘to bed’ an hour before you do this isn’t an excuse to snuggle up in front of the TV or laptop, these bright artificial lights will signal the brain that it’s time to be awake.
Instead pick up a book. The words will soon begin to blend and blur as your eyes glaze over in a drunken stupor and a cosy state of stupefactions descends until you simply cannot resist the blissful allure of sleep for a second longer.
Not only is reading a proven tactic to help unwind and lull you to sleep, but it will also give you a great sense of satisfaction when you finally start getting through all those books you said you wanted to read. I had always been an avid reader as a child but had fallen out of the habit in recent years, since I’ve restructured my night time routine I’ve gotten through so many books.
I’ve also found that it’s also helped me connect with people on another level, bonding over great reads and swapping your favourites.
For me, nothing compels me to go to bed early like a novel. The anticipation of what’s going to happen next in a great book makes me hungry to go to bed to absorb those pages. Non-fiction/self-help/motivational/biographical type books I love too, but I find they don’t trigger this compulsion to the same extent. I classify these as more day-time reads, or the type of books I would ‘listen to’ on Audible.
4. Have a Caffeine Cut-Off Point
It’s well documented that caffeine (including caffeinated soft drinks, coffee, and tea – even green tea) is a stimulant and can interfere with sleep.
Even you’re one of those people who doesn’t feel a major ‘buzz’ after a coffee and continue to drink it even late at night that doesn’t mean it is not going to affect the quality of your sleep. The stimulating effects of caffeine can last as long as 8 hours.
So, a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. If you go to bed at 10pm make 2pm your caffeine cut-off point and stick to de-caff after that. All the above also goes for nicotine; for example, cigarettes.
5. Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Setting up your bedroom with the optimal conditions for a good night’s sleep can go a long way. Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark – a dim night light is fine, if needed.
Having fresh bedding and a tidy room can also help to get your head in the right space for sleep – try not use your bedroom for anything other than going to bed too.
When I come in from work in the evening I head straight to my room, close the blinds (even in summer time), turn on a small lamp rather than the main light, put away anything that’s out of place and light a candle or some incense (I’m a big fan of incausa.eu‘s incense and palo santo).
The practice begins the wind down process and immediately helps me unplug for the busyness of the day.
6. Stick to a Sleeping Pattern
Ensuring you get a good night’s sleep starts the minute you wake up. If at all possible you should go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Try to keep the same sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends – limiting the difference to no more than about an hour if possible – as staying up late and sleeping in late on weekends can disrupt your body clock’s sleep–wake rhythm.
For those who try and ‘catch up’ on sleep at the weekends, I hate to break it to you but, this is scientifically proven to not be a sleep myth. Sleep is not like a bank account, you cannot get back what you lost when time permits.
By all means enjoy an extra slice of slumber at the weekends, after all we all crave that delicious additional time between the sheets when we don’t have to get up.
That’s a different thing from saying you “need” so much catch-up sleep, however. A normal person who works long hours during the week and runs short of sleep maybe needs maybe 3-4 extra hours of sleep to get back to optimal condition. Probably less. You don’t need to sleep the weekend away and it won’t do you any additional good.
7. Magnesium is Magic
Despite being the fourth most abundant mineral in our bodies magnesium is often overlooked. Honing in on it’s sleep promoting benefits in particular, by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep.
In the evenings I usually take the unflavoured version of Mag365 magnesium powder or you can get tablets, often combined with calcium and zinc, which work a treat too – you can literally feel yourself getting more relaxed and a touch drowsy after getting your dose.
It’s also a great one to pack when travelling in particular as it calms the nervous system, helps tackle jet lag and keeps digestion regular when you might not be getting as much fiber or getting as much exercise you usually do. You can check out more tips for staying healthy and fit while travelling here.
The small print…
As I suggested, sleep is just as important as diet and exercise for health and well-being, but it goes without saying each has an effect on the other, so eat well and get moving throughout the day to maximise your likelihood of solid shut-eye.
Have any other tips on how to create a blissful bed time routine and get a great night’s sleep? (Pillow) talk to me in the comments below or drop me an email.