Sleep. Your best friend or a complete nightmare (pun absolutely intended). Sleep can be a welcome respite or it can be dreaded and something to be avoided at all costs. It’s strange to think that such a natural and essential part of life can be so polarising. With so many people struggling with sleep right now (during the Covid-19 lockdown) I thought I would write about what has helped me with my sleep hygiene, I also made a free PDF for you to download!
It’s extremely common to experience sleep difficulties at some point in our lives. That can manifest as either trouble getting to sleep or trouble staying asleep.
I have had long periods of time when I was waking at 3am every day, for months at a time. Lying awake at that time is zero fun. In fact it’s less fun than that, I call it the “irrational hours”. In this neither awake or asleep state my mind is racing, coming up with all kinds of reasons to worry or be anxious.
That thing I forgot to do at work yesterday? Well now its a sackable offence. That pain in my left leg is a sure sign of some serious life-threatening condition. Why would my kids want to come round and see me anymore after I made them tidy their room yesterday?
These irrational hours can send me to some dark places. Yet they seem completely ridiculous in the cold (very tired) morning light.
I’ve never really had trouble going to sleep. I can fall asleep in minutes, much to Nicky’s annoyance as she tosses and turns for hours. It’s not that my sleep hygiene is any better, it just affects me in a different way.
So what is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep Hygiene is an umbrella term for a number of practices that promote better sleep. The term was coined in the 1970s and some recent research suggests that when taken on their own (and in the lab) they didn’t really work as advertised.
There does seem to be some acknowledgement however, that testing sleep in the lab might not be the best approach. The general consensus seems to be that for most people, following some simple sleep hygiene steps will promote healthy natural sleep. If, however, you are struggling with chronic insomnia (lasting for more than 3 months) or have a chronic illness that affects your sleep, maybe because of pain or discomfort, then sleep hygiene probably won’t do much to help you. Your doctor is the best bet in these cases.
Our body is naturally wired to need sleep. It is a requirement to live. The modern world has supposedly made our life easier but I don’t believe that’s true when it comes to sleep. Modern living conspires at every turn to prevent us from sleep. Attention grabbing TV shows, chemical stimulants and technology that we have glued 1 foot away from our faces, all prevent us from getting good honest sleep.
We lie awake at night pondering the finer points of work politics, what to wear tomorrow, why Bill doesn’t like me anymore and damn it, I forgot to put the flea treatment on the dog.
Getting back to rejuvenating deep sleep relies on some simple practices. None of which can be bought on a shopping channel. No fancy sprays, air filters, phone apps or voodoo magic here.
Avoid Stimulants, alcohol and food. Basically, all the fun stuff.
Caffeine, sugar, nicotine – they stimulate your brain and will keep you awake.
Alcohol will make your drowsy but it ruins your quality of sleep, preventing you from getting decent deep sleep. You’ll also likely need to go to the loo.
It’s also probably not a good idea to eat a large pepperoni pizza before bed. Your body isn’t ready for digesting food – its getting ready for sleep (more on this later). Fatty or fried, spicy food and citrus fruits are all likely to give you heartburn or indigestion as you are soon to be horizontal for 8 hours.
Give all of these things a wide berth.
Get enough rays
We are not nocturnal creatures. Our bodies are hardwired to want to sleep at night when its dark. Our eyes are rubbish in the dark and 10,000 years ago we would have been unable to do anything useful so sleep was the only option.
In fact, there is evidence that points to us have 2 sleeping sessions in the middle ages. Sleep was something you did when there was nothing left to do. People then woke, had sex or did some rudimentary work about the house by oil lamp and then went back to sleep until dawn. Our lives were dictated by the natural light available.
The modern world has changed all that. We don’t really need to go outside at all anymore if we don’t want too and we have 24/7 options for illuminating our world. By bathing our bodies in artificial light we are blocking our bodies natural signals.
We all have an internal clock that sends signals to certain parts of the body. One of the main functions of this system (the circadian system) tells our body when its time to get some rest and go to sleep. The circadian system keeps to a roughly 24 hour cycle, a rhythm.
If you keep someone inside a room with no sunlight, they will still feel sleepy in the evening. Over time however that timing will drift as the body takes cues from the environment like sunlight to keep in sync.
During the day when sunlight is present your circadian rhythm does things like making sure your digestion system is ready to go and you have the right body temperature and hormones for all those kick-ass things you do in your day.
When there is no sunlight the circadian rhythm releases chemicals and different hormones that get your body ready for sleep. You start to feel tired and sleepy.
Making sure you get some natural daylight everyday is key to getting you ready for sleep at night.
Our body likes routine. Once you are settled into it, try to go to bed at the same time, give or take an hour or so. Weekends too I’m afraid.
Stop tricking your body
Phones and tablets are here to mess with your natural rhythm. We have discovered that the blue light that these screens give off can trick our body into thinking its still day time. We also hold them really close to our faces amplifying the effect.
There are apps out there that can eliminate this issue. Android phones, for example, have it built right in. You can schedule a time when your phone will switch the display to an orange tint so that you aren’t artificially extending your daylight hours.
To be honest, it’s probably best you try and stay off your phone an hour before you go to bed. There isn’t much in there that’s going to promote a restful and relaxing mood for sleep is there?
Which leads nicely onto…
Do something 30 minutes to an hour before you go to bed that relaxes you.
The evening for most of us is about getting some me time. Films, video games, social media – even exercise. All of it will get your mind racing (with feel-good chemicals in the case of exercise!) and not in the best position to actually get to sleep.
If you go to bed alert and stressed you will not get to sleep quickly and then get too warm, start tossing and turning, hating yourself for that one final episode of that new Netflix show.
Just don’t do it. Put yourself in the best place for sleep, listen to some music or read.
Don’t go to bed if you aren’t sleepy just because you feel you should either. You’ll just lie there and have to get up. Make sure you are doing things in the day to prepare you for sleep.
Everyone needs a different amount of sleep. The average is 8 hours but some people need more and others less. You probably know how much you need to wake up feeling like you aren’t going to murder someone.
Work backwards from what time you need to get up.
I need about 8 hours to feel human. So if I need to get up at 06:30 to achieve my morning routine (meditate, exercise and journal. You know all the things that make sure I crush the day and give me a smug sense of superiority) then I need to go to bed at 22:30 so should probably start unwinding at 22:00.
Confront your sleeplessness
If you can’t sleep, either when you first go to bed or because you have woken up during the irrational hours, lie in bed for 20-30 minutes only.
After that get up and do something relaxing. Meditate, calm music or reading. No TV, video games or phone surfing.
If your mind is racing then get those thoughts out there. Have a brain vomit journal. Something you can just spew all over to get it out of your mind. Trust me, this one really helps.
The simple act of writing it down gives some finality to your thoughts. Even if you do nothing with it the next day.
I have loads of 4 am to do lists. Most of them are utter garbage (and slightly insane) but it helps me to get back to sleep.
Finally, the where
It’s no good doing all those things if you go to bed with the lights on and it’s like a sauna.
You room needs to be dark, cool and quiet.
I also believe it needs to be calm. Don’t leave things out, remove clutter, put clothes away. The place where you go to sleep should be the last place you remind yourself of all the things you haven’t got around to doing in the day.
There are some people in this world that sleep on straw mats spread over a mud floor. Perhaps similar to how our distant ancestors used to sleep. Those people and tribes are still hunter gatherers, their life is hard and brutal, their bodies sinewy and rugged.
A 4 layer foam mattress conveniently vacuum packed, sealed in a box and shipped to their door is not what they need or want.
My body, on the other hand, is flabby (working on it) and sore in all the wrong places thanks to a life behind a keyboard. A straw mat somewhere in the garden under a tarpaulin isn’t going to cut it. Comfortable sleeping furniture is a must.
Your bed needs to work with you for getting a good nights sleep. When me and Nicky stumped up over £1000 for our mattress, pillows and sheets we were a little nervous and agonised over the decision.
We eventually rationalised it with the following:
We are more than comfortable spending almost £1000 on a sofa. The whole family uses it, a lot.
Why should we not spend the same amount on our bed? Something we spend 8 hours on every day that will last 10 years? It’s something that affects our waking hours too. At £1000 that’s roughly £1 for every 30 hours of comfortable sleep.
We eventually went for a Casper mattress, pillows and bedsheets. We couldn’t be happier. You can read our thoughts about it soon.
Quickly, before I nod off…..
As I mentioned earlier, it’s no good doing some of these things in isolation. You can’t cheat the system by going to bed at a regular time in a lovely zen bedroom, but then munching through a burger and fries, washed down with a coffee and a smoke.
The odd blip shouldn’t affect you too much but try to keep on top of a few of the points.
For most of us it should result in deep, rejuvenating sleep.
Oh, I made a PDF of the major points too. Enjoy!