Sleep is one of our most essential needs. Our mental and physical wellbeing depends on it – just some of the processes that occur during sleep include memory consolidation, clearance of brain metabolites and the restoration of our nervous, muscular, skeletal and immune systems.
But for many of us, getting a good night’s sleep isn’t easy. Modern society brings many stresses and the constant pressure to do more, faster. We no longer go to bed and rise with the natural patterns of daylight. Instead, we are hooked into sleep-disturbing stimulation from numerous devices, connecting us with a vast array of social media, communication and entertainment.
Unsurprisingly, our ability to switch off and sleep suffers. Research shows that more than a third of UK adults feel they are not getting the right amount of sleep. And various studies worldwide have found around 10-30% of the population suffer from insomnia.
The Covid pandemic has also made matters worse. In a 2021 global sleep survey 60% of respondents reported that the pandemic had directly impacted their ability to sleep well.
This has a big effect on our health. Almost all of our bodily systems are affected by poor sleep, and chronic sleep disturbance predisposes us to cardiovascular disease, metabolic dysfunction, psychiatric disorders and early mortality.
The keys to good sleep
So what can we do to improve our sleep?
Sleep issues can be due to many reasons, both mental and physical. Resolving them is different for every individual. Yet there are many common things that can help. By taking good care of our nervous systems and managing our lifestyles, we can support ourselves to deeply rest and restore.
Below are some of the keys to a peaceful night’s sleep.
- Get moving
Regular exercise is shown to decrease sleep complaints and to help with chronic insomnia. Keep vigorous exercise to earlier in the day, as it increases the heart rate, body temperature and adrenaline levels, which can negatively impact sleep. Gentle, calming movements such as restorative yoga, tai chi or chi gung are ideal options closer to bedtime.
- Reset your circadian rhythm
The circadian rhythm is our body’s internal ‘clock’, responsible for our sleep-wake cycle. To keep it on track, it’s important that we get as much natural light as possible during the day. By contrast, we need to minimise exposure to the blue light emitted by LEDs and electronic devices in the evenings, as this stimulates the brain and disrupts circadian rhythms. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day – even on weekends – also helps to maintain a healthy rhythm. And it’s best to skip daytime naps or limit them to a maximum of 20-30 minutes.
- Make time for daily relaxation
Taking time to relax is vital for our wellbeing. Relaxation allows us to switch off from life’s pressures and gives our overcharged nervous systems chance to release. This supports our mental and physical balance and trains the habit of relaxation, making it more likely we’ll be able to drift off into a good night’s sleep at the end of the day. Whether it’s walking in nature, time with loved ones or enjoying a leisure activity, make time to rest and do the things you love on a daily basis.
- Tune in to mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation helps to calm the mind and soothe anxiety – a big cause of sleeplessness. Maintaining a regular practice enables us to manage daily stresses better. And studies show that mindfulness can be effective for treating sleep disturbance and improves sleep quality. Try integrating soothing breathing exercises, visualisations or body scans into a night-time routine to create a more tranquil state and promote better sleep.
- Create a wind-down routine
Winding down before bed is key to sleeping well. Avoid caffeine and alcohol from the late afternoon onwards and stick to lighter meals in the evening. If you have a lot on your mind, try journaling or writing down any tasks and setting them aside for the next day. It’s important to make sure your sleep environment is comfortable and quiet, with no devices in the room. Having low light levels or candles signals to the brain to make melatonin, the hormone that brings on sleep. Soaking in a warm bath, reading or listening to something soothing, doing meditation or gentle movement (see above) are all wonderful ways to switch off. While an hour or so winding down is ideal, even just 10 minutes can make a big difference to our sleep rhythms and quality.