As a doctor, there’s not much that shocks me anymore – well, maybe a few 2020 surprises. However I recently read something that gave me reason to think. The average person, across an average life span, will spend around 25 years asleep. That’s a quarter of a century. That’s near on 10,000 days. A 3rd of our total time here on Earth. You get the picture… we sleep a lot, so you may as well do it right.
Sleep is an essential superpower when it comes to modern health. While we’ve been doing it since day zero, it’s surprisingly complex. On both the mental and physical side too, sleeping is something that can truly make or break your health. It’s linked to everything from risk of heart disease and immunity, to cancer rates and mortality. Poor sleep ramps up risk and severity of anxiety, depression and psychosis in a big way. The uncomfortable truth behind those facts? Sleep isn’t something we’re good at getting. Issues with sleep are incredibly common, rising near on 50 per cent in some cohorts. It turns out modern life isn’t overly conducive to a solid night’s shut eye, and it’s having a huge impact on our health.
So let’s dive into that quarter century and take a quick spin around some go to tips for better bedtimes. If we have to spent 25 years on our back (or side or stomach or foetal position), then we’d be well placed to be doing it right.
Timing & Technique
Timing is the cornerstone to a better night’s sleep, and so if you switch off here and read no more I’ll swallow my doctor pie and count it as a win. By tying your sleep patterns to a consistent bedtime and wake time, your quantity and quality of sleep goes up hugely. Research shows that those who lock in that body clock have better sleep quality and bigger health benefits. Technique wise, there’s no one right or better way to do it – go with what’s natural for you. Back sleeping can be associated with snoring and micro-waking overnight in those with certain health conditions, so if you’re wondering about this (or get an elbow in the ribs by your bedmate each night) then it’d be wise to check things with your doc.
The amazing thing about sleep is that it starts while we’re still awake. Even before we hit the pillow, the brain is gradually shifting across the day from a state of wide-eyed, bushy-tailed euphoria to, well, not-so-euphoric. We can use certain triggers in the environment to make the most of the neurology behind better sleep, so these tips are great for those who lie awake at night. The brain sleeps better in cooler temps, so in the hours before bed make the room on the chillier side. Dimming the lights in the house a few hours before is another great way to get those night circuits revving. The process of sleep is very much habitual as well, so set up some bed time routines like a certain type of music, a particular smell or a wind-down schedule that lets the brain know it’s turn in time.
Screens are the true kryptonite of the modern sleep Superman. Long work days, that evening hustle, socials scroll time and Netflix chilling all battle our brain for control of the remote when it comes to “brain on” vs “brain off”. Blue light emitted from modern screens especially gears up circuits in the brain that turn on wakefulness and turn off sleepiness. Adjusting the blue light in our screens at night (i.e. night mode) and putting away the phone and laptop particularly in the hour before bed increases our ability to drop off sooner, and better.
Caffeine & Alcohol
I know – I’m coming dangerously close to sounding like every other wet blanket doctor you’ve ever talked to and spoiling all the fun. But when it when it comes to sleep, flagging these two is important. Caffeine activates wakefulness circuits and alertness in the brain by blocking specific receptors that do the opposite. On average, it stays in our system long enough to have a major effect for around 6 hours, so ditching caffeine 6 hours before bed is advised. It’ll mean you not only fall asleep faster but sleep better too. Alcohol similarly wreaks havoc on our shut eye. It’s a big temptation to have a drink or two to fall asleep faster, but after we’ve nodded off the alcohol in our system breaks up normal sleep cycles and leaves the brain more tired than before. Consider winding back the number of days you have a tipple, and keep it to earlier in the night if you do.
For times when sleep just really isn’t coming (nothing worse, I hear you) there are a few things we can do to improve our chances. Some relaxing and calming activities before bed have been shown to help with insomnia, so consider some mindfulness or meditation as a regular practice to wind down the day. For those who find themselves suddenly starting to worry about things or plan next year’s birthday (what’s with that?) as soon as they hit the pillow, making active time to worry and write down plans/to do’s before can help. Turn the clock away from your bed too, as clock-watching is sleep enemy number one. And if you can’t sleep after 20 minutes or so, then it’s best practice to get up for a short time (in a dim, quiet room) and do something relaxing before trying again.