Expert tips and tricks to get a great night's sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep makes such a difference to your mood, your ability to concentrate, your memory – and your day.
Research shows that few of us are getting enough quality sleep but according to the experts, there are things we can do to optimise our chances of a good night’s rest.
Sleep only in your bed
“A lot of people think it’s good to snatch short naps on the train home from work, or in front of the television, but even a short nap eats into your complement of a good night’s sleep,” advises cognitive behavioural therapist for insomnia, Deirdre McSwiney.
Avoid cat-napping other than on long drives for safety reasons, she observes.
“Only sleep in bed – and if you’re not asleep in bed, you shouldn’t be there!”
Don’t Toss and Turn
If you wake during the night and cannot get back to sleep within 15 or 20 minutes, get up and go down into the living room, explains McSwiney, who adds that this consolidates the crucial sensation of a ‘sleep-bed’ connection in the brain.
Don’t lie there tossing, turning and clock-watching, she advises. In fact, she says, don’t look at the clock at all.
“Clockwatching merely adds to the pressure on you to get to sleep.”
Never try to force sleep
“Sleep is a natural occurrence and the more you try to go to sleep, the less likely it is to happen,” explains sleep physiologist and Director of The Insomnia Clinic, Breege Leddy.
“Never try to force yourself to sleep,” she says.
If you have a strict bedtime which you conscientiously adhere to, but find you don’t get to sleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, Leddy advises staying up later, as the problem may simply be that you’re going to bed too early.
“Only go to bed when feeling sleepy after a certain time of night. Don’t just pick a bedtime from the clock on the wall! Instead, learn to recognise when you feel sleepy – and act on it by going to bed.”
Turn your face to the sun
Exposure to daylight is crucial for our body-clock, which has a big part to play in the quality of sleep we get, believes Orlaith Donoghue, Head of Occupational Therapy and a mindfulness teacher who delivers sleep workshops at St John of God’s Hospital in Dublin.
“We need to be exposed to daylight because it tells our body that it is time to be awake.
“This helps us to be alert. It also provides a crucial contrast with winding down into darkness and sleep at the end of the day,” she points out.
In winter especially, it’s a good idea to make a point of getting out during your lunchbreak, she advises:
“Walk, expose your face to daylight; be outside in it. Drink your coffee outside rather than in the canteen or just get out for a walk and talk with a colleague,” she suggests.
While everyone knows about the usefulness of blackout blinds for deep sleep, she adds, we’re not nearly as aware of how exposure to daylight during our waking hours can indirectly help our bodies to prepare for sleep.
Know how many ZZZZs you need
Despite what many of us assume, not everyone needs a strict eight hours’ sleep per night.
Adults from about the age of 18 to their sixties, generally require between six and 10 hours sleep, says Breege Leddy.
“If you don’t need eight hours and you’re constantly trying to achieve it, this can potentially result in a sleep problem,” she warns.
The key to sleeping well is to understand how much sleep you need at whatever stage of life you are at, Leddy says.
The way to work out how much sleep you need, she explains, is to examine the number of hours of sleep per night on a consistent basis, which allows you to wake up feeling refreshed and able to remain alert throughout the day.
Stick to a healthy 24-hour routine
When it comes to healthy sleep, we all know that a healthy bedtime routine is essential. However, Leddy observes, good-quality sleep actually requires more than a consistent night-time routine.
Humans follow a 24-hour or circadian rhythm, she explains. What this means is that we have to implement routine right through our normal 24-hour cycle, day and night throughout the seven days of the week.
So not only do we need a ‘wind-down’ routine and a regular bedtime, but we should also rise at the same time and eat regular, consistently-timed meals, all of which helps to give the body a sense of time, and encourages it to recognise the end of the day, she explains.
And remember, adds McSwiney, however good it may feel at the time of consumption, alcohol can significantly disrupt your sleep:
“Even though it might make you feel drowsy, you’ll wake up more frequently during your night’s sleep as the alcohol is processed through your system.”
If you have consumed alcohol, she advises, drink plenty of water before bed, to reduce any alcohol-related thirst and rehydrate your body.
Put the alarm out of arm’s reach
Place your alarm clock well out of reach so that you’re forced to physically get out of bed in the morning to turn it off, advises Deirdre McSwiney.:
“This triggers wakefulness which in turn helps create a regular sleep ‘need’ or sleep ‘debt’ during the day-time,” she says.
Make your bedroom conducive to sleep
Make your bed and tidy your bedroom as soon as you get out of bed in the morning so that you have a pleasant and tidy and welcoming room to come into when it’s time to sleep, advises Orlaith Donoghue.
McSwiney advises keeping the bedroom cool as this contributes to more comfortable sleep – and, she says, stay away from your tablet or smartphone when you’re in bed.
“Don’t check your tech device during the night. The blue light stimulates the brain through the eye pathway and wakes it up,” she warns.
Go Gently into the Good Night
Avoid vigorous physical exercise in the evening, advises Donoghue.
“If you have an issue with sleep, avoid vigorous exercise classes such as spinning or gym work of different kinds in the evening.
It’s wise to engage in these earlier in the day,” she says, adding that she recommends yoga, Tai Chi, walking or gentle swimming as appropriate evening exercise.
Body scans and mindfulness practises in the evening can also be very helpful, she believes.
“These all give the mind an opportunity to become passive rather than active. Turn your phone to airplane mode and use sleep apps or guided relaxation apps which can be very helpful.”
Write it out
A few hours before bed, set down your thoughts about how your day went, and how you feel about it, suggests Deirdre McSwiney.
Next, in bullet-point format, write down any chores you have to do tomorrow – this might be about making an application for your NCT or a reminder to collect the dry-cleaning.
But whatever it is she says: “Put it all down on paper so that when you’re going to bed your mind will be at rest.
And it will be at rest, because you have done everything. You’ve thought about your day and you have also sorted your to-do list for tomorrow!”
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