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How to Sleep Better

14th May 2021

Sleep isn’t just something we enjoy as a reward for a hard day’s work, it’s part of the natural rhythm of life. It’s an essential part of our survival, and a vital component for good mental and physical health. An average adult should have between 7 and 9 hours’ sleep every night 1 - so what can we do to improve the quality of our sleep? Let’s start by looking at how sleep impacts our physical and mental wellbeing...

Poor sleep is associated with many physical health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Without good sleep, our immune system can also be negatively compromised. Sleep disturbance has also been linked to all major mental health problems, including depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

Not only can sleep deprivation have a significant negative impact on our physical and mental health, but it can also affect our performance at work. Legislation recognises this, setting out that “employers have a legal duty to manage risks from fatigue and sleep deprivation, irrespective of any of their workers’ willingness to work extra hours or preference for certain shift patterns2.

Sleep deprivation has the potential to put others at risk as well, so it’s important to recognise the signs, which may include:

  • Fluctuations in mood
  • Anger and frustration
  • Impulsivity
  • Sleepiness
  • Increased use of stimulants such as caffeine or energy drinks
  • Poor concentration/focus
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Memory impairment
  • Reduced performance
  • Reduced communication
  • Difficulty multitasking 3

To sum up what we’ve learned so far, good sleep is a vital part of ensuring you stay physically and mentally well, as well as helping us to recover from illness. In other words, sleep isn’t a luxury; it’s a non-negotiable necessity.4,5,6,7

How to get a great nights' sleep

As we’ve seen, it’s an indisputable fact that good sleep is essential. But to get a great night’s sleep, we need to understand and implement good ‘sleep hygiene’. This is all about making small changes to improve the quality of our sleep, and for the rest of this blog we’re going to explore how you can do that with the help of important findings covered in the fascinating book ‘Why We Sleep’4 by Matthew Walker (Professor of Neuroscience & Psychology & Director of the Centre for Human Sleep science at University California, Berkeley).

Electric and LED Lighting

Bright light and ‘blue light’ emitted from screens (televisions, laptops, tablets, and smartphones) can reduce and delay the release of our natural sleep hormone. This means that we’re less likely to feel ready for bed at night-time and our sleep/wake cycle can be disrupted. To prevent this happening, avoid using screens for at least an hour before you go to bed, and keep screens out of the bedroom. If this isn’t possible, use ‘night-time mode’. It will also help to avoid bright lights in the evenings and to get natural light in the mornings (it’s a good idea to aim to spend at least 30 minutes of your day in sunlight).

Temperature Regulation

In the evenings, your core body temperature drops by around 1oC and this supports our natural sleep cycle. Central heating, bedding and pyjamas all increase our core temperature, which may negatively impact our sleep. Ideally, our bedroom should be kept slightly cooler (the optimal temperature for adults is 18.3oC), and if possible, pyjamas and bedding should be made from breathable fibres, such as cotton. Strenuous exercise can increase our body temperature, so avoid this for 3 hours before bed.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant drug that may help to combat sleepiness, but it can also have a negative impact on our ability to sleep.

When you drink a cup of coffee or tea, it takes around 30 – 60 minutes for the caffeine to reach peak levels in your blood. It’s therefore worth being aware of how often you’re drinking caffeine and noting when you’re likely to experience its maximum effect. It takes your body around 5 - 7 hours to eliminate half the caffeine you’ve consumed, so if you have a caffeinated drink at 9am, half the caffeine is still active in your body by 2-3pm. For that reason, it’s best to avoid caffeinated drinks for 6 hours before bedtime to help get a good night’s sleep.

Note: different foods and drinks contain different levels of caffeine, and ‘de-caffeinated’ doesn’t mean ‘no caffeine’. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends a maximum caffeine intake of 400mg per day for adults, so try not to exceed this limit.

Alcohol

Alcohol is bad for our sleep because it causes our sleep to become fragmented and reduces the amount of time we spend in restorative sleep, which we need to maintain our physical and mental health. If you do drink alcohol, avoid exceeding the recommended limits and avoid drinking alcohol before bed.

Exercise

There’s increasing evidence to demonstrate that consistent and regular exercise is one of the most effective natural treatments for disturbed sleep. That’s simply because when we’re physically active, our body expends energy and we’re more likely to feel tired and ready for a rest at the end of the day. As such, if we exercise regularly, we’re more likely to be able to establish a regular and healthy sleep/wake cycle. However, remember no strenuous exercise 3 hours before bed.

Relaxation

Finally, relaxing before bed is essential for good sleep, so try to incorporate a ‘wind down’ schedule and pre-sleep routine into your evening. During this period, try to avoid activities that stimulate your mind, or that may create anxiety (for example, watching disturbing news footage). Instead, do things that help bring a sense of calm, such as having a relaxing bath, reading a book, deep breathing exercises, or listening to relaxing music.

If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of sleep and how to improve it, we recommend reading Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep’4.

Dr Sile McDaid & Dr Libby Artingstall, Co-Founders Wellbeing Through Sport


References:

  1. National Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times, 2015. Available at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times
  2. Business in the Community in association with Public Health England (2018). Sleep and recovery: a toolkit for employers. Available online at: https://www.bitc.org.uk/toolkit/sleep-and-recovery-toolkit/
  3. Royal Society for Public Health. Waking up to the health benefits of sleep. Available online at: https://www.rsph.org.uk/our-work/policy/wellbeing/sleep.html
  4. Walker, M. (2018) Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. Penguin
  5. Chatterjee, R. (2018) The Stress Solution. Penguin Life
  6. Shokri-Kojori E, et al. (2018). β-Amyloid accumulation in the human brain after one night of sleep deprivation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/03/29/1721694115.full
  7. Pigeon, W.R., Pinquart, M., Conner, K. (2012) Meta-analysis of sleep disturbance and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 73, e1160-1167