Many of us use the weekend to catch up on sleep we have missed during a hectic working week. Then Monday rolls around, and we're soon back to experiencing sleep poverty as we ride the waves of life. We work long hours. We may have partners to care for and family duties. There are social events and friendships to tend. We run our home, work and social life - all the time feverishly ticking off a never-diminishing 'to-do' list. To fit it all in we ditch good self-care habits, and sleep is often the first to go.
Being deprived of sleep can be life-threatening. Many who are sleep poor don't even realise it. Lack of sleep adversely affects our brain's cognitive functions. The result is that our ability to focus reduces. As our mind struggles to cope, we operate at a lower level - less creative, more prone to mistakes and can make questionable calls of judgement. As performance is impaired, our reaction time is reduced. There is no surprise that in the UK it is estimated that 1 in 5 of all road traffic accidents involves extreme fatigue, including falling asleep at the wheel.
Sleep poverty can also make you irrational, snappy and emotional. The loss of perspective that results from severe tiredness can lead to arguments and angry words with loved ones. The result can be devastating to our close relationships creating a spiral of blame, regret and shame.
If that isn't bad enough, insufficient sleep can lead to overeating. Good quality sleep helps the body regulate levels of ghrelin and leptin, hormones that deal with the need to feed. Long-term, severe sleep poverty can lead to unhealthy weight gain, which increases the risk of higher cholesterol levels, developing diabetes and heart problems. Research by Cancer UK states that obesity is the second most significant preventable cause of cancer with more than 1 in 20 cancer cases caused by excess weight.
According to author and BBC One's Breakfast resident doctor, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, taking deep rest is essential for the biological spring-cleaning process known as autophagy. In his book: 'The 4 Pillar Plan', he says: "It is during sleep that our bodies mop up a lot of waste that's accumulated in our cells during the day." Chatterjee points out that sleep also helps us lay down new memories by promoting the growth of new nerve cells.
So what can you do to improve your quality of sleep? Here are some tips for sleeping well as suggested by the Sleep Council, and Dr Matthew Walker, sleep expert and author of ‘Why we sleep’. I've included my own strategies too. You may not feel you can incorporate all of them into your life at first. Try just one or two to be being with, and you will notice a difference in the quality of your sleep. Begin today and take a practical step toward better self-care.
- Try writing about three good things that happened to you during the day. Researchers from the University of Manchester found that people who expressed feelings of gratitude not only sleep better but also had more energy and increased focus. These don't have to be big things - just something that energised you, made you smile, allowed you to see the brighter side of life.
- Practice a short mindful exercise as you relax in bed. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. As you inhale and exhale, say softly or think the words 'nowhere to be, nothing to do, it is time to rest'. Relax your body. Let go of any tension by focusing on the spot and consciously releasing it.
- Exercise is excellent for your physical and mental wellbeing, but not too close to sleep-time as it gets your adrenaline going. Try to exercise at least 30-minutes on most days but not later than a couple of hours before bedtime.
- Make sure you’ve finished eating at least two hours before you go to bed, or your body will still be at work digesting when it should be sleeping.
- Avoid caffeine. A cup of coffee or strong tea in the early evening can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. Try drinking herb tea instead. Sip a cup before bedtime as part of your ‘switching onto sleep’ routine.
- Avoid alcohol for a least a couple of hours before bedtime. Having a nightcap may help you to relax, but heavy use robs you of REM sleep, keeping you in lighter stages of sleep. A good tip is to sip a large glass of water before and during alcohol to reduce the impact. Have a few dry nights. For further advice, check out the resources at the NHS website 'One You'
- Avoid watching TV, using a computer, tablet or similar device immediately before bed. Try reading something easy or listening to relaxing music for 30 minutes before you intend to sleep.
- Finish your emails and social media three hours before bed. If you keep remembering one more thing you need to do, write it down instead – in pen, put the phone down! Then tackle it in the morning.
- Maintain a healthy sleep environment. Aim for a quiet, dark, comfortable room in which to sleep. Try fitting black-out blinds. Keep it cool – no more than 18 degrees. Invest in the softest sheets you can afford. Make your own or buy a relaxing pillow spray like the Deep Sleep Pillow Spray from the brand, This Works. Make going to bed a pleasure, not a chore.
- Stick to a routine and make enough time for sleep. Try to keep bedtimes and wake-up times consistent. Sleeping later on the weekends won’t entirely make up for the lack of sleep during the week and make it harder to wake early on Mondays. Set the alarm for bedtime. Often, we set the alarm for when its time to wake up but fail to do so for when its time to go to sleep.
- Put all the screens in another room. The blue light from your phone or iPad interferes with the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. If you usually use your phone to wake you up, try investing in an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.
Sleep is a beautiful restorative. Good deep rest can help you cope with the difficulties life puts in your path. Proper sleep ensures that you have the energy and enthusiasm to savour the best of times. For more information, take a look at the Sleep Council's website. An impartial, advisory organisation, the Sleep Council raises the awareness of the importance of a good night’s sleep to health and wellbeing. It also provides helpful advice and tips on how to improve sleep quality and create an ideal sleep environment.
If you regularly have problems falling asleep or frequently wake in the night, seek professional advice from your doctor. Sleep disorders are not uncommon and should not be left undiagnosed.