Refresh your sleep routine for improved wellbeing
January has been and gone, probably with most of our New Year resolution with it. Right about now, we may be considering how to reduce our stress levels, improve our health, stabilise our weight or feel less exhausted in the longer term. As described in my popular-science book Nodding Off (Bloomsbury, paperback £10.99), research suggests that getting a good night’s sleep can help to improve all of these issues.
Sleep helps us to recalibrate our emotions and supports the immune system. It also affects the hormones that control appetite – ghrelin, which is involved in the sensation of hunger, and leptin, which is associated with feeling full. That’s why a lack of sleep can lead to overeating and weight gain.
A good night’s sleep not only involves getting enough sleep (most adults need between seven and nine hours to function at their best), but getting good quality sleep. As we get older, we want to avoid lying in bed unable to nod off and also waking up during the night or early in the morning and being unable to get back to sleep.
BUILDING A ROUTINE
The reality is there is no single solution to getting a good night’s sleep, but ensuring an effective bedtime routine is not a bad place to start. The logic for this is that our sleep – as with other bodily functions, such as alertness and pain threshold – is controlled in part by internal body clocks, tweaked by the environment.
We are, therefore, better suited to sleeping at certain times compared to other times. If we stick to a routine, our body knows what it should be doing and when. On the flip side, when we alter our routine, such as if we go to bed much later at the weekend compared within the week, things can go awry. For example, we can experience ‘social jetlag’, which involves jetlag-like symptoms, as our bodies effectively shift between two time zones.
Consistency is useful, but the activities we do in the build-up to bedtime are important, too. Forget the ‘nightcap’ – alcohol might help us to drift off, but unsurprisingly it disrupts our sleep during the second half of the night. Instead, thinking about our activities during the day can be helpful: exercise is beneficial, as is reducing caffeine intake.
In the hour before bedtime, avoid screen-time and opt for relaxing activities, such as taking a bath. (Bathing leads to a drop in core body temperature, which helps us to drift off.)
FOR ALL THE FAMILY
Routine is not only useful for adults – children benefit from a consistent bedtime routine, too. Some children find it tricky to unwind in the period before bed, and bedtime ends up being a challenge for the entire family. For this reason, as a professor of psychology who focuses on sleep, I developed a book that incorporates relaxation techniques, such as imagery, muscle relaxation and mindfulness, into stories.
Co-author Christy Kirkpatrick and I came up with five stories, about a pebble, tree, snail, giraffe and pig, that require children to imagine the worlds of the characters, squeeze and release items in the stories, such as a pebble, and take time to be in the present moment before falling asleep. Each story is beautifully illustrated in a dream-like style with calming colours by artist Eleanor Hardiman.
The ideas for the stories are the culmination of the literature I have read and contributed towards over many years as a sleep researcher.
While the book was written for children, the techniques are relevant for adults, too. Practising mindfulness, meditation and relaxation at bedtime can help the brain to switch off
from the stresses of the day, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of drifting off
into a night of peaceful, good quality and unbroken sleep.
With 2020 now underway, and the endless possibilities that each New Year brings, it might be worth considering your bedtime routine to make sure you get a truly restful night’s sleep and wake up feeling properly refreshed.
To get the very most from our days, we mustn’t forget the nights.
Alice Gregory is a professor of psychology who focuses on sleep research.