In his first piece, Medical Director of The London Sleep Centre, Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, responded to common questions about sleep and how much you should be getting. Here, he reveals what could be causing your insomnia, and ways that you can improve your sleep.
Change to your bedtime routine
1. Put down the devices
Getting the right amount of sleep is hard enough without disturbances from your smart phone and tablet on your bedside table throughout the night. In addition to the pings and vibrations, a blue light is emitted from the LED screens on most electronic devices that can reduce the amount of melatonin – the sleep-inducing hormone – your brain produces. You should try not to use these devices, which include computers and televisions, in the two hours before you head to bed.
2. Get comfortable
It obvious to say that blackout curtains, ear plugs and eye masks will all help you on your way to sleeping, but all that hard work could be undone by one thing: the temperature. Aim for a comfortable yet cool setting, with somewhere between 15°C–24°C the level at which our bodies get the signal that it is time for sleep. An extra layer, such as a pair of socks, can also help by improving circulation to the body’s extremities. Finally, if you’re struggling to get comfortable in bed, it might be time to invest in a new mattress or at least try some different pillows.
3. Stick to a schedule
Looking forward to a lie in this weekend? Those extra hours in bed could be more trouble than they’re worth as they can skew the body’s internal clock, leading to that Monday morning sleep hangover. Instead, stick to a regular sleep pattern even at weekends to keep your body’s clock intact and stop the Sunday night/Monday morning woes.
Food and drink DOs and DONTs before bed
4. Skip the nightcap
A quick drink before bed may help you get to sleep quickly, but as it metabolises through your system while you are asleep, it can lead to a disturbed night sleep and increased levels of snoring. Try not to have a drink in the two-hour window before bed as this will give your body time to process it. This rule also applies to caffeinated drinks, such as tea and coffee, as well as nicotine.
5. Don’t eat before bed
Eating, like drinking, just before bed should also be avoided. If you eat just before bed, your body will be digesting while you are lying down trying to get in a relaxed state before sleep. If going to bed at 11pm, try not to eat after 9pm…
6. …unless it is one of these
The old wives’ tale is true – drinking a glass of warm milk before bed can actually help you sleep better. Warm milk works because dairy products are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps the production of the sleep inducing chemicals serotonin and melatonin. Other foods that can help include yogurt, oats, almonds, bananas, poultry, eggs, peanuts and tuna. But remember, this doesn’t need to be a three course meal while in bed – the lighter the portion the better, and try to not have anything an hour before hitting the hay.
Unwind to help you sleep
7. Write it down
Find yourself taking your daytime worries to bed with you, mulling over what to do and say the next day? This is completely natural and nothing to worry about, and there is a way to stop it. Like when you get stressed while awake, writing things down and making a list can help when you’re trying to get to sleep too. Stick a notepad on the bedside table and make a list of what is bothering you or a to-do list for the next day. It may seem simple, but it should clear your brain, leaving you in the right state for sleeping.
Thinking about going to sleep can become a vicious cycle. Your thoughts can race around your mind telling you to stop thinking and get to sleep. Rather than worry about sleeping, try to relax by thinking about anything but sleeping. If you find that after 20 minutes or so you’re not getting anywhere, get out of bed and do some form of non-stimulating activity that avoids bright screens – a puzzle or factual book should do the trick. Not only will this help to relax your mind, but by getting out of bed, it will also prevent you from associating your bed with sleeplessness. And if you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, get out of bed and do it again.
If these eight tips don’t help and if you have been suffering from insomnia for a period of time, see your GP or a specialist sleep consultant for advice.