Just draw the curtains and snuggle down
Eight hours; the Holy Grail of snoozing. If only we could master it, we'd be healthier, happier, calmer, sharper and generally-all-round-better versions of our usual groggy, yawning, puffy-eyed selves.
The Great British Sleep Survey's results, published in 2012, revealed that more than 51 per cent of Brits struggle to get a decent night's sleep, and it's hitting us hard.
In 2011, 15.3 million NHS prescriptions were issued for sleeping pills, and research suggests that long-term bad sleep can damage health, while in the short-term our immune systems suffer and it leaves us zapped, irritable and unable to concentrate.
"Sleep disturbances are common and can impact on daily function and general health," says Kate Monaghan, sleep physiologist at Bupa Cromwell Hospital. "The main barriers tend to be work, family pressures, external stimuli such as caffeine and the environment."
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During particularly stressful phases, like exams or relationship breakdowns, or after trauma or grief, as well as factors like physical illness and pain, it's normal for sleep to suffer, and insomnia can become a chronic problem for some. If this is the case, speaking to your GP is important. Aside from pills, therapies like counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be effective.
If poor sleep is simply a niggling problem you could really do without though, here are some simple steps you can take to help.
1 – Put stress on snooze
Often bad sleepers are trapped in a worry cycle. "The anxiety of thinking you'll not be able to sleep is one of the things that feeds the problem," says Dr Nerina Ramlakahn, a sleep consultant at Capio Nightingale Hospital and Silentnight's resident sleep expert. Also, lying in bed worrying about the day's events, or things that 'might' happen in the future's not going to help, but it's a habit you can address.
Nerina, who's also the author of Tired But Wired: How To Overcome Sleep Problems, The Essential Sleep Toolkit, recommends a 12-step toolkit which includes adapting your activities throughout the day, like exercising to reduce stress, and writing a to-do list for the next day at bedtime.
2 – Create a slumber-enhancing haven
Your physical surroundings have a big impact on your mind, so it makes sense that the place you sleep in should be a peaceful retreat.
Dr Nerina says: "The bedroom should be as tranquil as possible – a place where you can relax and unwind."
She recommends clearing the room of technology, which means no computers or TV. If that's not entirely possible, at least find a way to 'hide' work-related stuff. "If you lack space make boundaries in other ways, for example putting a white sheet over your desk area," adds Nerina.
3 – Are you lying comfortably?
We're sensitive creatures, and even slight physiological factors can have our brain and body chemistry churning away – which is why physical comfort is vital for sleep. Decent mattresses can be pricey but we spend almost half of our lives in bed, so it's worth investing.
Pippa Swain, business leader for bedrooms at Ikea, adds: "We can all remember those nights where we've tossed and turned because we can't get comfortable. The key thing is for the mattress to mould your body and give support and pressure relief."
A decent pillow's important too, and there are different types designed to suit different sleeping positions. Not only will these things aid sleep but they're important for back and neck pain.
Temperature also comes into play – while nobody wants to lie awake shivering, a room that's too hot will prevent you from peaceful sleep.
4 – Let there be less light – and noise
There's a reason we switch lights off at bedtime. Sleeping in darkness is crucial for the body's production of the hormone melatonin, which plays an important part in the sleep-wake cycle.
Plus, too much light can make it hard for the brain to wind down, and can prevent us from achieving good quality sleep, and wake us up too early.
Consider investing in darker curtains or black-out blinds if light's a problem, especially if you're a shift worker who sleeps during daytime. Similarly, too much noise is one of the biggest factors guaranteed to ruin sleep. If you have problems with noisy neighbours, or sound pollution from the streets nearby, contact your council's Environmental Health Department – they may be able to help.
5 – Turn off your gadgets
Laptops and smartphones do us no favours when it comes to sleep – because many of us don't know when to, or simply can't, switch off.
A recent Nytol survey found that while just one in ten people say they get 'good' sleep, over half (53 per cent) admit to going online in bed, with a quarter thinking they're "addicted" to checking emails and social media in bed.
"It's essential for a good night's sleep to turn off all technology; many people with sleep problems have an unhealthy relationship with technology," says Nerina.
"Every time you see that red flashing light, the brain produces a small dollop of dopamine – the feel-good hormone. This wakes us up, makes us feel good, even momentarily, and is partly what feeds the compulsion to keep picking up your phone."
6 – Don't panic if you wake up
We've all been there – suddenly wide awake at 3am, only to spend the next few hours panicking how we'll get through the next day.
"If you wake, try to avoid looking at your phone or clock and registering the time, as you're more likely to start worrying about how little sleep you'll get," advises Nerina. "Instead, lie on your back and try consciously to relax each part of your body, starting from your toes and working up to your head and face. Breathe deeply and tell yourself it doesn't matter if you don't fall asleep and you'll just use the time to rest and relax."
If you find lying in bed impossible to handle, try going to another room to read a book to distract your thoughts, then return to bed when you're calmer.
7 – Watch what you eat and drink
What, and when, we eat and drink can affect sleep. "A heavy meal before bedtime's going to be uncomfortable and can cause restlessness, as your body's working overtime to ensure it's digested," says Wellbeing coach and hypnotherapist Kam Birdee. She advises eating your evening meal a little earlier, and perhaps going for a stroll afterwards.
While a night-cap might be traditional for some, too much alcohol can lead to poor, erratic sleep.