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Step 1: Establish a Healthy Sleep Routine

‘How to fall asleep easily tonight and every night?’ This is a question many of us ask ourselves, normally in the middle of the night unfortunately!

From the science of sleep, to the various lifestyle factors that could be keeping you awake, to the practical steps you can take to reset your natural body clock. Our 5-step guide is here to help you reclaim your in-built sleep settings.

Read The Art of Falling Asleep guide, for free, here

The Art of Falling Asleep Step 1: Establish a Healthy Sleep Routine

The art of falling asleep is based around developing a regular sleep routine. Here, the most important parts are the hours leading up to sleep and what we do after we first wake in the morning.

GETTING YOUR LIGHT RIGHT

Getting our light right is the first step to rediscovering our rhythm and restoring our sleep settings. We need to get as close as we can to separating day from night.

As soon as you wake, let sunlight into your bedroom. Sunlight is nature’s way of telling us it’s morning and time to become active again.

Limit your exposure to artificial light in the evening. Instead make it gradually darker in your home as bedtime approaches by using dimmers, low wattage lamps or candles rather than ceiling lights. Low, soft light signals to your brain that the sun is setting and helps you to naturally become sleepier.

GETTING YOUR BEDTIME RIGHT

Within our natural 8pm to 12am sleep window, the ‘optimum’ time to go to sleep is probably between 10pm and 11pm, as this is when our body temperature starts to drop, which helps signal to the brain that it’s time to go to bed. However, you need to check that this fits with your individual chronotype (hereditary sleep trait), as your chronotype can shift your sleep wake cycle, from the average window, by as much as an hour.

SCHEDULE YOUR SLEEP IN CYCLES, NOT HOURS

We tend to wake up most refreshed if we come around at the end of a full 90-minute sleep cycle, rather than in the middle. Using multiples of full cycles of sleep and working back from when you need to set your alarm, allows you to work out the best time to go to bed to get a perfect night’s sleep.

Sleep Tip:

Try to go to bed when you first feel sleepy at night as this is likely to fit your natural sleep window.

Sleep Tip:

If you want to get up at 6.30am and need 7.5 hours of sleep per night (5 full cycles), you need to aim to be asleep at 11pm at night. Similarly, 9 hours of sleep (6 cycles) is a natural break, as is 6 hours (4 cycles).

DON’T LET SLEEP DEBT BUILD UP – TAKE A NAP!

Napping is a natural way of catching up on lost sleep. We all know that even small amounts of sleep debt can affect our mental performance and that taking a nap can help combat this.

20 - 30 minute naps improve mental alertness but a full cycle 90 minute nap will be most restorative. Naps between 30 and 90 minutes leave us feeling groggy as we are waking up from the deep sleep part of the cycle.

Whilst it’s a great way of making up a short-term sleep deficit, napping should not be continuously substituted for a proper night’s sleep as not all the effects of sleep deprivation can be reversed with a nap. Equally a strategy of catching up on your sleep at the weekends won’t fully restore full healthy functioning.

Our optimum time to nap in the day is in the siesta period after lunch, as this is when our circadian clock has its strongest drive to sleep during daylight hours. When choosing the best time to take a nap, also take into account whether you are a morning or evening person. We all tend to have different times during the day when we are naturally alert and sleepy.

Sleep Tip:

The best time to nap is potentially in the afternoon siesta period between 1pm and 3pm, with a good short nap time of 20-30 minutes.

KEEP TO THE SAME BED TIME AND WAKE UP TIME

Our brain likes routines, and we find them relaxing and less stressful. More importantly, having a regular bedtime and wake up time can help reinforce both of our sleep regulation systems. Having a consistent length of time can help our sleep homeostasis system to keep a balance between wakefulness and sleep making sure we don’t accumulate a sleep debt. Having a regular sleep habit of going to bed and waking up around the same time strengthens this circadian function, keeping this clock synchronized and enabling us to fall asleep more easily in the evening.

Sleep Tip:

Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time 7 days a week as this restores and maintains your natural body clock. Cavemen did not need a weekend lie in.

AVOID WORKING LATE AT NIGHT

Working late at night has two affects. First, it stimulates our cognitive process, making us more alert at the time we are supposed to be switching our brain off. The second affect is that the specific wavelength of ‘Blue light’ emitted by our devices tricks our brain into thinking it’s time to get up.

‘Blue light’ from our screens acts like the morning sunlight, which wakes us up by switching off Melatonin (the sleep hormone) production in the brain. This is the opposite effect to the one which we want to have in the evening, when Melatonin needs to be switched on in the dark, to help us get to sleep.

Hospital patients who read eReaders took longer to fall asleep and had reduced quality of sleep than those who read a traditional book, and those who watch the screens late at night before bed were most affected.4

Sleep Tip:

If you must work at night there are a number of ways you can reduce blue light. Try dimming your computer screen or even better wear glasses that block out blue light. Install a blue light filtering system such as flux (justgetflux.com) on your computer and electronic devices to reduce blue light. Another must is to always use the night time mode on your devices.

USE A PRE-BED ROUTINE TO HELP YOU RELAX

In the same manner as having a gentle nightly routine to get a toddler to sleep, doing the same thing each night just before bed signals to our body and brain that it’s getting close to the time to settle down for the night.

In terms of nightly activity, our recent study showed that more of us watch TV and films in the last hour before bed than any other pastime. Whilst watching TV may help us switch off the stress of the day, as with all technology, TV screens emit blue light which can prevent us having a good night’s sleep. If you are watching TV at night and are having trouble getting to sleep in may be better to try a different routine.

Sleep Tip:

Establish a regular routine such as putting your clothes out for work the next day, relaxation exercises, meditation, taking a bath, reading a paper book, and brushing your teeth (whilst avoiding bright bathroom lights). Routines tell your brain that sleep is on its way.

DE-STRESS: RELAX IN THE BATH

Our survey found that 50% of us found it hard to get to sleep because of stress. Having a bath is a great way of de-stressing as being horizontal in water is associated with relaxation both mentally and physically. Once we are out of the bath, it also has a further benefit of generating a drop in body temperature before bedtime. Along with a decrease in light, a decrease in body temperature is one of our bodies natural signals that it’s time for bed.

Sleep Tip:

Take a warm bath about 2 hours before bed for around 20-30 minutes. This should generate a steeper than normal drop in body temperature which typically puts you into a deeper sleep.

HAVE A ‘DEVICE DEADLINE’

Put all your devices to bed at least an hour before you go to bed – this includes your mobile phone! Don’t use the excuse of using it as an alarm clock, the temptation to look at it is too much. If you feel anxious that you will miss out, or that people will think you are rude for not replying in your usual speedy manner (whatever the hour) sign off publicly letting people know you are going to bed.

Sleep Tip:

Never take your phone into your bedroom at night, and have a device curfew at least an hour before you plan to go to sleep.

IF YOU CAN’T SLEEP, GET UP

Once you are in bed, if after 20 minutes you find you are just lying there and you can’t get to sleep, don’t stay in bed worrying about it. Instead, get up and do something relaxing such as reading a book or meditating and only come back to bed when you feel tired.

The main thing is to leave your bedroom to ensure the brain continues to associate your bedroom and bed with sleep.

Do the same if you wake in the middle of the night and can’t easily get back to sleep. The trick is to not become anxious and master how to get back to sleep.

Sleep Tip:

When going into the other room, keep your lighting soft with no bright overhead lights and avoid looking at your phone as both will wake you up.

If you wake up in the night to go to the toilet, try to keep the light off or use a red light bulb instead of normal light. Red light has the least effect on Melatonin production and is a more natural colour of light to be exposed to at night.

Bask in Morning Sunlight

Ideally, you have first adjusted your bedtime in the evening to ensure that when your alarm goes off in the morning it is at the end of a sleep cycle, thereby allowing you to wake up fully refreshed.

Once you are awake let sunlight into your bedroom straight away. This sends a signal to your brain and body to wake up, increasing your production of Serotonin (the wake up and feel good hormone).

Sunlight also boosts cortisol production. Cortisol levels rise in the first half hour after you wake and signal to the body to become more alert. Sunlight has another benefit in that it helps us to produce Vitamin D, with a strong link between Vitamin D deficiency and daytime sleepiness.

Research shows that office workers with more light exposure had longer sleep duration and better sleep quality.6

Sleep Tip:

Get morning sunlight every day. Open your curtains straight away, and try walking outside for at least 15 minutes each day boosting your Vitamin D production. Daylight first thing makes it easier to get to sleep at night as is strengthens our circadian rhythm.

Always Eat Breakfast

Prehistorically we would have tended to fast in the dark and eat in the daylight, with ‘breakfast’ literally the time we broke our nightly fast. In fact, we have a body food clock that is linked to our sleep clock in our brains. Breakfast is potentially the most important meal of the day in terms of its timing. It provides us with energy for the day ahead, and keeps our first meal in sync with our sleep cycle; therefore, reinforcing our natural factory sleep settings.

Sleep Tip:

Eat a good breakfast, ideally within 30 minutes of waking, as it is a key component of a healthy sleep/wake cycle.

Sleep Tip:

A recent study by researchers at Columbia University found that a high fibre intake was linked with deeper, more restorative sleep. Porridge oats therefore are a great meal for breakfast. Protein (scrambled eggs and avocado) is also a good way to start the day as it takes longer to digest and keeps us feeling fuller for the morning.

One large study found that those who skipped breakfast were likely to be 4.5 times heavier than those who ate breakfast.7

EXERCISE DAILY

In addition to a host of wonderful health benefits, including increasing endorphins and Serotonin (the feel good hormone), exercise usually makes it easier to fall asleep and improves your quality of sleep.

Vigorous exercise is regarded as best for sleep, and as little as 20- 30 minutes of activity helps, which does not even have to be done all in one session to aid sleep.

A recent study by the American Sleep Foundation showed that exercising at any time of the day, even within 4 hours of bedtime is beneficial as it helps to strengthen the circadian rhythm.8 Further research by Appalachian State University showed that morning workouts had the best benefit in terms of improving length and depth of sleep.

If you find it hard to get to sleep, it is best to avoid exercising late in the evening as a rise in body temperature close to bedtime could prevent your body temperature lowering, which is part of the natural signalling process that it’s time to sleep. Furthermore, the endorphins produced during exercise could potentially keep you awake, as would exercising in a brightly lit gym.

Sleep Tip:

Exercising outdoors in the morning is the perfect start to the day as it improves your sleep quality and quantity, boosts your daily intake of sunlight and keeps you fit at the same time.

Like this?

You can download our sleep guide for free, here. Tell us what you think, we would love to hear from you!

Our consumer research highlighted some interesting, new findings. 82% of 18-24-year-olds use their mobile phones in bed, a worrying statistic! Read more, here.

4 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

5 http://slumberwise.com/science/your-ancestors-didnt-sleep-like-you/

6 Northwestern Medicine Research Journal of Sleep Medicine, June 2014

7 Yunsheng M, Bertone ER, Stanek, EJ et al. Association between eating patterns and obesity in free-living US adult population. Am. J. Epidemiol. 2003.

8 Effects of excercise timing on sleep architecture and nocturnal blood pressure in prehypertensives. Fairbrother et al Vascular Health and Risk Management.

DISCLAIMER

Whilst great care has been taken compiling the information within this guide is intended as a resource for general information only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your GP if you have ongoing problems or concerns regarding your sleep.

The statements and suggestions made within the text have not been evaluated by the NHS and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or illness.

Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting any diet, exercise or supplementation program, before taking or stopping any medication, or if you have or suspect you might have any health problem.

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