As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist I can offer a science-based approach to help you fall to sleep more quickly and easily. Current ‘sleep hygiene’ advice often isn’t comprehensive and most people are not yet aware of a new, scientific way of encouraging quicker and deeper sleep. The new approach simply requires you to place your phone on your belly and focus on your breathing. I will discuss this new technology in more detail along side other acknowledged strategies that will together help you to get the best night’s sleep with as little time and effort as possible.
Get up at the same time every morning: Getting this right means that everything else will follow. There isn’t a need to place too much focus on what time you go to bed, just wait until you naturally feel sleepy during the evening. With time, you will establish how many hours sleep you ideally need and from this, when to go to bed. If you go to bed and don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, I would suggest to get out of bed again as you have probably gone to bed too early. The key to getting a good night’s sleep is only being in bed when you are deep in sleep, not spending hours on end in bed when you are only half asleep.
Although initially you will have restricted sleep you will benefit in the long run by setting yourself a natural and healthy sleep pattern, this sounds easy but does require commitment. Don’t be tempted to go back to bed in the morning should you feel tired, despite the time you fell to sleep the night before. Getting up at the same time every day will reset your body clock and in turn will reset sleep hormones such as melatonin. Even if you only have 3 hours sleep, you need to suffer this sleep restrictive phase to achieve higher quality sleep going forward. You will find that after as little as 3-4 days you will begin to restore your body’s natural circadian cycle. You’ll begin to feel tired at the same time each night as ‘sleep pressure’ rises and then naturally fall asleep when your body needs to. Over a few days your sleep will become naturally more regular and reliable.
To help you to get out of bed at your set time each morning, try the following:
- Schedule group activities and wakeup calls with friends or colleagues, something that you cannot cancel.
- You can ask a good friend to give you a wakeup call each day.
- Plan an easy morning task by yourself such as getting some breakfast at the local cafe, so that it’s not too burdensome when you wake up.
- Ambulate, consume and shower. Set multiple alarm clocks that require you getting out of bed and walk to turn them off. Eat something immediately after waking and include caffeine in this to alert you. Food and drink consumption is an alerting activity. Tea offers a slower, sustained release of caffeine so may be best in the morning. Coffee offers a faster alerting affect and may be best had at lunch. Avoid stimulants after 2pm to allow at least 8 hours to be eliminated from the system. Temperature changes during showering or splashing water over your face may also have an alerting effect. Another tip is to prepare your clothes and get bags packed the night before.
Wake up at Weekends: It is scientifically proven that if you can maintain your wake up time every day and not just Monday – Friday, your sleep hygiene remains automatic. If you choose to take a lie-in on Saturday and Sunday, do so at your peril as you will have to start from scratch every Monday!
Evacuate your bedroom: Leaving your bedroom immediately after getting up in the morning means that you will not fall for those visual cues to return to bed. Pressing the snooze button only leads to contaminated sleep and ruins the usual separation between sleep and wakeful states. When you’re awake, be fully awake and engaged. When you’re asleep, be fully asleep.
Master light regulation: To boost melatonin, the sleep hormone, it is important to make your bedroom as dark as possible. Blackout curtains are very effective in blocking out unwanted light at bedtime. On waking, open curtains as soon as possible and use natural sunlight to stimulate your retina and suppress melatonin, this will encourage you to get up and going. An alternative to natural sunlight is an alarm clock that emits light, but I would suggest keeping your clock out of direct vision to avoid clockwatching during the night.
Share your sleep goals: To improve your success rate and offer external motivation I would suggest publicising your sleep goals to friends and family and across social media. You can ask friends to set weekly progress catch-ups. You could even post a letter to yourself detailing how poor sleep is affecting you, this will inspire you to carry on when times are hard and will boost your internal motivation.
Although I would mark the above points as golden rules in promoting good sleep habits, there are a number of ‘silver rules’ that can support the above points.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine and stick to it night after night, this can include a hot bath, reading a calming book, stretches etc.
- Keep your bedroom clean and clutter-free, your bedding should be comfortable and try to maintain a consistent temperature of between 18-20*C.
- Reduce blue-lights emitted from screen devices in the evening as these hit your retina and suppress vital sleep hormones.
- Keep your bed just for sleep. This activates the brain’s associative learning so when you climb in to bed your body expects to sleep.
- Avoid stimulating activities such as smoking or eating a large meal and avoid any stress.
- Try to keep naps, sedative drugs or alcohol to a minimum as these confuse your sleep architecture and quality of sleep.
- If you are a shift worker or long distance flyer you may want to consider asking your doctor about melatonin tablets.
- Fresh air and daily exercise also promote a good quality of sleep and can help you fall to sleep more easily.
Last but not least, I would always recommend that you breathe mindfully for at least 5 minutes in bed before sleep. Humans have practiced focusing on their breath to help them fall asleep for thousands of years so this is not a new phenomenon. Sleep latency is the time it takes for you to go to sleep once you get into bed. Mindfulness can help you to relax, distress and build body-awareness thus reducing sleep latency. A quick and easy way to practice mindfulness is to use a meditation app. I have developed Mindz, a free to access app that teaches mindfulness using scientific feedback. Once downloaded, you can use the app to support you through a few mindful breaths to send you off to sleep quickly and easily. It’s simple to use so I would suggest using the app to make mindful breathing part of your bedtime routine starting tonight. You can download it here…
Although it will require dedication and some sacrifice at first, once you have established good sleep habits they will become automatic within as little as 4 weeks. As always, if you’re still struggling with sleep after trying these tricks don’t hesitate to contact a doctor or psychiatrist for extra support.
Good luck, and remember, good habits pay off. There is nothing more important than a good nights sleep.