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A Full 40 Winks: How to Ensure a Decent Night’s Sleep

Open your eyes to the truths about sleep, and pick up some tips to help you sleep better.
by Fionnuala Kavanagh | Oct 24 2018

Falling asleep isn’t always easy and a lot of us often lie awake tossing and turning through the night. In our fast-paced, available-around-the-clock society, getting a solid 8 hours’ kip a night can seem impossible, and sleeping a lot is often seen as a vice, not a virtue. Learn to love your sleep, and find out how to put an end to restless nights.

Larks and owls: know your sleep type

Feeling alert or drowsy isn’t just determined by how much coffee you’ve drunk in the morning. Our internal body clock or circadian rhythms operate on a 24-hour cycle and regulate many of our physiological processes, including when we sleep, wake, and eat. These rhythms vary from person to person, so it’s important to know your type — do you prefer early mornings or late nights or something in-between? — in order to tailor your daily routine as much as possible.

Insomnia explained

Insomnia affects around 30 percent of the population in the US, yet there are still many common misconceptions surrounding this sleep disorder. Firstly, insomnia is not the inability to sleep. It’s impossible to not sleep at all as many integral processes that keep us alive happen while we sleep.

Not sleeping when you want to is one criteria of an insomnia diagnosis. This might mean struggling to fall sleep or an inability to stay asleep. The second major aspect of insomnia is the feeling of annoyance due to a bad sleep experience. In The Sleep Solution W. Chris Winter explains how insomnia is typically induced by stress, feeling anxious, or other medical issues. Winter suggests that learning about sleep and identifying anxiety triggers is a better method for dealing with insomnia than sleeping pills.

Why we should value sleep

It’s a dangerous myth that’s sleep deprivation is something to aspire towards. In The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington warns that a growing culture of workaholism is causing us to cut down on crucial sleep. The highest-performing people gain an advantage over their less successful competitors by sleeping more (an average of 8.6 hours per night) as reported in psychologist K. Anderson Ericsson’s study of elite musicians.

Sleep aids with transitioning short-term memory into long-term by strengthening neural connections. Emotional learning and regulation also receive a boost. This is particularly true during the REM phases of sleep when dreams process recent emotional experiences, highlight our anxieties, and help us to see problems from different perspectives. For more information on the groundbreaking experiments that led to these theories of memory, dreams, and emotions, try Kat Duff’s The Secret Life of Sleep.

Losing 90 minutes of sleep decreases your alertness by one-third. In fact, drowsy driving is statistically as dangerous as drunk driving.

Skipping sleep also reduces the chance of your brain getting rid of waste products. The glymphatic system flushes out amyloid beta, a protein found to accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. When we are sleeping, the glymphatic system is 60 percent more productive.

Sleeping for less than an average of six hours a night is often linked to obesity. In 2015, the journal Sleep published a study showing that as people’s average amount of sleep decreases the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin increases, which causes overeating.

Tips to help you sleep better

Cut out alcohol and nicotine

A nightcap may seem like just the trick to take you off to the land of nod, but booze before bed actually worsens your chances of getting a solid night’s sleep. Drinking alcohol makes it difficult for your body to enter deep sleep. You are likely to wake up during the night when the alcohol wears off, and falling into a drunken slumber can impair your breathing pattern. Just like alcohol, nicotine is a stimulant, so even though it is momentarily relaxing, it is likely to wake you earlier than you would like.

Run a hot bath before bed

Soaking in hot water relaxes your muscles and mind, and the change in body temperature from hot to cool when you exit a bath induces a feeling of drowsiness.

Remember: Light in the day, Darkness at night

Lightness and darkness affect your circadian rhythm, so enough natural sunlight in the day helps to regulate your sleep pattern. Instead of using an alarm clock, keep your curtains open at night and wake up naturally as your room floods with sunlight.

When your eyes sense that it’s dark they send signals to your hypothalamus that it’s time to feel tired, which in turn causes the pineal gland to produce melatonin—the chemical responsible for making your body feel sleepy. Plunge your room into darkness before you sleep, and avoid looking at any screens while you’re in bed.

Stick to a sleep schedule

We generally function better when we live by a set routine. As mentioned before, our circadian rhythms perform internal processes in a 24 hour cycle, so it makes sense to get in the habit of having similar eating and sleeping times each day. Establish a set bedtime every night and fixed scheduled naps if you need to top up your sleep.

Park your worries in the daytime

If you can’t sleep because you lie awake worrying at night, give yourself a designated time slot during the day to worry. This should make you more relaxed and worry free when your head hits the pillow. If you still can’t sleep get up and do something relaxing like reading, drawing or knitting. Lying in bed worrying about not sleeping creates a vicious feedback loop.

For more tips to help you sleep better, add Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker to your bedtime reading pile.

Struggling to sleep can be a living nightmare. Hopefully dispelling myths about sleep, and suggesting how you can better manage your sleep cycle has been like a cup of chamomile tea!

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