Dr Meg Arroll, a health psychologist who has suffered from insomnia herself, explains ways to fix your waking hours so you get good sleep
There’s not a day in my working life that I don’t speak to people who say they’re tired all the time and don’t get enough sleep.
I myself have suffered from bouts of quite severe insomnia in the past and it’s one of the most destructive influencing not only on daily functioning, but also long-term health if not tackled.
One of the main problems we have with sleep is that our physiology hasn’t evolved as fast as the technology we now rely on.
We are still mere mammals but living in a world that far outpaces our ability to rest properly.
This is why the focus for a solution to the Modern Day Sleep Dilemma cannot just concentrate on bedtime – it’s something we need to attend to during a complete 24-hour day cycle.
1. Let go of sleep perfection
We live in a world of constant self-evaluation – we count our steps, look carefully at the nutritional content of food, and now we somewhat obsessively measure our sleep quality with smartphones and apps.
There’s a real downside to this, especially when it comes to sleep.
Night-time wakings can in themselves cause anxiety, as we stress about how much sleep we’re getting (or not getting), whether it’s a solid eight hours and if not, the mental and physical health implications.
In other words, a preoccupation with sleeping well can lead to insomnia.
The fact of the matter is that we can and do survive on less-than-perfect sleep – ask any parent.
While it may not be ideal, and certainly long-term severe sleep disturbance is associated with a range of health problems, it’s important for us to let go of sleep perfection.
A study which followed over 800 people for two years found that those with persistent insomnia had higher levels of perfectionism than good sleepers.
Therefore, unless daytime sleepiness is negatively affecting your ability to function, ditch the sleep tracker and let go of sleep perfectionism.
2. Focus more on what you’re doing in the day, not at night
How well we sleep really has more to do with our daytime lives than the hours of darkness.
The modern world is full of stimulation – before we had electricity there was a limit on the amount of productive activity that could be accomplished at night. This of course has resulted in huge booms in economies and raised living standards – but there is always another side to any coin.
We find it very hard to switch off, literally and figuratively, so it’s no surprise that sleep is difficult for many of us.
Professionals often suggest a sleep hygiene routine – e.g. making sure your room is dark and cool, avoiding caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and screens several hours before bed, winding down, etc. – but if it was this simple, we’d all be sleeping like logs.
These practices can certainly help, but we also need to make sure we’re supporting our natural circadian rhythm in the daytime.
3. Boost natural light rather than fear artificial light
Our natural sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm is covered by natural light. However, the vast majority of us spend almost all of our waking hours indoors.
The next big product in wearable technology will be a light sensor – about the size of a small coin – that will tell us when we need to go outside to get more natural light.
Researchers from the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute exclusively study the way light impacts us as individuals, our environments and health.
They are one of the pioneers of this new wearable tech and say that if we receive sufficient natural light during the day, we won’t be as sensitive to artificial light at night-time.
Therefore, we should pay a little more attention to the natural light during daytime hours, as well as controlling screen-time.
Many people spend too either too much or too little time in bed – both of which can make us feel exhausted during the day
The next big thing in wearable tech will be daylight sensors – we’re all very aware (and often very concerned) about artificial light before bedtime, but if we receive enough natural light during the, we won’t be as sensitive to screen-emitted light. These new wearables will ping and nudge you to go outdoors during the day to make sure you’re getting enough daylight to support your circadian rhythm.
4. Slumber-boosting vitamins & supplements
Another benefit of getting out in the daylight is vitamin D – our bodies convert sunlight into this essential vitamin, which is why in the wintertime between 30-40 percent of Brits are deficient in vitamin D. As well as stocking up on foods high in vitamin D such as oily fish and mushrooms, you can take a supplement such as Healthspan’s vitamin D.
Dr Sarah Brewer, Medical Director advises: ‘Sleep is when your body carries out vital repairs, replenishes proteins and regenerates cells. It is important to get not too much or too little, but just the right amount.
‘When researchers followed 21,000 twins for over 22 years they found a clear association between longevity and sleep duration.
‘Those twins who habitually slept for between seven and eight hours per night lived longer than those who tended to sleep for shorter or longer amounts.
‘If you are experiencing sleep difficulties or waking feeling unrefreshed, try taking cannabidiol CBD oil – a cannabis extract that is not psychoactive, is perfectly legal, but by a quality one that has been approved by the CTA (Cannabis Trade Association) and can really improve sleep quality.’
Magnesium is involved in the production of melatonin which is our natural sleep-inducing hormone.
A study involving 46 older people with sleep problems showed that taking 500mg magnesium a day for eight weeks significantly improved melatonin levels, sleep time, and sleep efficiency, compared with placebo, with a reduction in early morning waking.
Magnesium also acts as a muscle relaxant and magnesium bath salts added to a warm bath before bedtime are virtually guaranteed to induce a good night’s sleep as magnesium is absorbed through the skin.
Herbal sleep remedies may help such as Valerian root and Hops extracts.
Valerian has been shown in studies to aid sleep without the side effects that drug therapy may produce (feeling groggy, unrefreshed, ‘hungover’ feeling, etc.). This liquid herbal tincture and may also be helpful to beat jetlag as it encourages natural sleep – it’s definitely worth a try for people who really struggle with jetlag but don’t want to resort to pills.
5. Work back from your wake time
Ideally we’d get up when we naturally wake, but of course with having to work, take kids to school and all the other demands on our lives this is rarely possible.
Many people spend too either too much or too little time in bed – both of which can make us feel exhausted during the day.
The former is most likely because their sleep quality is poor, whereas the latter is due to lack of sleep.
The average adult needs approximately seven to nine hours a night. A common pattern when people start to experience sleep troubles is they go to bed early, thinking this will remedy the tiredness.
However, what often happens is the body’s ‘sleep drive’ – the physiological pressure for sleep – isn’t yet at tipping point. This means either problems falling asleep, or more likely staying asleep.
Waking at around 3am-4am is a frequently reported disturbance here. And the solution is to actually spend less time in bed, rather than more.
On the other hand, some people ‘sleep procrastinate’, watching TV or scrolling through smartphones until late in the night.
For both of these problems you can work back from your wake time.
So if you have to get up at 7am, try going to bed at 11pm. Make sure to keep all devices out of the bedroom though to limit sleep procrastination.
This way you should also be able to ditch the snooze button. Being startled awake, then falling back to sleep numerous times is a repeated cardiac assault. By working back from your wake time and getting into this routine, it’s much more likely that you’ll feel rested well enough not to be tempted to hit snooze.
While it won’t hurt to ditch the booze and after dinner coffee before bed, cool down the bedroom and make sure it’s nice and dark, in our modern lives it’s also important to support the circadian rhythm but getting as much natural light as possible, avoiding sleep perfection and procrastination and working with, not against our wake times.