"Your Best Slept Self" - Sleep Awareness Day 2022: Tips to sleep
Updated: Jul 25
Why is sleep important?
Our bodies have trouble adjusting when we have not slept enough, and the complexity of life can cause us to disrupt (or “override”) our preferred circadian rhythm.
If we are sleep deprived this can result in:
- an inability to think rationally
- an inability to focus
- a lowered immune system
…and as such this can cause further problems in the context of work and relationships.
There has also been research on architectural students which found that when sleep deprived their written examination performance remained constant, but those that lacked sleep performed significantly less well in their presentations.
Sleep is also our body’s opportunity to repair and plays a role in regulating the production of some hormones important for health. If we do not sleep enough we produce more ghrelin – the hormone which signals hunger which can cause us to seek high carb, high sugar foods because we instinctively know they will give us energy. Enough sleep means we produce less ghrelin and more leptin (which supresses hunger).
Further if we are not sleepy we have a greater capacity to make healthy choices on food and activity as we tend to be more focused, as well as be at less risk of injury when exercising or doing anything physical or manual.
How many hours sleep do you actually need to function at your best?
While research would suggest that on average adults need around 7 – 9 hours, children need more, as we age we need less, some people function very well on different patters such as “biphasic sleep” sleeping in two short periods and then napping in the day, and indeed “Power napping” for some is also beneficial. Edison engaged in “polyphasic” sleep – two hours and then a day of naps…this worked for him. The only caveat if you find something against the recommended 8 hours overnight, and perhaps a 20 minute afternoon nap that works for you is that there are no real long term studies on whether (and how) different sleep patterns affect us.
When it comes to sleep, I would always say try to get the number of hours that works for you! (…and if that can’t be at night, try and find some nap time in the day)
Practical tips to help with sleep
1. If possible - have a bedtime routine eg:
- Have a glass of water by your bed
- Keep a writing pad by your bed for when you wake in the middle of the night and need to remember something – write it down (try not to open your phone!)
- Plan for the next day if you need to (eg. Clothes, lunch prep)
- Stop drinking caffeinated drinks about 6 hours before bed – and instead have a camomile tea, or warm water, or even warm milk
- Go to the toilet!
- Set your alarm
- Come off social media/your smartphone and hour before bed – leaving an “out of office” message if necessary
2. Try some deep breathing
Simple centred breathing (breathing in for 4, holding for 2, and out through the mouth for 6) whilst listening to nature sounds, gentle music, or even a relaxation podcast can be the final step for restful night.
3. Ask yourself - will exercise – or a relaxing cool down – help?
Sometimes people find exercising at night helps (others don’t – heed your body’s response to whatever you try), and after exercising, a bath tends to be more soothing than a shower (unless it feels “too long” for you).
Importantly: if you find yourself waking and struggling to return to sleep:
Get up and do something (ideally not on the phone or computer) such as read a book. It’s best not to associate the bedroom with the feelings of stress that you cannot get to sleep.
NOTE: this is not to be confused with times when you wake up but remain relaxed, then it's perfectly ok to lie there with your eyes shut...however if you are getting frustrated and wound up because you cannot sleep - that's when it's time to be mindful of what associations you are forming.
Managing sleep when you have children – babies and toddlers who waken often during the night.
1. REMEMBER - the body is adaptable!
It is possible for someone who has for many years always slept 8 hours to learn to feel rested and function efficiently on six if this is established as a habit, similarly it is possible to adjust to shift work or as parents whose sleep is disrupted with a newborn – it is possible to adapt for a certain time, and function effectively on a new sleeping pattern. Research on shift workers finds sleep can be improved by wearing sunglasses (to keep the daylight moderate) when returning home after a shift, and by having blackout curtains in the sleeping area…perhaps parents can make similar adaptations temporarily.
Our body is very adaptable, and what is “best” in terms of sleep – is what is “best” in terms of our need physically and contextually.
2. Young children can be helped to sleep with:
· Regular routine – and dimming and brightening lights as we would for our circadian rhythms…and similarly getting daylight during the day
· Toddlers – they need to “learn” to go to sleep so it can be about getting them to shut their eyes and maybe relax from the tips of their toes to the top of their heads
· Explore different sleep training approaches
· Not playing with baby/toddlers too near bedtime -instead reading a story
· Bathing and changing a child before bed is relaxing and feeling clean can help them sleep.
· As with adults, keep a ventilated room and consider blackout curtains if the daylight is affecting sleep patterns.
· Try and share the wake up calls if you can – perhaps even with a partner using your expressed milk to feed at night
· Recognise the signs of sleepiness so that you can recognise your child's routine and begin to adapt to it...but be aware that baby’s nap times can change was they get older
· Sleep when your baby sleeps if you can – and this is a great time for those friends who want to help…ask them to watch the baby while you sleep!!
· Unless specifically co-sleeping, put the baby back in his/her crib when soothed.
And on that - what about napping?
Research shows that a 20 minute nap in the afternoon seems to provide more rest that 20 minutes more sleep in the morning – BUT if you nap after 3pm, it may affect your sleep pattern at night.
20 minutes seems to be the key time that research proposes for a good quality nap – setting an alarm as necessary, however, some studies suggest longer naps eg 30 – 60 mins can boost creativity and decision making…but the alternative would also be a meditation (as similar boosts have been found following guided mediation/breathing sessions).
Benefits of napping:
- Lack of sleep can impair memory, and cause problems for cognitive function, so napping can counter some of those effects
- It can give your mind a break from something that has been troubling you (and is healthier than “self medication” – sometimes to get over writer’s block, just changing your environment can help, so sleep (and closing your eyes to the world) may be just as helpful.
- Other sleep deprivation effects napping may cover can also be – feeling less irritable and being able to concentrate for longer.
Disadvantages of napping:
- Some people (including myself I might add!) feel groggy after a nap (I personally function best on a good night’s sleep!)
- Napping too long can interfere with sleeping at night
- AND for those with depression – you sometimes WANT to sleep the day away and that may not be the best thing for you.
Your best slept self:
Largely, this is about doing what is right for you...so be aware of how your body functions best.
Mindfulness practices (such as meditation) can help you identify how your body feels, but it’s more important following that to listen and do.
While we can read many articles which offer different advice or the results of different studies, it’s good to process that knowledge but then apply what works for US.
"The Complete Guide to Insomnia - and How You Can Manage It".
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt