How to sleep well: drift off easily and enjoy those Zzzs

Struggling to drift off at night, or always waking up in the early hours? Learn how to sleep well and you can make sure you always get that elusive eight hours a night...

How to sleep well: Lady yawning by Somnex sleep exhibition
(Image credit: Somnex)

Do you, or a loved one, regularly struggle to get to sleep? Or suffer the consequences of poor quality sleep? Knowing how to sleep well is somewhat of an art, and of course, it might be that you need a new mattress, or perhaps a new pillow. Maybe the room could be darker, or the street outside quieter. But if you're not getting enough sleep, you're not the only one. 

A survey by The Sleep Council found that while most adults need around seven to nine hours sleep a night, a third of Brits are getting just five to six. If this sounds like you, our guide to sleeping well – in your bedroom or otherwise – features advice from Lisa Artis from The Sleep Council and Dave Gibson from The Sleep Site. It's a must-read. 

As well as being a short term problem – we all know how hard it is to get through a day when you're exhausted –a growing body of research suggests mental and physical problems become more pronounced in those sleeping for fewer than six hours. 

If it's watching an extra episode of your favourite box set that's delaying your bed time, it could be causing more damage than you realise; amping up your fight or flight response to stress levels, releasing hormones that speed up your heart rate and raise blood pressure. ‘It’s important to remember though,’ says Lisa. ‘That it’s also about the quality of sleep you are getting, not the quantity.

By following our five steps to sleeping well, improved sleep can come to us all (hopefully), but when it does, just don’t hit that snooze button. Set your alarm for when you actually have to get up as you won’t get any quality kip in between snoozes.

1. Start a bedtime routine 

As beneficial for adults as they are for children, bedtime routines are a must for those who are struggling to get a good night's sleep. 

Rather than spending evenings bingeing on a box set, Lisa advises finding alternative ways of relaxing, like a warm bath with soothing scents, reading a book, background music, gentle stretches and yoga. If there's something playing on your mind, write it down, she advises, whether it's worries or a to-do list.

‘It’s also important to establish a regular sleep pattern – going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day. Your body and mind will feel much better for it,’ she says. ‘Our brains like repetition,’ adds Dave. ‘A consistent sleep routine helps support and strengthen our body clocks.’ 

To encourage a better routine in the morning, Lisa advises using a dawn simulator, or putting the alarm clock on the other side of the room, especially if you have a hard time not pressing the snooze button each day. ‘You’ll have to walk across the room to turn it off , waking yourself up along the way,’ says Lisa. 'You’ll be ready to start the day, as fresh as a daisy!'

woman writing in notebook by getty images

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. Get your sleep environment right 

Your sleeping environment is very important in getting the best night’s sleep. Neither too hot or too cold (the ideal temperature is around 16˚C, so slightly on the cool side), and as quiet and dark as possible. 

Dave suggests that linens should be clean, cool and crisp and ideally cotton, which helps skin to breathe, plus bed linens should be changed once a week as we lose a half pint or more of fluid each night (yes, really). 

It's also important to think about who you're sleeping with. If you’re lying next to a snorer, what starts as a niggle can become a major issue. ‘It’s important to get it sorted,’ says Lisa, who recommends the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea website if earplugs aren’t doing the trick. If you’ve a child disturbing your sleep, then try to get to the reason why – is it for comfort, a drink or a wee… or just because know they can?

bedroom with light pink scheme, grey bedding and pendant light by quu design

(Image credit: QUU Design)

3. Try to replace your mattress every seven years 

Your bed needs to be comfortable,’ says Lisa. ‘It’s difficult to get deep, restful sleep on one that’s too hard, too soft, too small or too old.’

The Sleep Council recommend trying to replace your mattress every seven years, with research showing that swapping an uncomfortable one for a new one resulted in nearly an hour of extra sleep a night… just imagine that for a second!

Take time to choose and properly test your mattress before buying it – it's never been easier to take advantage of a no-quibbles return if buying online.

Find all our mattress reviews and buying guides to discover the very best mattress for you.

Take time to check out your pillow, especially if you suffer with back and shoulder pain, does it still have its plumpness? ‘A good pillow should hold your head in the correct alignment, in the same relation to your shoulders and spine as if you were standing upright with the correct posture,’ says Lisa. ‘Replace a pillow once it’s lost its “loft” (height) or it has become lumpy or discoloured.’

natural mattress by raft

(Image credit: Raft)

4. Read a book if you can't sleep after 30 minutes of trying

'If you can’t get to sleep, and you’ve been lying there for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and read a book under dim light until you feel sleepy,' says Dave.

bedroom with white scheme, bed with pink head board and side lamp by original BTC

(Image credit: Original BTC)

5. Leave your phone outside the bedroom

We're all guilty of a scroll through Instagram or final check of emails last thing at night, but if you're really serious about getting a good night's sleep this needs to change.

Tech should be avoided before bed – in particular the hour before it. ‘The blue light that emits from devices messes around with your body’s circadian rhythms by suppressing the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin in the brain, which is what we need in order to feel sleepy,’ says Lisa.

‘Bedrooms should be kept for sleep (and sex) only,’ says Dave. ‘This is so the brain associates this room with getting to sleep. Mobiles and tablets should, as much as possible, be kept out.'

girl sleeping in bed with ikea floral bedding and phone beside her by getty images

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. Like reading before bed? Get a blue light-free reading light

Reading before bed can make it easier to drift off, but to make the reading even more relaxing, consider investing in a reading light that blocks out blue light, which is often responsible for sleep problems. 

https://www.amazon.com/Amber-Light-Rechargeable-Strain-Free-Hands-Free/dp/B07SLNJ1JT/

(Image credit: Amazon)

7. Make sure your kids go to bed on time – then so will you

Every parent knows that if your kids aren't sleeping properly, you won't be getting any sleep either. How to make sure they go to bed on time? 

While the most important part of a healthy sleep routine is going to bed at the same time every night, this may not be achievable straight away. However, being a bit stricter with what time they get up every morning will eventually cause a shift in when they go to bed. This will be useful for you, too, if you struggle to doze off at night: if you are disciplined about when you get up, you'll be more likely to start going to bed earlier. 

Any changes to a child's sleep routine (and yours, in fact) will work better if made gradually. Rather than arguing endlessly when your child clearly doesn't feel tired, compromise: they can go to be later than you would like, but 30 minutes earlier than last week. Eventually, you should be able to bring their going to bed time to what it needs to be. 

8. Eat breakfast every day

Skipping breakfast is bad for us – it messes with our metabolism and is a major cause of over-eating later in the day. Eating breakfast within half an hour of getting up gives you the energy you need to last you until lunchtime, but it also has the surprising effect of promoting better sleep at night. Basically, if you aren't eating breakfast, your body goes into stress mode from hunger (even if you don't feel hungry in the mornings), and the stress hormones linger, making drifting off to sleep harder. 

9. Consider getting help for any underlying issues

Lots of people find they can't sleep well despite having the perfect sleep environment with comfortable bedding. If that's you, the reasons for your sleep deprivation could be psychological rather than physical. Several studies have shown that of all the factors that keep people (especially women) up at night, it is stress that has been shown to be the biggest. 

So, if you are finding that worries are keeping you up at night, you may discover that the most useful solution is an individually tailored therapy programme. The NHS and the  British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy are good places to start looking for a therapist. 

10. Rethink the hour before bedtime

Regardless of how much effort you put into creating the perfect sleep environment in your bedroom, it’s your evening routine, particularly in the hour leading up to bedtime, that affects the quality of your sleep most.

One of the most common mistakes people make preventing them from sleeping well is exercising right before bedtime. A trip to the gym before bed may seem like a good way to tire yourself out, but you are raising your heart rate and body temperature, which is exactly the opposite of what your body needs to get to sleep. You should stop all strenuous physical activity at least two hours before bedtime. 

Love a big dinner with wine? Finish eating and drinking alcohol two, and ideally three, hours before bedtime. While the food and drink may make you feel sleepy initially, you’re more likely to wake up in the night, for three reasons: acid reflux, adenosine levels raised by alcohol dropping in the middle of the night, or needing to get up to go to the toilet (alcohol is a diuretic). 

Finally, try to develop a relaxing routine for an hour before bed and stick to it. Whether it’s reading (see points 4 and 6 above), playing with a pet, or meditation, a gentle activity is best at telling your brain that it’s time to wind down for the day. 

11. What you should eat to sleep well

What you eat and drink before you tuck yourself in for the duration can contribute to peaceful sleep, or disrupt it. Here are foods that will help you doze off:

Tryptophan-containing food and drink

Did your mum recommend a milky drink before bed? She was wise. When it comes to sleep, dairy foods are your friend as they contain tryptophan, which promotes slumber. There’s one caveat, though. Hot chocolate (see below) likely contains caffeine, so opt for alternatives such as Ovaltine or Horlicks.

If you’re thinking about your evening meal, it helps to know that eggs also contain tryptophan. Other ways to add it? Honey is also a source, and vegans will be delighted to hear that it can be obtained through oats, nuts, seeds and bananas.

Camomile tea

Although this is reputed to aid sleep, evidence isn’t strong. However, it doesn’t contain caffeine, so it can be a sensible choice for your nighttime beverage – providing you don’t brew up too late in the evening (see below).

Carbohydrates

Apologies, those on low carb diets, you are missing out on a key to a better night. We’re talking bread and cheese, maybe, crackers, a few nuts, or even cereal plus milk. Don’t go overboard, though (see below). A snack-size quantity is what you’re aiming for.

Lettuce

Sounds weird, but you may recall Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’, where an over-indulgence in lettuce saw the rabbits overcome with slumber. We don’t suggest it’ll have such pronounced results for you, but there is some evidence to suggest it might be worth consuming lettuce as part of your evening meal.

12. Foods to avoid before bedtime

Caffeine-containing drinks

You know to avoid coffee, of course, but don’t forget that stimulating caffeine can lurk in other evening favourites. Tea contains it, as does chocolate, and colas. Cut them out from around six hours before you lie down for the night.

Any fluids after hours

What do we mean by after hours? Think about finishing all you’re going to drink two or three hours before you turn in if you don’t want to be woken by an urge to visit the toilet.

Alcohol

You can call it a nightcap if you like, but that doesn’t mean it will help you sleep for eight hours. Although it might mean you nod off faster, alcohol can cause you to wake during the night. Stop drinking in good time – four hours at least before bed, and better six.

Heavy and spicy meals

Naturally, there are going to be times when you enjoy a feast, but for the benefit of your slumber, plan to eat early enough for a few hours of digestion before your bedtime.

Inclined to get heartburn? Don’t go for super spicy meals at nighttime if you like the idea of a peaceful night.

Find out more about getting great sleep from Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker.

13. How much deep sleep do you need a night? 

There are different sleep stages that we all go through during the night. Many of us have heard about REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is the stage at which we're most likely to dream. But it's actually deep sleep that's the most important stage, responsible for tissue repair, memory consolidation, and immune system rebuilding.  

So, how much deep sleep do you need a night? The answer may surprise you: a healthy adult who gets the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night only needs about an hour to an hour and a half of deep sleep a night, or between 13 to 25 per cent. Yes, deep sleep is the rarest kind of sleep, but you don't need very much of it (although getting more deep sleep will definitely do no harm). 

A normal sleep cycle is about 90 minutes long and consists of a combination of REM, slightly different stages of light sleep (most of our sleeping is light sleep), and a bit of deep sleep. The problems begin when you don't get to the deep sleep stage at all, or not enough, which is what results in symptoms of sleep deprivation. 

How to make sure you get the recommended amount of deep sleep during the night? The most common reason for not being able to sleep deeply is stress, and for many people, removing the source of stress is what will give them better sleep. By all means take advantage of the sleep aids out there (a nice face mask and pillow spray have never hurt anyone), but if the reasons for your restless nights lie in your waking life, they're the ones you should try to prioritise resolving. 

Top tip: Sleep experts advise against lying in bed longer in hopes of getting more sleep. Too much sleep of bad quality has been linked to increased risks of depression and even heart problems. 

14. What is REM sleep?

REM sleep is short for Rapid Eye Movement sleep which describes a stage in the sleep cycle where the brain is the most active. This stage is unique to mammals and is the point at which we are most likely to experience vivid dreams.

Typically, REM sleep occurs in the first 90 minutes of sleep and repeats at various points throughout the night as we move through the sleep cycle. 

Other effects of REM sleep include faster, or more irregular breathing, changes in body temperature, twitching, sexual arousal and increased heart rate.

Research suggests that those experiencing a lack of REM sleep may suffer the following effects:

  • An increase in migraines;
  • Greater likelihood of being overweight;
  • Reduced coping skills.

15. Sleep and immune system: how the two interact

Studies have shown that the main way in which sleep boosts our immune systems is by enhancing the functioning of T cells in our bodies. A T cell is a type of white blood cell that is crucial to what's called adaptive immunity – that is, the immune system's ability to respond quickly and efficiently to any threats. 

When the human body is being attacked by a virus, some T cells mobilise to kill the virus cells, while others activate a special type of protein that enables other cells in the body to do the same. What we know is that T cells don't function so well with high levels of adrenaline (the stress hormone) in the body, and sleep is the most effective measure the body has to lower adrenaline levels. 

So, resting during sleep is not a luxury but a necessity: it's the best way your body knows to lower stress levels and do the vital work of repairing itself. Getting seven hours or more a night combined with a healthy diet should be everything your body needs to keep its immune defences strong. 

What to do if your lack of sleep is caused by stress in the first place? With the current coronavirus situation, it's understandable that many of us will be feeling anxious. Ways of reducing stress will be individual, but we would recommend setting yourself a curfew on news browsing. Yes, it's important to keep informed on the unfolding situation, but try to distract yourself with something completely different in the hour before bed – a good book, a board game, or even just playing with your pet. 

Top pic: Somnex – The Sleep Show

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