Learning how to sleep better is always important, but it is especially so right now. Sleep is crucial to good health, both physical and mental, and it is absolutely essential to get enough of good quality sleep to protect your immune system against coronavirus.
It is understandable that some loss of sleep will be due to the heightened stress we're all experiencing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there are plenty of details about how and where you sleep that can be tweaked to get some relief. 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.
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!'
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?
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.’
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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? And are you getting enough?
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 the 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.
16. Write down your worries or allocate 'worry time'
'Stress the night before? A simple step to reduce the racing mind is to mentally put the day to rest. An hour before bed, take a pen and paper, and write down everything important that you need to remember for tomorrow. If those same thoughts pop up while you’re in bed, tell yourself it’s on the page, it’s safe to let it go.'
'If worry interferes with your day or night, set aside a time each day to give your worries some serious attention. Allocating a 20 minute ‘worry time’ into your schedule can help prevent unhelpful thoughts intruding at other times. During worry time, reflect and write about your worries. When worry time comes to an end, move on.'
17. Don't worry about lost sleep too much
One of the unfortunate side effects of wanting to sleep better is worrying too much about not getting enough of it. Try not to be too anxious about a poor night's sleep, advises Sophie:
'Good news - your brain is very good at recovery sleep. The night after a restless night, the odds are that you will sleep more deeply. You don’t need to catch up on every single lost hour of sleep, hour by hour. Going to bed much too early, or having an extended lie in, will confuse your body clock. Aim to stick to the same bedtime and wake times to within an hour or two, 7 days a week.'
18. How many pillows should you sleep with?
Whether you sleep on your back or side, the primary purpose of the pillow is to slightly raise your head during sleep to prevent neck pain and to ensure good spinal alignment.
Historically, pillows were never soft or plump, like they are now: ancient Mesopotamians, for example, slept on pillows made from stone (yes, really), while other ancient nations slept on anything from wood to pillow prototypes filled sawdust, straw, and wool.
Those pillows would have been thin and firm, and are still the ideal type of pillow if you sleep on your back – although the fillings have obviously moved on since then. Back sleepers needn't be limited to one pillow, though – if you suffer from lower back pain, you might find that a second pillow beneath the backs of your knees relieves the pressure there and stops you waking up with back pain.
If, however, you sleep on your side, you will probably benefit from two pillows, but the second one should go between your knees to alleviate pressure on your thighs and lower spine – unless of course you can roll your duvet between your knees. The pillow you rest your head on can be softer and more voluminous than if you sleep on your back to prevent shoulder pain. Some people (including some of the side sleepers on the Realhomes.com team) prefer a firmer below beneath a softer pillow.
And if you sleep on your front? Consider sleeping without any pillow at all, or go for a very thin one.
19. Can't fall asleep? Listen to nature sounds
There is a reason why YouTube is full of eight-hour videos of rain, wind, and ocean waves: the sounds of nature really do help you relax. Recent research demonstrates that listening to nature sounds (as opposed to artificial or man-made sounds or music) makes us externally focused, diverting our minds from anxious thoughts that prevent us from sleeping.
If you sleep on your own, you can try having a nature sound recording playing very quietly in the background all night; if you sleep with someone else, this might not be an option, but you can always invest in a pair of wireless headphones.
20. How to combat summer insomnia
If you find yourself unable to drift off once the clocks go forward, there's a proven physiological reason for it. The low-level light that lingers until late in the evening in mid summer is actually suppressing the production of melatonin – the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. We've all heard about the adverse effects on sleep of the light emitted by mobile phones and laptops; turns out that long summer nights have approximately the same effect on our bodies.
So, what can you do to combat these disturbing effects of the summer solstice on your sleep patterns? Apart from the obvious tips to turn off your phone and use blackout curtains, sleep experts also recommend wearing your sunglasses for about an hour before bed. It may look odd, but many people report it works.
Back to those curtains, blackout or not. If you draw them around two hours before bedtime and dim lights, you will find it easier to fall asleep. If the weather's hot, this might exaggerate your insomnia (people sleep better when their core body temperature falls). So, keeping those curtains drawn during the day, cracking windows open on both sides of the room or house to create a through-draught, using a fan in your bedroom – or air conditioning if you have it – can all help with this.
Unexpectedly, taking a hot bath or shower will also help your core temperature drop once you go to bed, so doing this, too, can promote sleep. Failing that, a mattress cooling pad can bring relief if you find it hard to get to sleep on hot nights.
21. Remove all clocks from your bedroom
It is common to watch the clock when we are awake at night. For some of us, this can increase our anxiety levels and further prevent us from being able to fall asleep. It is not necessary to remove the clock, as, for example, some people rely upon their alarm clocks to get them up in the morning, but having the clock face out of sight will help reduce any sleep anxiety.
22. Avoid binge-watching TV
Self isolating may lead to a desire to binge watch TV boxsets. While watching back-to-back episodes of your current favourite show may feel like a relaxing escape at the end of the day, it’s actually getting your brain fired up, not helping it wind down. Plus it’s well known that we should stop using electronics an hour before bedtime because of the blue light emitted. And given the current crisis, watching the news or social media feeds can prove quite distressing, so avoid doing so in the run up to bedtime.
23. Know the signs of insomnia
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that's characterised by a persistent inability to fall or stay asleep. Symptoms include being wide awake throughout the night, waking up multiple times, and waking up too early without feeling rested.
Insomnia is typically quite different from mild sleep disturbances we all experience from time to time because of its duration. While it is possible to experience acute or periodic insomnia for a period ranging between a week and three months, for example as a result of a stressful event, the majority people who have insomnia have something called chronic insomnia, which lasts longer than three months.
This should be the benchmark for seeking professional medical help: if your insomnia persists for longer than three months, you must get in touch with your GP.
Insomnia has a variety of potential underlying causes, including:
- An accompanying health condition that interferes with sleep, for example arthritis or heart disease;
- Shift work or irregular work patterns;
- Mental health conditions such as depression;
- Stressful life circumstances such as bereavement or unemployment – or, of course, a pandemic;
- Pregnancy, particularly the first and the third trimester.
The most difficult cases of insomnia are where the cause isn't immediately apparent. At the moment, it's not unreasonable to assume that poor mental health resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown will be the underlying cause for many, although whether it will result in cases of chronic insomnia remains to be seen.
It's still well worth taking a good look at other sources of stress in your life, especially work-related worries and pressures.
Therapy and/or a sleep study are the common first steps to treating insomnia –both of them difficult to access right now. Take heart, though – there are traditional methods for curing insomnia that many people find effective, and which should always be tried before going on any medication. They include:
- Meditation and guided meditation practices (see our guide on managing anxiety for links);
- Schedules: sticking to firm work and sleep schedules is important;
- Eliminating caffeine and alcohol;
- Herbal supplements such as valerian and passion flower
- Essential oil therapy, with lavender and chamomile reported to give the best results;
- Supplementing with magnesium;
- Improving sleep hygiene, including changing your bed, mattress, and bedlinen.
- Self help books: in the absence of a GP's appointment, this read below is helpful and grounding, packed with useful tips for dealing with anxieties that might be leading to insomnia.
24. Sleep in a colder bedroom
This may seem counterintuitive, but most people sleep better in cooler temperatures, usually between 16 and 18°C. This will vary somewhat from person to person, but generally, anything under 12°C or over 23°C will be uncomfortable for most people. So, if you're heating your bedroom at night and can't sleep, try turning the heating off completely.
25. Stop working in your pyjamas
Now that most of us are working from home, you may be beginning to wonder whether it's worth getting dressed anymore. Why not just roll out of bed and start working?
Resist this temptation. Lee Chambers, Advanced Sleep Practitioner and Performance Nutritionist at Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, explains:
'[A]s you psychologically connect your pyjamas with winding down for bed, you will lose this attachment if you start working or home schooling in them, so make sure you get dressed for your task in the morning.'
26. Practice mindfulness
There are all sorts of mindful exercises you can do to try and calm a racing mind that's stopping you from sleeping. Neuro-Linguistic Programming Trainer Rebecca Lockwood has a suggestion:
'Place your hand on your heart and check in with yourself. We search outside of ourselves in an attempt to give ourselves meaning. When we come back into ourselves and really check in with us and who we are the whole world shifts around us, including the way we think, feel and the way we show up in the world.
'Place your hand on your heart, take a few deep breaths, and settle yourself with the strength of your beating heart. Just sit and listen to the beating of your heart and the sound of your breath. You can do this for seconds, minutes or an hour. This helps us get out of our heads and into our heart, our heart always knows the answer.'
27. Explore aromatherapy – beyond lavender
Most of us have heard about the calming properties of lavender, but there are all sorts of other essential oils that have similar properties and can be custom blended to create the ultimate soothing fragrance that will help you drift off. Try a combination of bergamot, vetiver, jasmine, sandalwood, and geranium essential oils. Avoid bright citruses such as sweet orange as they're more likely to keep you awake.
Browse our pick of the best essential oil diffusers to use in your bedroom.
Top pic: Somnex – The Sleep Show