The importance of sleep

As a counsellor I see a lot of clients who have trouble sleeping and the list of reasons is endless!
We all have busy lives now and can be connected 24 hours a day with different shift patterns, social media, children and the stress of everyday life all affecting us at some point.

I am constantly asked
How can I get a better night’s sleep? And ironically enough I am writing this at 5.00am in the morning after waking up at 3.00am.
Getting a good night’s sleep may seem impossible when like myself today you’re wide awake at 3 a.m., but you have much more control over your sleep than you probably realize. We must understand that what we do in our day will affect us during the night and vice versa promoting the quality of our sleep is important, people often get focused on that they need 8 hours of sleep. What I tend to suggest with this is that the time we need will depend on our age, lifestyle, gender and genetics, I would suggest that if you wake up in the morning feeling refreshed this is a basic guide line to knowing you have slept well that night.

But what can we do to help our sleep?
Our daytime habits and lifestyle choices can leave us tossing and turning at night and affect our moods, brains and heart health, and left unchecked could affect our immune systems, thought processes, and our interaction with others. Experiment with these following tips and you could enjoy a better night’s sleep, improve your mental and physical health, and improve how you think and feel during the day. Its basic that if we sleep better, we can feel better.

Here are some common tips you can find in a lot of places

1: Our natural sleep cycle is important
Getting in sync with our body’s natural sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm, is an important strategy for sleeping better. If we keep a regular sleep schedule, we can wake up feeling much more refreshed and energized.
Trying to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day is key here. This helps set our bodies internal clock and optimize the quality of your sleep. Choose a bedtime when you normally feel tired, so that you don’t toss and turn. If you’re getting enough sleep, you should wake up naturally without an alarm. If you need or use an alarm clock, you may need to change your bedtime to earlier in the evening.

Avoid sleeping in even on weekends or during holidays. I would always suggest going to go to bed around the same time (within half an hour or so) and getting up at the same time no matter what day of the week it is. The more our sleep patterns vary, the more increased feelings of jetlag or tiredness like symptoms we could experience. If you need to make up for a late night, think about the option of a nap rather than sleeping in.
While napping is a good way to make up for lost sleep, if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, napping can make things worse. Limit naps to 15 to 20 minutes maximum. Make sure you set an alarm, so you don’t sleep any more than this.
If you get sleepy before your bedtime, do something stimulating, such as washing the dishes, clearing up, or getting clothes or meals ready for the next day. If you change your sleep schedule by falling asleep on the sofa or in the armchair it could affect your night’s sleep.

2: Exercise
People who exercise regularly sleep better. Regular exercise could improve the symptoms of insomnia and increases the amount of time you spend in the deep, stages of sleep.
The more you exercise, the more powerful the sleep benefits. But even light exercise such as walking for just 10 minutes a day improves sleep quality, so try and work this low-level exercise into your day as much as you can.

It can take several months of regular activity before you experience the full sleep-promoting effects. So be patient and focus on building an exercise habit that sticks. I suggest breaking your exercise down into small bite size chunks at first to build the habit. If you struggle to get to the gym then go there and do something you enjoy first for a few weeks before you increase your activity levels i.e. have a coffee, swim or sauna just get into the habit of going.
Exercising too close to bed and it can interfere with sleep so think about the time you go to the gym.
Finish workouts at least three hours before bedtime if you can. Choosing relaxing exercises such as yoga, Mindfulness or gentle stretching in the evening can help promote sleep.

3: Think about what you eat and drink
Our eating habits can determine how well we sleep, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime.
Limiting caffeine and nicotine is of course a well-known tip but do you adhere to it? You might be surprised to know that caffeine can cause sleep problems up to ten to twelve hours after drinking it and don’t be mistaken that’s its only in coffee! Similarly, smoking or vaping is another stimulant that can disrupt your sleep, especially if you smoke or vape too close to bedtime.

Avoid big meals at night. Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening and eat at regular times if possible and avoid large meals within two hours of bedtime. Spicy or acidic foods and drinks can cause stomach trouble, indigestion and heartburn.
Avoid alcohol before bed it can interfere with your sleep cycle, just think about the hangover affect that we can get from one too many. Drinking too much before bedtime also causes our body to work harder during the night to process the alcohol.
Avoid drinking too many liquids in the evening. Drinking lots of fluids may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night.
Cutting back on sugary foods and refined carbs not only promotes our health and well-being but also our sleep patterns.

4: Increase your exposure to daylight
Melatonin is your naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Your brain starts to secrete more melatonin when it gets darker making you feel sleepy.
During the day try to expose yourself to as much sunlight or natural light as you can as early as you can. The nearer to the time you get up, the better.
Spend as much time as you can outside during daylight. Try taking your work breaks outside in natural light, go for a walk outside, breathe in that fresh air even if it’s for short periods of time.

Try and let as much natural light as you can into your home or work area as possible.
At night avoid bright screens within 1-2 hours of your bedtime, we have all heard the advice and guidelines from the government health agency but still continually choose to ignore it.
Say no to late-night television. Not only does the light from a TV suppress melatonin, but many programs are stimulating rather than relaxing. Try listening to music or reading books instead.
When it’s time to sleep, make sure the room is dark. Use heavy curtains or black out blinds to block light from coming in through the windows. Try not to use or turn on the lights if you get up in the night (please do this safely, you could use dimmer switches for example).

5: Relaxing and clearing your mind
Do you find yourself unable to sleep or waking up night after night?
The more overstimulated your brain becomes during the day, the harder it can be slow down and unwind at night. During the day, many of us overstress our brains by constantly interrupting tasks to check our phones, emails, or social media. Try to set aside specific times for these things, create a habit of sticking to this schedule if possible and attempt to focus on one task at a time. Try and stop using devices as early as you can, try thinking that each time you look at your phone or device it will cost you some sleep. Then when it comes to getting to sleep at night, your brain won’t be accustomed to seeking fresh stimulation and you’ll be better able to unwind.

Try some Relaxation techniques before bedtime or when you get into bed for a better sleep.
Deep breathing. Close your eyes and take deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last. Try breathing out for longer than you breathe in for so breathe in for the count of 5 and breathe out for the count of 6 for example.
Progressive muscle relaxation. Starting with your toes, tense all the muscles as tightly as you can, then completely relax. Work your way up to the top of your head and you can always repeat this a couple of times.
Positive relaxing habits before bedtime can help you could help you switch off try:
Reading or listening to an audio book or magazine with soft lighting
Taking a warm bath or shower
Listen to soft music
Do some mindfulness or breathing techniques
Make simple preparations for the next day like preparing food or clothes.

6: Improve your bedroom environment 
Sometimes even small changes to your environment can make a big difference to your quality of sleep. Try and make your bedroom a pleasant and enjoyable space that you feel calm and relaxed in, clear away clothes and clutter. Keep your room dark, quiet and cool having your bedroom too warm can make sleep more difficult.

Try and keep the noise down. If you can’t avoid or eliminate noise from neighbours, traffic, or other people in your household, try masking it with a fan, white noise or low-level relaxing music. Earplugs may also help.
Make sure your bed is comfortable as it can be. If you often wake up with a sore back or an aching neck, you may need to experiment with different levels of mattress firmness, foam toppers, and pillows that provide more or less support.
Our beds should be for sleeping and sex. By not working, watching TV, or using your computer in bed, your brain will associate the bedroom with just sleep and sex, which makes it easier to wind down at night and creates a healthier routine.

7: Learn ways to get back to sleep
It’s normal to wake briefly during the night but if you’re having trouble falling back asleep, try:
Make relaxation your goal, not sleep, removing the pressure to sleep can help. If you finding it hard to fall back asleep, try a relaxation technique such as visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation, which can be done without even getting out of bed. Even though it’s not a replacement for sleep, relaxation can still help rejuvenate your body.

Do a quiet, non-stimulating activity. If you’ve been awake for more than 15 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet, non-stimulating activity, such as reading a book. Keep the lights dim and avoid screens so as not to cue your body that it’s time to wake up, I would also suggest doing this in a different room if possible, once you feel yourself becoming tired head back to bed again. If you still can not sleep after 15 minutes, I would repeat this step.
If you wake during the night with something on your mind, make a brief note on a piece of paper and postpone worrying about it until the next day. This allows your mind to forget about it until the next day.

I hope you find some of these tips useful in remembering the importance of sleep. Thanks for reading.

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