There’s no doubt that a really good night’s sleep makes you feel refreshed, boosts your energy levels, and lifts your mood. It also has a huge impact on your long-term physical health, too.
“Sleep is as important to your wellbeing as a healthy diet or good exercise routine,” says sleep expert Neil Stanley. “It helps to protect you from infections and strengthens your immune system. It helps you recover faster from illness and makes pain easier to cope with. Making good sleep a priority could help to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, stroke, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and ease your stress levels, too.”
What happens when you sleep?
Your body is constantly repairing itself and recuperating from the stresses and strains of everyday life. At night when you’re asleep your body has time to carry out essential maintenance work to keep itself in good working order. This is especially true when it comes to your brain.
“During sleep, your brain processes and lays down memories, deals with the emotional aspects of your day, and learns new tasks,” Stanley says. “Your brain also needs sleep to remove toxic by-products that build up during the day.”
You’re not just imagining that foggy feeling after a bad night’s sleep; US researchers recently found that sleep deprivation makes it harder for your neurons (the communication cells in your brain) to pass on messages. So being sleep deprived could actually make your memory worse.
5 Steps to a Better Night
6:30 a.m. — Wake up with the sun.
Before you do anything else in the morning, open your curtains. Don’t turn on the light, look at your phone, or switch on the TV. For a great night’s sleep, the first light to hit your eyes in the morning should be daylight.
“Sunlight in the morning is the signal your brain needs that it’s daytime and it’s time to be awake,” Stanley explains. “You just need a few minutes of natural sunlight to kickstart your circadian rhythm (your body clock).”
When daylight hits your eyes, it sends a signal to your body clock to tell it to stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin and to start pumping out cortisol instead to give you an energy boost and get you up and moving. It also helps to get your body clock in sync, setting your sleep patterns and the time you should naturally wake up. In the winter, you can get the benefits of sunlight first thing with a sunrise alarm clock such as the Lumie Bodyclock Active 250 Wake-Up Light ($125.10, Amazon).
7 a.m. — Boost your bacteria.
How well you sleep has an effect on how happy your gut bacteria are, and how happy your gut bacteria are has an effect on how well you sleep. “Our gut bacteria have been shown to play a role in regulating our sleep/wake cycle as well as in the production of hormones and other substances that are involved in how well we sleep,” Stanley says.
Looking after the friendly bacteria in your gut could help to improve your sleep pattern and even improve the quality of your sleep, according to a study by US researchers. At breakfast, try topping up your good bacteria with a probiotic supplement.
10 a.m. or 4 p.m. — Make your move.
Exercise, such as walking or cycling — even for just 10 minutes — can dramatically improve how well you sleep if you do it regularly. When you exercise depends on when it feels best for you; early morning exercise could help you wake up, especially if you exercise outdoors. Exercise in the afternoon and it may help reset your sleep/wake cycle by raising your body temperature slightly, then allowing it to drop and trigger sleepiness a few hours later. Exercising outdoors gives you the added benefit of extra daylight to keep your body clock in sync and stop energy slumps during the day.
9 p.m. — Take a screen break.
Switch off your TV, phone, and computer at least an hour before bedtime. “The blue light given out by computers, TVs, smartphones, and even the light from paperwhite devices such as e-book readers, has been shown to suppress the release of melatonin, which is the hormone that tells your body it’s time to sleep,” Stanley says.
“Using devices before bed could make it harder for you to fall asleep, a effect the quality of your sleep and make you feel drowsy the next day.” Wind down with a book or listen to the radio in a dimly lit room instead.
10 p.m. — Make it cool and dark.
Stick to roughly the same bedtime every day so your body knows when it should start to feel sleepy. Set your bedroom up to give you as much uninterrupted, good-quality sleep as possible. “The number of hours you need to sleep to wake up feeling refreshed, alert, and focused during the day is very individual, so rather than worrying about the amount of time, focus on getting great quality sleep,” Stanley says. “Your room should be as dark as possible, cool, quiet, and comfortable. Buy the biggest bed you can fit into your bedroom and keep a window open as fresh air is good for sleep.”
If you wake up in the middle of the night, give yourself 20 minutes to get back to sleep. “If you don’t drop off in that time get up, go to another room, and do something that you find relaxing until you feel sleepy again,” Stanley says. “Go back to bed again and if after another 20 minutes you have still not fallen asleep repeat this process once more. There is no point staying in bed trying to fall back to sleep; the harder you try the less likely you are to fall asleep.”
Another helpful piece of advice is to cut the caffeine after 3 p.m. One study found that having caffeine even six hours before bedtime cut total sleep time by an hour.
Good sleepers also eat 10g less of sugar a day than people who don’t sleep well. They crave fewer sugary foods, too, helping them maintain a healthy weight say scientists from Kings College London.
Making a note of how well you sleep every night and what you got up to during the day could help you see which tweaks to your routine help you to sleep better. Make a note of how you feel each day when you wake up and you’ll soon see which changes are making a real difference.
This post was written by Yours editors. For more, check out our sister site, Yours.