Many things in life—such as loving, going to sleep, or behaving unaffectedly—are done worst when we try hardest to do them. – C.S. Lewis
Getting to sleep shouldn’t be the big production it’s being made out to be. After all, humans have been doing it for centuries without giving it a moment’s thought.
Even the field of sleep science looks at sleep rather pragmatically, giving simple and sometimes obvious advice to follow rather than suggesting complicated hacks or extreme sleep schedules.
I know personally that I sleep best when I don’t think about sleeping at all – just lie down, close my eyes and let sleep set in naturally. This is the basis of what world sleep expert; Professor Espie calls the common-sense approach to sleep.
Let’s break down this science-backed approach further:
1. Does your lifestyle support quality sleep?
This piece of advice is often rehashed but, as unhelpful as it might sound, when you want an immediate sleep-fix this should be your first stop.
Inevitably, it is easier to look outward and blame things that are out of our control for a run of poor sleep, but the truth is that we have a lot of control over our nighttime experiences.
The biggest sleep offenders – alcohol, nicotine and caffeine – have all been shown to reduce sleep quality and disturb sleep in various ways.
Alcohol, for example, might speed up the time it takes us to fall asleep, but later in the night when it’s being broken down in our system, it can lead to an increase in short awakenings.
And, in the end, we may end up getting considerably less sleep than we would have otherwise. In contrast, nicotine and caffeine are stimulating substances, which can prevent us from falling asleep.
This doesn’t mean we have to do a 360 of our lifestyles, but being more aware of habits such as smoking and subsequently reducing our intake towards the end of the day or losing extra weight, may help give a needed boost to our night’s sleep.
2. We should wait until we feel sleepy to go to bed
Our bedtime should be set by our body’s signal and not by the clock on our wall. We already have internal clocks keeping our sleep in rhythm which, when we let them, ascertain that our bedtime is kept consistent.
They send signs when it’s time for our night’s sleep. Itchy eyes and heavy eyelids, frequent yawns and even falling asleep for a few seconds can all signal that wakefulness is giving way to sleep and that it’s high time you were settled in bed.
3. We should de-stress and relax in the evening
Sleep can really flounder during times of increased stress, when anxious thoughts and worries tend to permeate all aspects of our lives. Unfortunately, for me this tends to include time spent in bed too, when I struggle to just flip my mental switch off.
This is where relaxation, both mental and physical, can have an effect. The first step towards relaxation tends to be creating a calming evening routine.
An example of such a routine may be a shower around 8 p.m., followed by half an hour of reading and half an hour of journaling before calling it a night. Of course, these activities will differ from person to person but they should be what that person finds relaxing to do. For example, a bout of stretching may be more relaxing to someone than reading a book.
Over time, a relaxing routine can encourage sleep to follow automatically thereby helping to keep our internal clocks in sync.
4. Getting up at the same time in the mornings
Historically, people used to wake up with the arrival of daylight. Our internal clocks were attuned to the natural light so that we woke with the light and went to sleep when the light was gone. This was a dependable waking schedule as morning daylight remains fairly consistent through the year.
To help our internal clocks remain in sync, we should strive towards a similarly dependable waking schedule in spite of our crazy schedules and what day of the week it is. Yes, this means weekends and holidays should be included as well!
5. Up during the day, asleep at night
Although naps are even cultural specialties in some parts of the world, their effects on nightly sleep can vary. In the elderly, naps have been shown to improve sleep quality as sleep tends to be more broken up in old age compared to younger people.
However, others may find their nocturnal sleep disturbed by naps. Sleeping during the daytime, a period when we are meant to be alert and awake can confuse the internal clocks regulating our pattern of sleep followed by wakefulness followed by sleep and so on.
For example, our need for sleep (otherwise known as ‘sleep pressure’) increases throughout the day until it peaks at bedtime, which helps sleep to follow. Topping up on sleep in the midst of this process can trick the sleep pressure to decrease again, which can in turn postpone our nightly sleep.
Thus, keeping sleep and wakefulness separate can help to ensure that our internal rhythms really work like clockwork.
We are lucky to be able to depend on our bodies to get us to sleep. It is when we meddle ourselves, or allow stress to, that our sleep can go off the rails. So why not let go and grab a bucketful of ZZZs tonight the natural way?