Do you regularly stay up late to watch the latest troubling news, an exciting action film or scroll through Twitter into the small hours? Do you consume sugary snacks, coffee or alcohol in the evening? It’s no wonder you’re not sleeping! If you want a better night’s sleep, you need some new, healthy sleep habits. This is often known as practicing good ‘sleep hygiene’ – and can help you feel a whole lot better with a few simple changes to your routine.
The NHS recommends you consult your GP if you experience insomnia for more than four weeks. You should also seek medical advice if you think you might have a sleep disorder, or an underlying health condition that’s causing tiredness. But most of the time poor sleep is caused by lifestyle factors that you can fix naturally, without the need for sleeping pills, by adopting the following healthy sleep habits.
1. Prioritise sleep – understand its importance
We spend a third of our lives asleep. It can sometimes feel like a waste of time, when there’s so much to do! But sleep is vital for both our physical and mental health. The first step to getting a better night’s sleep is to understand why it’s so important.
We all know the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise – and society tends to praise those who eat healthily or work out. Sleep is just as important – yet is often undervalued. People who claim to get by on 3-4 hours sleep are seen as tough (famous examples include Margaret Thatcher) while those who prioritise sleep may be seen as lazy.
Most adults need eight hours of good quality sleep to function properly. And sleep deprivation can have serious health consequences – from heart disease and diabetes to ‘brain fog’. Research shows that fatigue causes more road accidents than alcohol and drug use combined. If you’re sleep-deprived, you’re also more vulnerable to developing anxiety or depression.
2. Develop a healthy sleep schedule – adults need a bedtime routine too
If you have children, you’ll be well aware of the importance of a bedtime routine. If the kids have a late night, they’ll be irritable the next day, or won’t focus well at school. If they have a fixed bedtime routine at the same time each day – bathtime, milky drink, bedtime story, lights out – everyone’s life will be much easier.
The same is true for the grown-ups. Planning a sleep schedule is something many of us know we should do – but it somehow just doesn’t seem that important.
Healthy adults should have 7-9 hours sleep per night. Work out what suits you best – and stick to it. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day – even weekends and holidays. Aim to do this even if you have a bad night, rather than trying to ‘catch up’ on sleep the next day.
3. Watch what you eat and drink – especially in the evenings
A healthy diet is important for physical and mental wellbeing. But what we eat and drink – and when – also has a direct impact on our quality of sleep. Here are some things to watch out for:
- Late meals. Eat your evening meal at least two hours before you go to bed. If you eat a big meal too close to bedtime, your body will use energy digesting it, increasing your heart rate and making it harder for you to sleep.
- Sugar. Sugary snacks late at night – or too much sugar throughout the day – will also keep you awake.
- Alcohol. A small amount of alcohol can relax you – but a larger amount has the opposite effect and starts to act as a stimulant. Drinking in the evening can also disrupt our sleep cycle as our bodies process the alcohol.
- Caffeine. Drinking too much coffee, tea or soft drinks such as colas – or drinking them too late in the day – will keep you awake. Try to avoid caffeine after 3pm. Drinking too much of any liquid too late at night is a bad idea anyway – as you’ll only have to get up in the night, further disturbing your sleep!
4. Learn to relax – wind down before bedtime
It’s important to wind down before sleep. Some things to consider include:
- Put your screens away. Avoid screens and put your phone away an hour before you go to bed. This is one of the most effective ways to get a good night’s sleep – partly because the ‘blue light’ they emit triggers wakefulness, and partly because they overstimulate the mind too close to bedtime. Switch off your notifications, so you can switch off.
- Write a list. Writing a ‘to do’ list for the next day can organise your thoughts and clear your mind of any distractions. And if your head is spinning with worries, write them down too – and tell yourself you’ll deal with them tomorrow.
- Take a bath. A warm (not hot) bath will help get your body to a temperature conducive to sleep.
- Have a hot drink. Not coffee, obviously. But many people find a mug of warm milk or a cup of camomile tea a helpful way to relax before bed.
- Meditate. Try doing a 10-minute mindfulness meditation before going to sleep. This can be an effective way of calming the mind, and allow it to settle and slow down.
- Listen to music. Instead of watching TV in bed, try listening to relaxing music.
5. Create a restful space – and associate it with sleep
Sleep scientists often say that bedrooms should be used for two activities: sleep and sex. And nothing else. That means no TV, no endless scrolling through social media, and no corner of the room that doubles as your office.
Many people find dark, quiet, cool rooms are best for sleep. Consider blackout curtains, an eye mask or ear plugs. A temperature of 65F / 18C supports sleeping for most people – but everyone’s different, so experiment to find what works best for you. Invest in a good quality mattress too, especially if back trouble or other aches and pains disrupt your sleep.
Because you want to associate your bed with sleep, if you wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep after 45 minutes, get up and do something that’s not too stimulating – maybe read a book – and then go back to bed when you’re tired.
6. Get active – but not too close to bedtime
Physical exertion may not seem an obvious sleep habit – but if you’re active during the day, you’re more likely to sleep at night. Exercise is great for mental health – and one of the reasons for that is that it helps you get a good night’s sleep.
But you don’t have to do high-impact aerobic exercise to benefit. Even a daily walk can help. Being active and moving around during the day is the key. Try walking to the shops instead of driving, or get off the bus one stop early.
Avoid vigorous exercise before bed, though. Leave at least two hours between exercise and sleep. You could, however, try some light yoga stretches before sleeping, to help relax your muscles.
7. Look after your mental health
If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, this can affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep. When we have disturbances in our emotional wellbeing, sleep is often one of the first areas where we feel the impact.
- Anxiety. It’s hard to sleep if you’re kept awake by worry. If you’re prone to overthinking, it’s easy for your mind to ruminate at night, when there are fewer distractions. And if you’re worried about not sleeping, this can lead to a sort of ‘performance anxiety’ that makes it harder to get to sleep in the first place!
- Depression. Depression has a complicated two-way relationship with sleep. If you’re feeling depressed, this can disrupt your sleep pattern – leading to too little or too much sleep. But poor sleep can also lead to depression, due to changes in how the neurotransmitter serotonin functions. It can be hard to know which came first.
The good news is that people who are treated for anxiety or depression often report improved sleep. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in particular has been shown to be effective in the treatment of insomnia. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy. And check out our Self-care audio courses on anxiety and depression for lots of helpful, practical advice and exercises.
Stick with it – establish your healthy sleep habits
Finally, stick with it and don’t expect instant results. Any habit takes time to form and take effect. Practice these sleep habits, persevere with them for 4-6 weeks, and you’ll soon be sleeping like a pro. You’ll feel better, wake refreshed and be better able to face whatever the day throws at you.