For many, a restful and restorative night’s slumber is more elusive than ever. One in four is now struggling to fall or stay asleep at night, up from one in six before the pandemic, according to figures from the University of Southampton.
Although we can’t control what’s happening in the world, there are things we can do to help. And it’s not just about ‘sleep hygiene’ – emerging evidence shows that what we do in the daytime might be just as important. Here, the experts offer their daily schedule for a good night’s sleep.
How much and how well you sleep is greatly influenced by your circadian rhythm, or your internal clock, which tells your body when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to sleep. This system is greatly affected by our behaviour and environment – and one of the best things you can do to ensure a good night’s sleep is to open your curtains as soon as you wake up in the morning, says Linda Geddes, author of Chasing the Sun: The New Science of Sunlight and How it Shapes Our Bodies and Minds.
"Get that flash of light into your eyes as soon as possible," she says. "The cells at the back of your eyes connect with your body’s master clock in your brain." This acts as a daily reset to your body clock, which will help it to know when it’s time to fall asleep at night. If your wake-up is before dawn, switch on bright lights.
Try to leave your bedroom for the day. Your brain builds associations between places and activities, and experts say bed should be reserved for sleep. Avoid working in bed, which could cause your mind to race when you try to fall asleep there at night. This is one of the key teachings of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for insomnia, which, according to a 2015 meta-analysis, is proven to help you increase both your sleep quantity and quality.
Spend at least 20 minutes of time outdoors – walking in your area or even in your garden. "The sun is brightest in the morning so if you get out before 10am, that’s fantastic," says Dr Guy Meadows, a sleep physiologist and co-founder of The Sleep School training programme. Leave your sunglasses at home for the best effect, he says.
For most people, drinking a few cups of coffee a day isn’t a problem for sleep, but make sure that you have your last one at around midday. "Caffeine has a half-life of six hours and a quarter life of 12 hours," says Meadows. "So if you have a coffee at noon, you’ll have a quarter of it still in your system at midnight."
If you can, take a proper break in the middle of the day to eat a main meal and relax. Reducing your stress levels during the day means your mind will be racing less when you put your head on the pillow, says Dr Neil Stanley, author of How to Sleep.
Having a big lunch and a lighter meal in the evening will also help you to sleep at night because your body won’t be busy digesting.
If you want to have a sweet treat during the day, then after lunch may be the best time, he adds. "Sugar is a stimulant that naturally boosts your alertness levels," he says. "Everyone likes a bit of sugar, but if you feel like it, try to eat it earlier in the day – avoid it closer to bedtime."
People who exercise regularly fall asleep faster and sleep for longer, according to a 2012 review. Exercise lowers levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin and boosts endorphins, which may help to calm your racing mind by bedtime.
But don’t do it in the late evening, as getting sweaty just before bed can confuse your body’s internal clock by getting warmer, says Meadows. Your circadian rhythm is influenced not just by light, but also by temperature: cooler climes signal that it’s night-time. Certainly, get outside to do it: A 2017 study found that the more daylight you get during the day, the better your quality of sleep at night.
Try to have dinner at least two to four hours before bed to avoid raising your temperature too much, says Meadows. Limiting the time window in which you’re eating each day can also help to train your body clock to know when it’s time to sleep, according to a 2020 review.
Lower the light levels in your home to signal to your brain that it’s evening. Turn off the overhead light and use table lamps instead, and put away your phone, tablet or laptop, says Geddes.
"Think about how our ancestors would have lived – their evenings were dark," she says. "We want to recreate those kinds of conditions at home, so avoid bright ceiling lights... and keep as dim as possible." At home, Geddes uses smart bulbs which can be easily dimmed, and eats dinner by candlelight.
Open a window in your bedroom to ensure the air is cool by the time you go to bed. A 2012 study found that warming up participants led them to wake up more during the night and reduced the amount they slept. Another study, published in 2019, places the ideal bedroom temperature as pretty cool: between 19C and 21C for an adult (66.2F to 69.8F).
Have a warm bath or shower one to two hours before bedtime. The rapid drop in temperature when you come out simulates the natural drop in body heat at night, needed to fall asleep. A 2019 meta-analysis found that a 10-minute bath had significant effects on sleep quality and reduced the length of time it takes to nod off, while a 2013 study found that a foot bath with warm water had similar effects.
Going to bed at a similar time each night has huge benefits for the quality and quantity of your sleep, according to multiple studies.
Getting intimate just before you go to sleep may help, too.
The Daily Telegraph