If you’ve ever struggled with sleep issues – whether that’s not being able to drift off, snoozing through your alarm, or feeling constantly tired – you’ve probably tried everything to sort them out.
And it’s likely you’ve made some of the common mistakes people make when trying to improve their sleep.
For World Sleep Day, we chatted to Dr Verena Senn, a neurobiologist and sleep expert representing bed brand Emma, to find out the three sleep mistakes people often make – and how to fix them.
Napping to ‘catch up’ on sleep
When you can’t get a decent night’s rest, it’s easy to think you can ‘catch up’ by having a nap in the middle of the day.
But doing this can make existing sleep issues even worse.
‘The time of day can matter a lot,’ Dr Verena Senn warns. ‘The best time for most people to nap is actually between 2pm and 3pm, when it’s totally normal to naturally flag and get a little fatigued; a natural lull in your internal clock.
‘But napping too close to your usual bedtime can throw off your schedule.
‘Equally, naps that become too long can actually put you into a deeper stage of sleep, which can leave you feeling groggy and less alert when you wake up.
‘All of these things can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night, and more importantly stay asleep.
‘If you are a little sleep-deprived and able to fall asleep during the day (not all of us are so lucky), then my advice is to take shorter naps – around 15-20 minutes – in the early afternoon.
‘Keep tabs on how it affects your sleep, and if you feel it’s making things worse, speak to your GP to identify why you’re not getting the right sleep in the first place.’
Having a nightcap
‘Having a glass or two of wine with the view to send you off to sleep a little easier can be tempting,’ says Dr Verena. ‘In fact, wine even contains melatonin; a hormone that can help you sleep.
‘Sounds like a perfect match, right? Wrong.
‘While alcohol can absolutely make you fall asleep faster, it disrupts your body’s sleep cycle, causing you to fall deeply asleep but be prone to waking up later into the night and struggling to get back to sleep.
‘That’s because alcohol actually shortens REM sleep; the deep, restful stage of sleep we need each night.
‘And with that, the benefits of that lovely melatonin contained in wine are completely erased by the effects of the alcohol.’
Using sleep trackers
Whether it’s downloading a load of sleep-tracking apps, panicking over your caffeine consumption, or sticking to a strict bedtime, it’s easy for sleep issues to send you into an obsessive spiral.
Then you end up wide awake in bed, thinking about how little sleep you’re getting and worrying about how tired you’ll feel the next day.
Reducing stress and actually allowing yourself to relax is key – and that means trying not to worry about sleep so much you become obsessed.
Dr Verena says: ‘Becoming too focused on getting good sleep can actually be detrimental and end up making your sleep worse.
‘With the introduction of sleep trackers, as well as news stories that tell us about the long-term effects of poor sleep on our health, it’s easy to become overly invested in the need to track and improve the length and quality of sleep. But this can make us anxious, and in turn, make our sleep even worse.
‘This is actually now its very own sleep disorder: orthosomnia, or the unhealthy preoccupation with good sleep. Unsurprisingly, it’s becoming more and more common for me to meet people who are dealing with this, often solely due to their use of sleep trackers.
‘My advice? If you’re starting to become worried about your sleep, then don’t use sleep trackers. At all.
‘It’s important to remember that sleep can be influenced by your anticipation of the night ahead, and the attention you pay to it.
‘Your understanding of whether you have had a good or bad night can literally be entirely dictated by the sleep data on your screen. This is particularly problematic when you consider that there is evidence to show that sleep trackers aren’t even all that accurate.
‘Keep it simple and make a note of your sleep patterns in the morning if your issues are persistent.’
So those are the things not to do. How can you actually improve your sleep?
Dr Verena offers up these tips.
Keep a sleep diary
‘First and foremost, you need to identify the root of the problem,’ says Verena. ‘Ask yourself what exactly about your sleep you’re unhappy with. Do you sleep too heavily and wake up tired? Do you find it hard to switch off and get to sleep? Do you constantly wake once you’ve dozed off?
‘Once you identify the problem, you can begin looking into the causes.
‘An effective first step for anyone struggling with any sleep issue, is to keep a sleep diary that you complete each morning.
‘It doesn’t need to be anything extensive or complicated, just simple notes on how rested you feel, what time you went to sleep, how many times you woke up, what it was that woke you up (i.e. too hot, noises, light sleep) and when you woke up.
‘This will allow you to see exactly where your sleep problems lie and makes it a lot easier than trying to remember how well you slept a month before!’
Have a no caffeine after 3pm rule
No tea, no coffee, no caffeinated fizzy drinks after 3pm, no matter how tired you feel. These will all mess with your body’s natural sleep cycle.
‘Depending on how your body breaks down and reacts to caffeine, it can remain in the body for up to 6-8 hours, meaning its effect lasts longer than you may initially perceive,’ Dr Verena explains.
‘As caffeine effectively blocks receptors in your brain signalling your ’desire for sleep’, you won’t feel the underlying urge to sleep even though your body needs it.’
Get warm and cosy before bed
Go on, make a mug of warm milk (sprinkle some nutmeg and cinnamon in there if you’re feeling fancy), pop on your pyjamas, and bundle up in a blanket.
Dr Verena says: ‘To fall into a deep, intense, and quality sleep, your core body temperature needs to decrease.
‘It may sound counterintuitive but wrapping up warm as part of your bedtime routine is the best way to help lower your body temperature.
‘Cuddling into your sheets dilates your blood vessels, helping the body to release residual body temperature.’
Get tech out of your bedroom
Shockingly enough, continuing to scroll through Twitter in the early hours won’t help you drift off.
Blue light coupled with the mental stimulation of using your phone or laptop can take your sleep completely off track. The solution is simple: keep your phone away from your sleeping space and set a tech curfew.
Try reading a book or magazine before bed and avoid screens for an hour or so before your bedtime.
If you have persistent sleep issues, there’s rarely an instant fix. Take things slow, try not to worry too much, and give yourself the time you need to remedy issues sleeping.
‘Everyone’s sleep needs are different,’ says Verena. ‘While there is advice and guidelines around how much sleep we should be getting and how we should be getting it, optimum sleep changes from person to person.
‘So it’s not surprising that advice on how to combat sleep problems is also not a one-size-fits-all approach.
‘While a miracle cure for all sleep issues right now is nothing but a pipe dream, there are a number of things you can do to combat sleep problems.
‘The issue is that people are not persistent enough with these behaviours for long enough to see their impact. Make sure these form the basis of your routine.
‘My most important piece of advice would be to be realistic and patient with addressing any sleep issue.
‘Changing and improving the patterns and quality of our sleep takes persistence and sometimes, a lot of trial and error. Don’t expect results right away- and trust the process.
‘If you’re still suffering with chronic sleep problems, your GP is the best port of call to identify how best to support what could be a more significant underlying issue or sleep disorder.’
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