Most know the feeling all too well. A stressful day, followed by a busy night, followed by little-to-no sleep. Tired of tossing and turning? The truth is, what's keeping you awake might well be the thought of not being able to sleep itself. There's even a name for this thought cycle - orthosomnia - and it is extremely common. So how do we beat the bedtime blues? We asked GP Dr Zoe Schaedel from the Good Sleep Clinic and Stephanie Romiszewski, consultant physiologist and founder of Sleepyhead Clinic for their tips.
What is The Optimum Amount of Sleep?
'How much sleep we need varies a lot between people, but most healthy adults need between 7 and 9 hours to feel rested, and for optimal health' says Dr Schaedel. 'The amount of sleep we need also varies across our life span, with children and teenagers requiring more sleep, and older people often a little less'.
What Are The Most Common Causes Of Broken Sleep?
If you go to bed tired, but struggle to stay asleep throughout the night, the causes could be mental or physical. 'There is a difference between triggered sleep issues and perpetuating factors', explains Romiszewski. 'Triggers can be stress, anxiety, and everyday problems that we might be struggling to deal with. It could even be physical changes like the menopause, new medication, or illness. But, There is a lot of scaremongering that if you don’t get six hours of sleep something terrible is going to happen to you, and actually, it’s not that reactive. If you aren’t actively restricting yourself, and most of us aren’t, our bodies are just responding to external variables, and that is entirely normal.'
'What we tend to do is worry about the narrative, and then change our behaviour in the best way we logically can. For example, if we know we have an early start we go to bed earlier, or lie in to recover missed sleep, but this moves us further away from our normal sleep routine, and that change is the problem and can lead to a chronic sleep issue. Our brain is being told that our sleep-wake cycle is not the same, and so makes changes to accomodate.'
'During the pandemic in particular, we spent more time inside and on screens without the same regimented sleep and wake cycle because we could work from home and it made sense that we started to have some sleep issues.'
'Some may have noticed that now, thanks to the easing of restrictions, they are getting back into a routine, and their sleep patterns are evening out accordingly.'
Why Is Sleep Important And What Does It Do?
'We all know how much better we feel once we’ve had a good nights sleep and conversely how groggy we can feel after a bad night,' says Romiszewski. 'When we sleep we are undergoing muscle repair, cell restoration, an increase in growth hormones, emotional processing, memory consolidation, and everything we need to do to put the day to rest and be prepared for the next one. It is important for our mind and body and we simply cannot function without the period of rest on a regular basis, to allow our body to do all of the physiological processes.'
But, it's important to remember, there's no such thing as a 'good sleeper' and expecting to get an unbroken eight hours a night might be causing you even more stress.
'The way we look at sleep needs to change, because we can blame it for a lot,' says Romiszewski, 'we think that a "good sleeper" is someone who sleeps easily all of the time and it's not. Even the worst insomniac is still functions, and many people I treat lead great lives, and are only hindered by this one aspect. Maybe if our attitudes to sleep did change a little, and we cut ourselves some slack, we might encounter fewer of these sleep issues in the first place.'
How To Get A Better Night's Sleep
1. Lights Off, Phones Off
'We need to spend less time on our phones and more time connecting to the here and now,' emphasises Romiszewski, 'Often we end up taking everything from the day into the evening, and one way to reduce this is to stop taking your phone to bed with you. It has even taken me as a sleep expert my entire life to learn to leave my phone outside of the bedroom. Your body can start producing daytime hormones and chemicals if it thinks you want to be awake and looking at your phone. And exposure to light in the middle of the night reduces melatonin which is our sleepy hormone".
2. Establish Routine
'Be sure to wind down before bed' suggests Dr Schaedel. 'We are so busy in our evenings, rushing around, finishing up tasks, work emails, planning for the next day. It is really hard to go from this straight to sleep. We need a transition time - at least 30 minutes with less stimulating activity, put screens away, do something relaxing, leave the day behind you. This may include a hot bath or shower - which has the additional benefit of dropping your core body temperature - which helps with sleep onset'.
Winding down is an effective way to let your body know it's changing gears, unlike simply getting into bed earlier warns Romiszewski. 'You cannot actually force your brain to sleep. You’re better off giving yourself permission to go to bed when you’re actually sleepy rather than when you’re not tired. Getting into bed earlier might induce sleepiness, but won’t support an entire night. Your brain has a specific sleep-wake schedule for you and your body and doesn’t understand moving away from that. The answer is to wake up at the same time every day because timing has such an effect on our bodies. Even better still, if you can add light exposure and movement to your waking and morning routine, you will start to notice that your brain starts to really work like clockwork, and you will start to feel more refreshed and awake.'
3. Struggling to Fall Asleep? Leave The Bedroom
'Given the day you’ve had and the physiological process and changes involved, it makes sense that waking up in the night might happen. If you do find yourself awake, I would suggest that you make peace with it. Think "okay, my brain doesn’t necessarily want to sleep right now, I might not have built up a particularly strong sleep drive today, or something about today was different” and then leave the bedroom. You’re not supposed to be in there when you're awake and actively thinking, so do something chilled and relaxing, have some "me time" until you feel sleepy enough to go back to bed, but the worst thing to do is lie in, go to bed earlier, or be anxious.'
'Use the sleepiness that you know you’ll be probably incur the next day, and offset it with exercise or light exposure that reduces fatigue. And the next night be sure to wind down properly and when you feel tired, go to bed and know your brain will sort it out. It is fantastic for increasing certain sleep stages if you’re missing them, but constantly trying to catch up and compensate ourselves is difficult for our brains, given the inherent way that your brain actually makes you sleep. Without spending more time awake and building that drive to sleep, we wouldn’t be able to rest, so we need to stop being afraid of sleepiness as we need it to a degree.'
4. Get Active
'Try not to move away from your routines. We know the feeling of not going to the gym or seeing our friends because we don’t feel like it, but inevitable when you do those activities you feel better. These good quality, day time activities mean getting outside, getting light exposure, and this will make you feel so much better, if you avoid it, you end up reinforcing the negative experience of what happened to you in the night and the next night you might sleep even worse. It’s really important to try and maintain your lifestyle as much as you can because it’s good for regulating your sleep-wake cycle.'