Sleep is as vital to good health as eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
In fact, it is said we could survive for three times as long without food as we could without sleep and we know those who are routinely sleep deprived tend to suffer with more illness and infection.
Problem is, many of us aren’t getting enough.
Being constantly reminded that we should get eight hours a night or we could get ill, suffer cognitive decline or die prematurely probably doesn’t help matters either.
It’s certainly not much of a comfort if you have a new baby, work night shifts or are menopausal – when you know your sleep is likely to be disrupted.
Besides, some people seem perfectly able to thrive on six hours or less.
We all experience sleep differently and this may, in part, have been shaped by our childhood experiences of it.
At the end of the day (quite literally) what helps one person sleep better may not help another and vice versa.
That gets particularly shaken up during a clock change – as happened yesterday in the US and last Sunday in the UK.
Here’s what could help you re-set it and sleep better generally.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk recently spoke about his 120 hour working weeks – a pattern that clearly doesn’t leave many hours in the day left for sleep.
When he does get his head down it is in a sleeping bag in his office.
Now, a tech billionaire’s brain might be wired differently to most of ours but in our 24/7 culture, and when many of us feel slightly insecure at work, we can all feel the pressure to be constantly ‘up’.
Many a high profile person including Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump have survived on four or five hours a night but doing this long-term is implicated in a range of illnesses both physical and mental.
It’s not hard to prove how important sleep is and sleep experts say the most crucial thing we can do to improve it is to get into the habit of going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day in order to establish your personal sleep-wake cycle. If it helps, set an alarm in the evening to remind you to wind down.
When this goes off, prime yourself for rest with a night-time sleep-enhancing ritual or what some are now calling ‘clean sleeping’ – basically changing ‘bad’ habits to encourage good sleep.
There have been significant developments in our understanding between good sleep and the health of our gut flora or microbiome.
The gut is often referred to as the second brain – and it is now known the intestinal microbiome produces and releases many of the same sleep-enhancing neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, GABA and melatonin.
Like sleep, it seems our microbiome is also regulated by our circadian rhythms or sleep-wake cycle and there is increasing evidence to suggest unhealthy gut microbiome is linked to poor sleep and even cognitive decline.
How do you increase your beneficial gut bacteria?
Eat a diverse range of foods to create a diverse microbiota; avoid a highly processed diet; eat a range of vitamin-rich plant-based foods and probiotic sources including natural live yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir (a fermented yogurt drink) or try a supplement.
Almost everyone sleeps better after a bath.
Not only is wallowing in water relaxing it will cause your core body temperature to fall a few degrees triggering drowsiness.
Add muscle-relaxing Epsom salts or magnesium flakes to it and you increase the soporific effect further.
Certain scents like lavender and chamomile activate alpha wave activity in the brain to help encourage relaxation – so add these to your bath for a double sleep-inducing whammy.
Try Puressentiel Rest & Relax Bath-Shower (available from Amazon) which includes lavender and Roman Chamomile.
There is increasing scientific research to suggest mindfulness can help rein in any sleep-sabotaging thoughts by training your brain to move your thinking from worrying to a more relaxed, laid-back state.
Studies showing its beneficial effects on sleep include a Harvard trial involving the over 60s (the group most likely to experience sleep disturbances) which showed those who did mindfulness meditation found it easier to get to sleep and stay asleep.
Try Calm – meditation and relaxation incorporating the 7 steps of calm (free for iPhone and iPad users) and Headspace, founded by a former Buddhist monk.
In a recent interview, TV chef Nigella Lawson talked about how she often goes to bed at around 7.30 and sleeps for a couple of hours, gets up and potters around, sometimes does some work and then sleeps again for another few hours.
When the holy grail of sleep appears to be seven hours of unbroken sleep, surely this is a recipe for disaster? Apparently not.
She certainly looks good on it and experts say historically we used to sleep in short bursts like this – known as a biphasic sleep pattern – turning in early, then getting up and doing chores etc before going back to sleep for another four or so hours.
It might not work for everyone but if you struggle to get an uninterrupted seven hours this could just be the answer for you.
How well you sleep is very much connected to the light you are getting.
Put simply light signals wakefulness and alertness; lights off and darkness signals sleep.
The hormone melatonin which helps regulate your sleep and wake cycles is controlled by light exposure so too much light gets in the way of it doing its job.
This is why it is so important to keep the lights dim before bed and your bedroom dark.
Similarly, avoid high-intensity blue light (from phones, tablets and laptops) for at least an hour (ideally two) before bed which can disrupt your slow wave and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) dream sleep and keep these devices out of your bedroom.
Another important factor is the pattern of your exposure to light – so if you regularly change the time you ‘see’ the light by getting up at different times you throw your internal body clock out of sync which is why sticking to a routine is key.
As the clocks go back, try to get up as close to the time you have been doing and get out into natural morning light to help establish a healthy sleep-wake routine.
There are a range of helpful herbal remedies to help the body and brain relax including valerian.
One 2006 study published in The American Journal of Medicine found this traditional herbal remedy improved sleep quality by 80 percent compared to a placebo.
Another of its benefits is that it doesn’t leave you with any sort of groggy or ‘hungover’ feeling as some other sleep remedies do.
Try Healthspan Valerian Sleep Aid. Another traditional herbal remedy used for centuries is hops. You can find this mixed with valerian in tincture form in A.Vogel’s Dormeasan Valerian-Hops Oral drops. Take it 30 minutes before bed.
When you eat can be as crucial for getting a good night’s rest as what you eat.
Some people avoid eating after 6pm saying it disrupts their slumber, others can’t sleep without a light snack before bed. Do what works for you.
As a rule avoid anything too fatty or large meals close to bedtime and choose foods and drinks which are more likely to induce sleep like those containing the amino acid tryptophan – found in chicken and turkey, peanuts, lettuce, walnuts and beans – which is converted to serotonin when it reaches the brain.
At night serotonin then converts to melatonin, the hormone that induces drowsiness and sleep.
There is also new research from the University of Colorado to suggest getting more prebiotic fibre in your diet can help you to more restorative sleep.
Head of Nutrition for Healthspan, Rob Hobson says important prebiotic food sources include chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, leeks and raw garlic.
Prebiotic supplements (including inulin) may also help.
A wine or two in the evening tends to be how many of us wind down at the end of the day but bear in mind that a few hours after drinking, alcohol levels in your blood start to drop which signals your body to ‘wake up’.
It takes around an hour to metabolize one drink so if you have a couple of glasses finish your last one at least two hours before you turn in.
And go easy on the caffeine (in coffee, tea, energy drinks or chocolate).
Again, we all have different levels of tolerance to it but if you are sensitive to its effects avoid it after 3pm and go for soothing (caffeine free) herbal teas like camomile, valerian and passionflower instead.
Alternatively have a milky drink or try tart cherry juice which is naturally rich in melatonin, the hormone which helps regulate the body’s natural sleep cycle.
A 2013 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found 83 percent of people said exercise helped them sleep better.
For the ones who didn’t this was possibly due to over-exercising.
If you have done a particularly grueling workout the stress hormones released by your body – like adrenaline and cortisol – can leave you so fired up you then find it difficult to wind down and nod off.
So ideally, exercise at least three to four hours before you turn in and if possible keep more hard-going exercise for mornings or no later than early afternoon if they do get in the way of you sleeping.
Alternatively, if it’s close to your bedtime go for more low impact activities like walking or yoga (the breathing exercises should also help).