28 September 2018

How to get a better night’s sleep according to an expert

Sleep is something we all take for granted until we can’t get any. Everyone experiences a bout of insomnia at least once, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. But in between trying ‘miracle’ sleep-inducing products and having friends and family urging you to try what worked for them, you soon start to realise that remedies for sleep are not one-size-fits-all.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t scientifically backed up methods to send you to the land of nod, and there’s also a wealth of experienced sleep professionals out there that can help.

Marian Pearson is a qualified sleep counsellor for Norfolk-based sleep consultancy Sleep East, who are dedicated to helping families get the shut-eye they need. We asked Marian for her specialist tips and advice for getting a better night’s sleep.

Become a sleep detective

“There is a pervasive urban myth that if you have insomnia it is somehow your fault and that if you would only, leave your phone in another room, spray your pillow with ‘sleep mist’, eat a banana at bedtime, or whatever the latest theory is then you would be able to sleep as well as anyone else,” says Marian.

Marian believes getting a good night’s sleep relies on you being able to identify what causes your insomnia in the first place. “Everything that we do during the day has the potential to affect our sleep. Add to this the recognition that we are all different, and it becomes easy to see that there is not likely to be a panacea for insomnia that will work quickly for everyone.

“If we want to make permanent and meaningful changes then we need to unpick the muddle of causal factors and make changes bit by bit to improve our personal situations. What you have to do is put on your metaphorical detective’s hat and work out what is happening in your case.”

Marian recommends keeping a diary, and not just for how much you slept the night before and how quickly you dropped off. “Also look at your diet, exercise, routine, self-care, anxiety and so on that happens during the day. There are loads of templates for sleep diaries on the internet that can help you to find out more about what is going on for you personally.” The NHS has a great sleep diary template which you can find here.

Think about your sleep environment

You also need to consider your environment, says Marian, particularly when it comes to light. “We are all sensory creatures and we need to be comfortable; warm and not too hot, fed and not too full, not distracted by unpleasant odours or intrusive sound, tucked in cosily or covered by light bedding according to our preferences, in the dark or with some lighting and so on.

“It is a good idea to think about all the senses when planning how to make your bedroom as appropriate for sleep as you possibly can. Consider whether your mattress and pillows are comfortable, the right height and not too old.”

Although we are all unique when it comes to our sleep preferences, Marian says there are some things we can try that have been known to help. “The first is to have a good think about light. This is because of the effect of light on our sleep hormones. More and more people are aware that melatonin is released at the end of the day and it helps us to settle to sleep. Melatonin works in partnership with cortisol which is the hormone that gives us the oomph to cope with the challenges of the day, even if we haven’t had enough sleep. It is also released in response to anxiety and this can keep us awake in the night. Cortisol is released in response to blue light and it suppresses melatonin.

“If you want to set your body clock so that you are awake during the day and sleeping well at night you need to be sure that you get enough daylight, especially in the morning when there is most blue light in daylight. So start the day early and get outside when you can. If you’re older, ensure you follow the recommendations of health practitioners, but bear in mind also the need to expose yourself to blue light during the day.

“At night think about keeping lighting bright until about an hour or so before you want to go to bed and then dimming the lights to reduce cortisol and allow melatonin release to prepare you for sleep. Remember that screens also tend to emit blue light, so turn off the TV and give yourself a tech-free hour before bed.”

Create a calming bedtime routine

As well as staying off your tech devices before bed, it’s important that you also establish a calming a bedtime routine, says Marian: “The last hour before you sleep should be relaxing. Chat with the people you live with, read, do puzzles, handcrafts and gentle activities that you enjoy, listen to relaxing music, radio or recorded stories. Maybe have a little snack if it is your habit to eat early, but don't go to bed within two to three hours of a big heavy meal. You don't want to be kept awake by hunger, or by feeling too full.

“Keep vigorous exercise well away from bedtime. Remember caffeine continues to affect sleep for at least 6 hours so keep tea, coffee and caffeinated sodas for the early part of the day. A warm bath is a good idea; too hot or too cold may be too stimulating, however. Showers also may be better for your sleep if taken earlier in the day. You’ll also want to keep the lights dim at this time. Often bathrooms are brilliantly lit with bluish lights and this could sabotage your sleep potential. Once you’re finally settled in bed, you could also try progressive muscle relaxation techniques, like Yoga Nidra.”

If you wake in the night

Even after carrying out a relaxing bedtime routine, you may still find yourself waking up in the night or struggling to fall asleep. Marian has some advice for this too: “If it takes a long time to settle, more than half an hour, then it may well be better to get up than to lie there fretting about not being asleep because that will cause cortisol release and inhibit the effects of melatonin.

“If all your worries rush into your head at this time, it is a good idea to write them down so that you remember to take steps to deal with them during the day, so they don't pop up again the next night and continue to keep you awake. Read for 20 mins or listen to relaxing music, perhaps make a warm drink (without caffeine of course!) and then go back to bed and try again.”

Seeking help

Getting a good night’s sleep really is a cycle. When we sleep well, we have a better day, which can help us have a better night’s sleep and so on. It’s important not to give up hope when you’re suffering from lack of sleep, as there are people out there that can help. Marian recommends seeking help from a professional if you find your insomnia isn’t lifting or getting worse: “The longer it has been going on, the more complex the causes are likely to be so getting help from a sleep counsellor can speed things up a bit, as they have the expertise to guide you towards the issues that are most likely to be contributing to your insomnia.

“I wish I could recommend a magic, instant cure for insomnia, but of course it is not that simple.  However, with a little knowledge of how sleep works, it is possible to unravel the causes bit by bit and move towards a good night’s sleep. It’s really worth it, as when you’re well rested you’re more able to enjoy and make the most of your day.”

For further tips and advice for older people and those with mobility issues, make sure to take a look at our other helpful articles and visit our advice page to help you on finding the perfect stairlift.