My five tips to help improve your sleep
By Dr Michael Mosley
If you struggle with sleep, you're not alone. A third of us find it difficult to fall or stay asleep; myself included.
So this is where my new Radio 4 podcast series Sleep Well comes in. The idea is that you listen to it at bedtime – or any time you want to really unwind. In each episode I explore a simple, scientifically-proven technique to help you drift off, with my (hopefully) soothing voice set to soundscapes designed to help you relax.
In each episode you not only hear from me but also from a reassuring expert voice who helps me go on an audio deep-dive inside the body, where we'll encounter remarkable sleep-related mechanisms at work.
1. Slow your breath
We start with a simple but incredibly powerful way of relaxing – taking slow, deep breaths.
I recommend belly breathing. It's a great way to calm things right down if you're struggling to get to sleep.
It works by tapping into a tiny cluster of cells deep in the brain – collectively called the locus coeruleus. Despite its tiny size, the locus coeruleus has a striking influence on our entire brain function. If sleep isn't coming and your mind is racing, it's the locus coeruleus that's active – spraying a hormone called noradrenaline (the wake-up chemical) all around the brain.
Prof Ian Robertson from Trinity College Dublin and his team discovered that you can tap into this system and slow the firing of the locus coeruleus, just by slowing your breath.
As well as 4-2-4 (breathe in to a count of four, hold for two and breathe out to four), I recommend you try belly breathing. Put one hand on your chest, and the other just below the rib cage. As you breathe in you should feel the hand on the belly rise, while the hand on your chest remains relatively still. It's a great way to calm things right down if you're struggling to get to sleep, or have woken up with your mind racing in the middle of the night.
Keep reading for more top tips for a restful night's sleep.
Learn how to use your breath to help you sleep better
How slowing your breath can help usher in sleep
Dr Michael Mosley and Prof Ian Roberston explain this powerful relaxation technique.
2. Use the morning light
One of the best bits of advice I had when I was struggling with chronic insomnia was to get up at the same time each day and head outside into the morning light. Researchers have found that the time you get up in the morning has a greater influence on our body clock than the time you go to bed. A big part of this is due to the effects of daylight.
If sleep isn't coming, get up!
When light hits the eye, it excites receptors at the back of the eye that detect light and send signals to a region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, your "master" body clock. A burst of morning light halts the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, and signals to the body that the day has begun.
A morning signal will kick-start a cascade of events so that around twelve hours later, melatonin starts to rise, preparing your body for a deep rest.
Listen: Use the Morning Light
3. Enjoy your bed
It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best thing you can do if sleep isn't coming, is to get up! It's part of something called stimulus control, and studies have consistently shown that doing this can reduce insomnia and that the effects are long-lasting.
The goal is to avoid time spent lying there awake and "not-sleeping" – so your brain reassociates the bed as a place of sleep. By getting up when you're not drifting off, and going to bed only when you are feeling truly sleepy, the negative association can be broken.
Dr Colleen Carney, who I hear from in my Sleep Well podcast, is one of the leading voices on something called stimulus control therapy. This technique has five main steps, which I explore in more detail in my Enjoy Your Bed episode. And if you follow these properly – and I have found this for myself – you can get powerful results.
4. Warm up to cool down
A warm bath or shower before bed really can really help you to fall asleep faster. A recent round-up of 13 studies found those who had a hot bath before bed fell asleep 36% quicker, had a better quality of sleep and felt more rested the next day.
By warming parts of your body, especially your hands and feet, special blood vessels that radiate heat start to dilate. This pushes more of your blood to the skin's surface, which helps speed up heat loss, so that your core temperature drops – and this acts as a signal for sleep.
With energy costs rising, you will be pleased to hear you don't have to have a hot bath or shower to benefit from this effect! Anna Wirz-Justice, from the University of Basel, advises that anything that kick starts that initial blood flow to the hands and feet can act as a signal for sleep. So you can also try a hot water bottle or bed socks, and make sure you don't have more covers on the bed than you need for the night ahead.
Hear how your body temperature affects how quickly you fall aleep
5. Listen to your body
We're told that eight hours is an ideal target for a good night's sleep. But trying to hit this goal can be stressful and unhelpful. Adults tend to need around seven to nine hours a night, but that's an average. Some people do perfectly well with less, and some might need a bit more. It also changes through our lifetimes.
"If you find yourself dozing off while doing activities in the day then it may mean you need a bit more sleep!"
The eight-hour idea is relatively new. In pre-industrial times, it was common to go to bed a few hours after dusk, then wake up and be active – anything from chatting with neighbours to studying, to having sex – and then go back to bed for a second sleep. I find this reassuring, and now if I wake up in the middle of the night for a bit, maybe it's not all that bad.
Prof Nicole Tang from the University of Warwick advises that you stop looking at clocks at night and worrying about how much sleep you're getting. Your body will keep you in the loop. If you find yourself dozing off while doing activities in the day then it may mean you need a bit more sleep!