How to....Lifestyle

How to…sleep

thumb_41387_story_largeI don’t get enough sleep. I don’t think I ever get enough sleep. In fact, if you’d asked me this morning, I’d have told you that if you gave me the chance I’d crawl back into bed and sleep all day..and then some. And, I’m not alone. These days it seems that no-one is getting enough sleep. More often than not the answer to “How are you?” is not ‘great’, ‘good’, ‘really well’, but ‘I’m tired’. It’s an incredibly boring answer –  and I’m as guilty as the next person of saying it. To paraphrase that old saying, I’m tired of feeling tired. I really am.

To make matters worse, it’s not just feeling tired that’s the result of poor sleep. Oh no, you can put on weight also. According to a recent study by the Sleep and Chronobiology Lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, adults with chronic sleep problems are susceptible to weight gain. Which of course, makes sense. When I’m tired I reach for the chocolate/stodge/carbs. I’m practically mainlining sugar to get through the day. Getting fat and feeling tired, great combination, eh?

Obviously, if you’ve recently experienced a break-up or a bereavement or are going through another similarly stressful time, your sleep will be disrupted – and will hopefully come back. Similarly, if you have young children, the amount you sleep isn’t always in your control. Night wakings and early mornings are par for the course, but that too is temporary, that’s not really the problem. The problem is when nothing and no-one is stopping you sleep but yourself. I go to bed at a reasonable hour (falling asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow), wake up a little too early for my liking (but nothing too hideous) and my children (I’m jinxing myself by saying this) don’t often wake in the night. So why do I find myself tossing and turning in the early hours and wondering why the hell I can’t sleep?

I don’t know and neither does my friend Anna, “interrupted sleep is tricky but that’s a part of having children. What I find frustrating is not being able to get back to sleep,” she says with an all too familiar weary sigh.

“I’m not even going to bother you with how little I sleep,” adds Susie, who is such an insomniac that she’s often up cleaning the kitchen at four in the morning.

And then there’s Lucy, another fellow sufferer. “I lie there, furiously thinking ‘Go to sleep! The children are asleep! This is your chance! You’re so tired – what are you waiting for? GO TO SLEEP!’ and getting more and more frustrated that I can’t.”

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So many women, and women (like me) who previously could have won medals for sleeping, seem to be suffering restless nights and mind-numbing tiredness the next day. So what’s the answer? Is there actually an answer? Trying not to stress about it too much obviously helps (although that’s easier said than done). As Lucy says, “when I’m lying there I try to remember what my mother says: If you can’t sleep, rest is the next best thing.” It’s a good point. Being stressed about sleep isn’t going to help you sleep. But what else?

Anna, who has never been a good sleeper and as a teenager, “would spend hours counting sheep and listening to tapes in the hope I’d drop off,” says that for her, “earplugs, lavender oil, night rescue remedy and a hot bath all help.” And like me, if she has too many glasses of wine, she finds it harder to sleep.

Lucy says that “mostly giving up caffeine a few years ago had a huge impact on my nighttime sleep. I never drink caffeine after lunch, and try to stick to only one cup in the morning. Honestly, it makes such a difference. I even drink decaf tea.”

She also says that, “a neck pillow really changed my life,” adding that “in my eternal quest for the perfect pillow, I hadn’t realised that you’re meant to put the bigger bit under your neck – I’d always thought it was the other way round!

The last piece of advice from a friend comes from Layo who says that she always sleeps better with fresh bed linen. I agree. There’s something about sinking into a freshly made bed that just feels right, and I would also add open windows, fresh air, a cool night-time temperature (by a fan if you need one) and a glass of water by the bed to my sleep equation. Also accept that the fact that you’ve had a bad night’s sleep and don’t expect the next night to be the same. If you start worrying about not being able to sleep (before you’ve even tried) and dreading to go to bed (something, thankfully, I’ve never done – I love bed), then you’re only setting yourself up for trouble. But what do the experts advise? As I’ve always felt that if you get enough sleep then you can handle anything, I turned to Lisa Artis of the Sleep Council in my quest for answers. Here’s her advice…

How can people ensure that they get a good night’s sleep?

The best routine is the three Rs – routine, relaxation and the right bed! Routines that are associated with sleep signal the brain that it’s time to wind down – think a warm bath, having a milky drink, reading a book or listening to soothing music. Try to keep similar hours too. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time, all the time, will programme your body to sleep better.

Also make sure that your sleeping environment is restful. Your bedroom should be kept for rest and sleep and it should be neither too hot, nor too cold; and as quiet and dark as possible. Make sure the room is gadget free and your bed is comfortable. It’s difficult to get deep, restful sleep on one that’s too soft, too hard, too small or too old.

Is there such a thing as going to bed too early? Can this affect the quality of your sleep?

If you need to sleep, you should. And it’s not uncommon after one or two bad nights’ sleep or a run of late nights that there is need to retreat to the bedroom earlier than planned. This shouldn’t affect the quality of your sleep. However regularly going to bed early may result in earlier wake up times.

Is there a standard amount of sleep that people should get every night?

There’s no magic number for sleep but most experts believe that the majority of adults require somewhere between six and nine hours in order to feel refreshed and to function well both mentally and physically. While everyone’s requirements are different (some of us cope far better on less than others), there is a fairly general consensus that around seven to nine hours is the average. If you’re getting a little less, there’s probably no need to worry about it, but a lot less could lead to problems. Research  has found that those who frequently get fewer than six hours a night are at significantly increased risk of stroke and heart disease, with evidence that not sleeping enough may ramp up the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, releasing hormones that speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure. Not only are there increased health risks with routinely sleeping less than six hours but it aloso impacts on attention, concentration and memory.

Can daytime cat naps help people improve their sleep at night?

Planned daytime naps improve alertness without necessarily affecting nocturnal sleep. Try to limit naps to around 20 minutes – any longer and they may leave you groggy and interfere with night time sleep. However, if you experience insomnia or poor sleep quality at night, napping might make these problems worse.

 

And, a final word from me. If you are going through a series of sleepless nights (for no explained reason) then try and remember that these, like everything, will pass. And hopefully, sooner than you think sleep will once again be your friend.

Image: Masterfile

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