Ever find yourself saying, ‘You snooze, you lose’? Well, you might want to forget that phrase, because it turns out that sleeping really does = winning. Yet according to a report by The Sleep Council, the average Brit now gets just six hours and 35 minutes’ kip a night… and more than a quarter of us are sleeping poorly on a regular basis.
This isn’t just supersizing the bags under our eyes, either: experts are uncovering more and more ways it can be detrimental to our health. In fact, lack of sleep can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, aka our biological body clock. It may also increase our risk of disease, and has been linked to diabetes, obesity and even cancer.
Of course, if you’re someone who struggles to catch the express train to the land of Nod, knowing all of this probably won’t make things any easier (and it might just add to your worries). So we’ve identified five major barriers to slumber, plus ways to tackle them. Slide under your duvet and read on…
You struggle to get restful shut-eye – maybe you find it hard to fall asleep and wake intermittently during the night. Or, you can get to sleep OK, but then are up in the small hours worrying about everything from work to why you can’t get back to sleep. (*punches pillow*)
If your ‘sleep hygiene’ is on point (scroll down to see box below) but you still battle to nod off, try to stay awake. Although it seems counter-productive, Jason Ellis, professor in psychology at Northumbria University and director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, says that when we can’t snooze, we tend to try too hard. And this can make us angry, frustrated and miserable.
‘If you ask anyone who sleeps normally, they’ll say they don’t even try and that it just happens,’ explains Professor Ellis. ‘So by reducing the effort, you’ll be more likely to succeed. In fact, this has been developed into a cognitive technique called paradoxical intention treatment.’ He adds that a sleep diary can help to identify patterns. Say you wake up every morning at 3.45am. ‘This might indicate there’s something rousing you, such as the sound of a neighbour coming home from work, or even the heating clanking. Try to record what happens at that time.
But what if it’s whirring thoughts that stop sleep in its tracks? Professor Ellis suggests mindfulness meditation, as it can allow you to acknowledge thoughts and emotions. We recommend downloading the Headspace app, which has a free trial for beginners. Familiarise yourself with the app during the day, then use the techniques at night. Or try this clever ‘thought-blocking’ trick recommended by Alison Gardiner, CEO and founder of Sleepstation**. ‘If you use your cognitive function for one thing, it will block other thoughts, so repeat the word “the” – mouth it, don’t say it – to block the anxious thoughts and help you drift off.
If nothing’s working, don’t just lie there clock-watching and becoming wound up. ‘Get out of bed and do something relaxing, such as reading a book or listening to soothing music,’ says Professor Ellis. And chill.
"A 10-20 minute power nap is the optimum to feel refreshed"
Right in the middle of a lovely dream about Chris Hemsworth, you hear, ‘Muuummmm!’ Sigh.
Pre-kids, you could have won awards for excellence in sleeping. But thanks to your offspring, you and the land of Nod are barely on, well, nodding terms. Sleep practitioner James Wilson (aka The Sleep Geek†) advises taking a closer look at what could be interrupting their sleep. ‘Are they going to bed too early… or too late? Is their bedroom a calm space?’
James suggests that parents lie on their child’s bed and look at the room through their eyes. ‘For instance, a poster of their favourite cartoon character could look harmless during the day but might appear sinister at night. Your child needs to feel secure, so place pictures of the family around their bed, and, if they’re quite young, you could give them something that smells of you, such as a T-shirt.’
To bolster that security, James also recommends taking photos of them while they’re asleep (not as weird as it sounds!). ‘If your child says they feel scared at night, you could reply: “But I check on you to make sure that you’re OK. I’ll take pictures on my phone tonight when you’re asleep, so I can show you”.
Knackered working parent? Napping is the key. ‘Find a quiet meeting room in the office at lunchtime. Or, if you drive to work, have a lie down in your car,’ says Professor Ellis. But remember, a 10-20 minute power nap is the optimum if you need to get back to business – you’re more likely to feel refreshed and alert, rather than groggy.
Put simply: your partner’s nocturnal noises Drive. You. Bonkers.
Snoring can have various causes, and they need to be addressed. Common factors include being overweight, smoking, drinking too much alcohol and, of course, sleeping on your back. If your other half’s a ‘chronic snorer’, encourage them to see their GP to rule out sleep apnoea (a disorder that causes people to stop breathing for short periods while they slumber). If left untreated, sleep apnoea is associated with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
Professor Ellis recommends white noise to help mask those background sounds (aka‘the snorchestra’) keeping you awake. You can download white noise apps on your phone – but turn your mobile face down to stop the light disturbing you; or you could use an electric fan. Alison suggests a noise-desensitisation technique that’s used in behavioural therapy. ‘Record the snoring, then listen to it during the day, when you’re not feeling anxious about it,’ she explains. ‘The theory is that if you hear something often enough, you won’t notice it as much.’ Hmm, quirky – but it’s worth a go!
If your partner’s always rolling onto their back, try what Professor Ellis calls ‘positional therapy’. Place a golf or tennis ball in the front pocket of their pyjama top, and get them to wear it backwards – the discomfort will force them to turn over. Trust us, they’ll prefer this to you shoving them during the night!
Your weekends are all late nights and long lie-ins. But come Sunday night, you can’t sleep – so every Monday feels like you’ve just flown long haul.
Consistency is key when it comes to slumber, so try to stick to regular sleep/wake times. ‘If you binge-sleep at weekends, it messes up your circadian rhythm,’ warns Professor Ellis. ‘It’s no wonder that by Sunday night your body clock doesn’t know where it’s at!’
And don’t underestimate social jet lag’s effects. Research suggests it’s not just associated with increased fatigue, but also poorer health and worse mood. But surely, if you’ve been out on Saturday night it’s OK to sleep a bit later? Good news: Professor Ellis agrees. Bad news: make it a micro lie-in. ‘I’d say an hour later than normal is the benchmark, so you don’t disrupt your circadian rhythm too much.’
Finally, remember, it’s quality, not quantity, that really counts, so don’t panic if you can’t always get a full eight hours. ‘We tend to judge sleep on how many hours we get, because that’s easily measurable,’ says James. ‘But eight hours of light sleep is not as good as six hours of deeper, quality sleep.’ Time to stop clock-watching…
"If you binge-sleep at weekends… by Sunday night your body clock doesn’t know where it’s at"
Nix the caffeine – and remember that it’s found in certain soft drinks and chocolate, as well s coffee and tea.
Stop drinking alcohol. Booze may make it easier for you to fall asleep, but it can lead to fragmented slumber and/or early waking.
Avoid looking at bright screens. Yes, step away from that phone/tablet/laptop, as they may affect your circadian rhythm.
Regular exercise is beneficial, but lay off the strenuous type too close to sleep-time – the post-workout high can stop you nodding off.
• Sort your environment. Your bedroom should be dark, cool enough that you need bedding for warmth, quiet and comfortable. Also, keep this room purely for sleeping and sex.
• Have a ritual. Unwinding before bed helps relax your body and mind. Regular habits – cleaning your teeth, reading a book – are important, as they give your body the signal it’s time to sleep.
• Be regular. Keep a consistent sleeping pattern – yes, even at the weekends.
• Take a bath or shower. Doing this an hour or so before you turn in raises your body temperature – and the cooling-off period that follows mimics the natural drop in body temperature that happens at night, helping to indicate it’s time for sleep.
• Understand your personal sleep needs. Some people require less than others – if you don’t feel tired during the day, you’re probably getting enough.