Looking back, I wasn’t always a poor sleeper. As a teenager, I could sleep anytime and anywhere.
I once slept in a photo booth after missing the last train home and, I have to confess, I don’t remember much about the night I slept curled up in a telephone kiosk.
Sleep came naturally to me and I never worried about dropping off or whether I’d wake up during the night.
Sleep definitely became more fragile and precious as I got older and for a long time I battled with quite serious insomnia.
Dr Michael Mosley (pictured) has been serialising his new book, Fast Asleep, and sharing his tips for getting a good night’s sleep
That’s why, having cracked my original insomnia, I try to maximise the chance of a great night’s sleep by creating a good bedtime environment — a firm but comfy bed, a slim pillow, a cool, dark room — and a calming bedtime routine.
Through the years, I’ve chatted with numerous sleep experts and they are all passionate about the importance of treating sleep as a habit — one that you can improve with practice, whatever your age.
All this week in the Daily Mail, I have been serialising my revolutionary new book, Fast Asleep, which brings together the latest research-backed findings about how to eat for better sleep, with a step-by-step guide for reversing even the most deeply entrenched insomnia.
If you struggle at all with your sleep, even if it’s only occasionally, there’s every chance it can be made deeper, more peaceful and more restorative by paying a little attention to what sleep specialists call ‘sleep hygiene’.
This term groups together good sleeping habits and practices which have been found in studies to improve sleep quality and help prevent long-term sleep difficulties.
The best way to ring-fence good sleep, night after night, is by setting a regular bedtime and creating a sleep-inducing wind-down routine you can look forward to each night, and ensuring your bed and bedroom provide a comfortable and calm sanctuary where you know you will have minimal risk of disturbance.
Sleep is such an individual process. The amount, quality and type of sleep needed varies not only from person to person but also within each person’s lifetime. (Stock image)
If you have serious sleep problems, this is unlikely to be enough on its own and you should consider taking on board every element of my Fast Asleep plan.
It is, however, a great place to start and once, like me, you have cracked your insomnia, or if, like many, you have only the occasional struggle with sleep, you will be surprised at how powerfully effective simple changes to your bedroom and bedtime routine can be.
SET A SLEEP WINDOW
Sleep is such an individual process. The amount, quality and type of sleep needed varies not only from person to person but also within each person’s lifetime.
There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, but all the experts I’ve spoken to agree that getting into a regular wake-up-go-to-bed routine is a good starting point. That means establishing a set bedtime and wake-up time and sticking to it seven days a week.
To maximise your chance of getting deep sleep, it is a good idea to get to bed before midnight, since your brain gets its deepest sleep during the first half of the night.
I normally go to bed at 11pm, getting up at 7am, and I aim to do this seven days a week, regardless of how late I went to bed. It’s not always easy, particularly at weekends, when there is often a strong temptation to have a lie-in after a late night.
To maximise your chance of getting deep sleep, it is a good idea to get to bed before midnight, since your brain gets its deepest sleep during the first half of the night. (Stock image)
But weekend lie-ins don’t fully allow your body and brain to recharge. Worse, they mess up the body’s natural rhythms (your circadian rhythms) which are so important to drive the urge to sleep.
This urge begins early in the day. Shortly before you wake, your body releases a surge of hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol, which prepares you for the day. Then waking triggers the first release of a chemical in the brain called adenosine and levels build throughout the day.
Adenosine binds to receptors in your brain, so slowing down brain activity. This suppression of brain cell activity is what causes the feeling of drowsiness.
The longer you are awake, the higher your adenosine levels rise. The higher the adenosine levels, the sleepier you get.
When you fall asleep at night, the release of adenosine stops and the previous day’s supplies are broken up and disposed of.
A long lie-in shortens your day and reduces the potential adenosine build-up. This could trigger a poor night’s sleep. It might not be a problem when you’re young, or when you sleep well, but if you’re prone to insomnia, this shortfall could be enough to tip you into a run of bad nights.
DIM THE LIGHTS
As part of your evening wind-down routine, it’s a good idea to dim some of the lights around your house a few hours before bed.
Although light from your phone is unlikely to be strong enough to reduce production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, lots of bright lights around the house might be.
It’s a good idea to dim some of the lights around your house a few hours before bed. (Stock image)
Levels of melatonin normally start to rise about 9pm, building through the night and peaking in the early hours of the morning.
So by 9.30pm each night, your pineal gland (in your brain) will be busy pumping out melatonin, which in turn will be orchestrating the rest of your brain, getting it lined up for a night of sleep. Very bright lights in the evening can disrupt this process.
Tim Peake, the British astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station, told me they have recently altered the lighting on the space station so it gradually changes, over the course of a ‘day’, from bright blue light first thing to redder light as the ‘day’ progresses.
This aimed to mimic the light changes that happen back on Earth and should help astronauts maintain healthy sleep patterns.
WILL A NIGHTCAP HELP?
Almost all the experts I’ve consulted advise against drinking alcohol at night because, while a few drinks might help you drop off, they will also lead to snoring and more fragmented sleep later on.
Although that may be true for heavy drinkers, I did find some interesting research that points to potential benefits for light drinkers.
A recent study by Israeli scientists found a medium-size glass (150ml) of red wine before bed triggered significant improvements in cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as better-quality sleep than people drinking water or white wine.
Another study (on mice) found the human equivalent of a glass of wine helped to open special channels in the brain, ‘the glymphatic system’, improving the efficiency of the process that washes out the brain and removes waste while you are asleep.
I personally find that one glass of red wine with dinner has little effect on my sleep but a couple of glasses make it measurably worse. If you drink every night and suffer from insomnia, do try giving up.
Scent of a slumber
Lavender is the most widely studied, and at the very least it will make your bedroom smell delightful and might also help re-focus your thoughts on experiencing the lovely scent rather than on your worries. (Stock image)
There is some evidence to suggest that essential oils can help ease mild sleep disturbances.
Lavender is the most widely studied, and at the very least it will make your bedroom smell delightful and might also help re-focus your thoughts on experiencing the lovely scent rather than on your worries.
Other popular essential oils include vanilla, rose and bergamot (a type of orange). Try putting a few drops in a warm bath, or you may prefer to scent the air with a diffuser or spray.
Make your own spray by adding four or five drops of essential oil to half a cup of water, then pour it into an empty scent bottle.
Alternatively, put a couple of drops on the underside of your pillow or on the bed sheet — but do not apply directly to the skin, as these oils are highly concentrated and can cause irritation.
Creating your own serene sanctuary for sleep – and sex!
Make sure that your bedroom is cool, dark and quiet throughout the night.
You might want to invest in decent curtains or blackout blinds, particularly if you are a shift worker, though a sleep mask will be cheaper. If you are a sensitive sleeper (or your partner snores), earplugs are worth a try.
If you want to improve your sleep, I’d recommend removing the TV from your room. But if that is not practical or you don’t want to, be sure to turn it off before bed and instead listen to slow classical, jazz or calm folk music before turning in.
A mattress topper might provide sufficient cushioning and support and will be much cheaper than buying a new mattress. (Stock image)
Studies have shown that older adults who listen to relaxing music before bed fall asleep faster, sleep longer, wake up less during the night and rate their nights as more restful.
The ideal sleep-inducing range is slow tunes with a rhythm of 60 to 80 beats per minute.
DIARY DATE TO DE-STRESS
Keep a notebook by your bed, and before switching off the lights jot down a list of everything you need to do the next day.
Studies show that you will spend less time agonising about your to-do list in the middle of the night. One U.S. study found spending five minutes writing about the day ahead gets you to sleep nine minutes quicker. That might not sound like much, but it is similar to the effect of taking a sleeping pill.
Keeping a journal also appears to reduce the tendency to wake up in the night. While you’ve got your journal out, you might also want to write in it three good things that happened to you that day.
It can be anything, from a friend admiring your clothes to watching a great sunset. Expressing gratitude (or counting your blessings) is a proven way to reduce stress, which is one of the main causes of insomnia.
Thinking of — and then, importantly, writing down — three good things will shift your thoughts towards the pleasant things that happened during the day.
This will help to counter the natural tendency at night to ruminate and worry. It is these ruminations that frequently keep us awake.
TIP TOP MATTRESS
You might have read that you should replace a mattress every seven to ten years, but the life expectancy of a mattress varies considerably, depending on how good it was in the first place and how much of a pounding it may have had.
The main thing to watch out for is sagging, as this can throw your spine out of alignment and affect the quality of your sleep.
Take the sheets off and have a good look to see if there is an obvious dip. A mattress topper might provide sufficient cushioning and support and will be much cheaper than buying a new mattress.
The no-tech bedroom
One of my top tips for anyone who is about to start a diet is to clear your cupboards of tempting treats, because the best way to resist temptation is to avoid exposure to it.
If there are crisps, biscuits or chocolate in our house, I will eat them, despite everything I know about how bad these foods are for my brain and my waistline.
The same is true of the bedroom. If you suffer from poor sleep, your bedroom should be kitted out for two activities only: sleep and sex.
If you have a TV in the bedroom, or you take your mobile phone or tablet to bed with you, the temptation to use them will inevitably be too strong.
There is a widespread belief that the blue light emitted by your computer or mobile phone is bad for you because it switches off production of the sleep hormone melatonin. In fact, light levels produced by these devices are too low to do much damage.
The real reason they are disruptive is because using electronic devices excite the brain just at the point where you need everything to be calm and relaxed. Keep all the tech stuff out of your bedroom and invest in an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.
Take your time when buying a new pillow. Someone who sleeps on their back may benefit from a thinner pillow that doesn’t prop the head too high, putting stress on the neck.
Stomach sleepers need a really thin pillow, or no pillow at all, to ensure the spine stays straight and minimises stress on the lower back.
For those who sleep on their side (the most popular position), a standard pillow will do.
DIM THE LIGHTS
Keep lighting low with lamps — very bright lights can disrupt your brain’s ability to switch off and prepare for sleep.
PUT YOUR PHONE TO BED
I always put my mobile on sleep mode an hour before bed as part of my wind-down routine, and I try to avoid looking at it.
You should replace your pillow every couple of years — if you fold it and it doesn’t spring back open, then it probably isn’t giving your neck enough support.
HOW TO HIBERNATE
Keep your bedroom as cool as you can handle — it helps the hibernation process (around 18c).
KEEP A JOURNAL
Jot down what you need to do the next day in a notebook which you keep by your bed. One U.S. study found spending five minutes writing about the day ahead gets you asleep nine minutes quicker — that means keeping a diary has the same effect as a sleeping pill.
What to do if you wake at night
One type of insomnia is struggling to get to sleep at night. Another is waking up early in the morning. But the most common form is waking in the middle of the night, particularly as we get older.
This is partly because our sleep gets lighter as we age, but it can also occur if we feel the need to go to the toilet during the night.
If you can accept that you won’t always sleep the whole night through, you should soon start to feel more rested and less stressed. (Stock image)
That’s no problem if you fall straight back to sleep again, but if you find yourself lying in bed wide awake, worrying about not going to sleep and besieged by negative thoughts, it is important to give yourself a strict 20-minute time limit.
If, after 20 minutes, you are still awake, you should get out of bed and out of your bedroom.
Good sleep depends on you associating bed with sleep and sex, nothing else — and particularly not with worrying.
If you lie awake in bed, night after night, wrestling with your demons, this will trigger all sorts of unhelpful associations in your brain and body. The main thing is to try not to worry about the fact that you are awake when you would much rather be asleep.
Sleep and intimacy
If you’re suffering from sleep problems, there is every chance your libido will be on the floor.
One reason is that sleep deprivation suppresses the production of oestrogen and testosterone, which can have a devastating effect on sexual desire.
However, the good news is that getting more sleep should improve your sex drive.
One U.S. study found that an extra hour of sleep increased the chance that the women tested would want to have sex the following night by 14 per cent.
In men, the equation works the other way around, too — having sex improves sleep.
That is because regular sex boosts levels of the hormone oxytocin (also known as the ‘love hormone’ because it helps human bonding) while reducing levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
But it seems to be a more effective sleep aid in men than in women.
I’m a great believer in the power of food to improve our health, and that includes sexual health.
A lot of things that cause problems with sex drive are linked to the health of our arteries, so it makes sense to keep them in prime condition.
As with so many other of our organs, the sex organs also benefit from the Mediterranean diet I recommend as part of my Fast Asleep plan — oily fish, garlic, onions, shallots, leeks and, yes, oysters all deserve mention for improving blood flow and giving sex hormones a boost.
Instead, head for another room to sit and while away the time until you start to feel sleepy. This is not an excuse to watch TV or scroll through social media.
Ideally, you should spend this time listening to soothing music or a dull podcast, or reading a book you have already read before.
For many years, I fell into an infuriating pattern of falling asleep quite easily at 11pm, then, no matter how tired I was, I’d wake up about four hours later (typically at 3.30am).
I’d lie there for what felt like hours, worrying about not being able to get back to sleep and how tired I would feel in the morning. Finally I’d drift off, only to be dragged awake again by the alarm clock at 7am.
Then, a few years ago, while researching a documentary about life in Victorian slums, I interviewed Roger Ekirch, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, in the U.S. He told me that my pattern — falling asleep, waking for a while, then falling asleep again — was how many people slept in pre-industrial times.
Apparently, people would go to bed around 9pm, sleep for about five hours, then get up at 2am. They would do household chores, visit friends or ‘enjoy a bit of intimacy’ before heading to bed again for a ‘second sleep’.
Prof Ekirch believes that the pressures of the Industrial Age and the arrival of electric lights changed all that and sleeping continuously became the new normal.
Slowly, as the practice of sleeping continuously became more widespread, the idea of a ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep faded from public consciousness.
Buoyed by these discoveries, I decided that rather than fight my ‘old-fashioned’ sleeping patterns, I’d work with them. So rather than lie there fretting, I get up and go to another room, where I listen to music, meditate or read a really boring book.
I have a pile of books downstairs and I sit and work my way through them as I wait for my sleep drive to reassert itself. When I start to feel sleepy, which is normally after about 40 minutes, I go back to bed for three or so hours of ‘second’ sleep.
If you can accept that you won’t always sleep the whole night through, you should soon start to feel more rested and less stressed.
Perfect your wind-down routine
If you go to bed with your head buzzing and your stomach still trying to digest the snack you just ate, you will find it harder to get to sleep. A proper wind-down routine begins several hours before you go to bed…
Instead of relaxing with a beer or a glass of wine in front of the TV, you are better off having a warm bath (with a few drops of an essential oil, such as lavender, if you like the smell). (Stock image)
6-7pm: Eat your evening meal
Ideally, you will have finished your last meal of the day at least three hours before you go to bed — ideally 8pm at the latest.
That is what I was recently advised by Dr Satchin Panda, a professor at the Salk Institute in the U.S. and a world expert in chronobiology and circadian clock research.
This ensures the digestive process doesn’t interfere with your core body temperature, which should be starting to fall as bedtime approaches, driven by your circadian clock. This fall helps to trigger sleep, but late-night eating raises body temperature.
When a late-night snack hits your stomach, your gut has to spring into action to digest it. This increase in gut activity means your core body temperature will remain high, just when you want it to go down.
Have an alcoholic drink if you must, but only with your evening meal — no later. Try to average no more than a glass a day and try sticking to red wine, which studies have shown is better for you than white.
9.30pm: Try a soothing soak in the bath
Instead of relaxing with a beer or a glass of wine in front of the TV, you are better off having a warm bath (with a few drops of an essential oil, such as lavender, if you like the smell).
For maximum sleep-inducing effect, run a bath an hour before bedtime and allow yourself a ten-minute soak. The warm water raises your body temperature, increasing the circulation of blood to your skin, hands and feet.
When you get out of the bath, your body will continue to radiate heat but your core temperature will slowly drop over the course of an hour, helping to trigger changes in the brain which induce sleep.
Jumping into a hot shower for a couple of minutes just before bedtime won’t have the same sleep-inducing effect.
10.30pm: Countdown to bedtime
Take out your sleep diary (you can download an empty page at www.fast-asleep.com) and make a note of the important factors that should contribute to good quality sleep.
After a lovely, calming pre-bed routine, you should fall asleep easily and wake up refreshed in the morning. (Stock image)
Note the time you last ate or drank anything, the last time you had a cup of coffee or tea, whether and how many alcoholic drinks you had that day.
This is a good time to reflect on the day and the impact your improving sleep might have, so jot down how tired you felt during the day (on a scale of 1-5), whether you had an afternoon slump and if you made time for exercise.
You can also log whether you’ve been increasing your intake of fibre-rich foods and trying new and different fermented foods. Very soon you should start to see improvements, and it’s good to record your progress as you go along.
11pm: Lights out
If you’re not following a pattern of sleep restriction (as outlined in yesterday’s paper), aim whenever possible to go to bed at the same time every evening. Before midnight is best.
After a lovely, calming pre-bed routine, you should fall asleep easily and wake up refreshed in the morning.
Things that go bump in the night
If anyone in your family is a sleepwalker, you would be wise to make sure all the doors and windows are safely locked at night.
My wife, the GP Dr Clare Bailey, has a common sleep disorder called ‘parasomnia’, which means she often gets up in the night while remaining firmly asleep.
A few nights ago, she climbed over me and started looking through the wardrobe. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was looking for a missing hamster that needed feeding.
We haven’t had hamsters for years. I coaxed her back to bed and she had no memory of the episode in the morning.
Parasomnia affects 10 per cent of the population and could take the form of sleep-walking, sleep talking, nightmares, sleep eating, sleep paralysis, sleep aggression and even sexsomnia (having sex when you are asleep).
It can also run in families, which could explain why two of my sons were sleepwalkers when they were young.
If your child or partner sleepwalks at the same time every night, you could try gently waking them about half an hour before they would normally sleepwalk.
By doing this you disrupt their sleep cycle, and in some cases that is enough to stop their parasomnia.
However, you will need to do this every evening for at least a week in order to break the cycle.
Adapted by Louise Atkinson from Fast Sleep.
Fast Sleep by Michael Mosley, published by Short Books at £9.99. To order a copy for £5.99 (40 per cent discount, P&P free) go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155. Offer valid until April 30, 2020.
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