Did you know? Installing a red light can make it easier to fall back to sleep after any nocturnal bathroom breaks
We all know that lack of sleep is a major health concern — sleep deprivation can have a knock-on effect on all kinds of processes in our bodies and is linked to problems including weight gain, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Even just one night of poor sleep is enough to have an impact on memory, according to a recent Swedish study which found that volunteers who slept badly couldn’t remember a list of numbers as well as they did after a good night’s sleep.
But knowing we really should get seven, ideally eight, hours a night is one thing — actually achieving it is quite another.
Seventy per cent of us sleep fewer than seven hours a night, with a third of us getting only five to six hours, according to a 2013 report by The Sleep Council.
Whether your problem is struggling to fall asleep, waking up in the night or simply feeling there aren’t enough hours in the day, here we ask the experts how you can get that fabled eight hours . . .
DON’T GO TO BED EARLY
One big mistake poor sleepers make is going to bed early trying to catch up — then lying there tossing and turning, says Professor John Groeger, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University.
This can create negative associations with being in bed that turn a short bout of poor sleep into chronic insomnia.
Ideally you should fall asleep within 15 minutes of your head hitting the pillow. So if you’re going to bed at 10 pm, but lie there fretting until midnight, you need to go to bed later.
A technique known as sleep restriction can help. This involves delaying your bedtime by one or two hours — although under a doctor’s guidance you might even be asked to reduce sleep to as little as five-and-a-half hours — but set your alarm for your normal wake-up time.
After a couple of days of this shorter sleep, you’ll be desperate to sleep. ‘It builds up the pressure to sleep to a point where you can’t stay awake,’ says Professor Groeger.
Stay up! Going to bed early can create negative associations that turn a short bout of poor sleep into chronic insomnia, says professor John Groeger from Nottingham Trent University
And don’t worry about those missing hours. ‘You actually experience more deep sleep after a period of sleep restriction which makes the sleep you do get more restorative,’ he says.
Admittedly, you will probably feel extremely tired on the first few days — but don’t nap, the whole point is to create that pressure to sleep.
After a few days, move your bedtime forward by 15 minutes — in time you’ll retrain yourself to sleep the full eight hours a night.
EAT MORE LEEKS AND ONIONS
Or garlic and artichokes, which all contain prebiotic fibres that fuel the healthy bacteria in our gut. There is growing evidence that the balance of our gut bacteria has a profound effect on our health and research last year from the University of Colorado, Boulder, linked a higher ratio of helpful bugs to better sleep, particularly after an episode of stress.
The study — conducted on mice — found that after being fed a prebiotic diet the rodents spent more time in deep sleep, the most healing kind of sleep.
‘We think substances produced by the changed gut ecology impact the brain, possibly by signalling through the nerves,’ says lead researcher Dr Monika Fleshner, an integrative physiologist and psychologist.
The researchers have already followed up with a second mouse study showing similar results and while they don’t yet know if the results directly translate to humans, other human research has shown a direct effect on mood and stress from altering the balance of gut bacteria.
PUT PJs ON AS PART OF YOUR ROUTINE
A big problem for adults is that few of us prioritise a bedtime routine, but doing so could make a big difference says Professor Gareth Hughes, a psychotherapist at the University of Derby.
‘Going from wakeful activity to sleep is often too big a leap for our mind and body — you can’t go from running round like a stressed out mad thing to relaxed and sleepy in seconds — but creating a routine you use every night to wind down before bed can help with the transition,’ he says.
Are you one of them? Worryingly, a third of us only get five or six hours of sleep each night, according to a 2013 report by The Sleep Council
Putting on your nightwear, cleaning your teeth, or having a non-stimulating hot drink all create a ritual that tells your brain it’s time to sleep so it finds it easier to switch off — make this a non-negotiable routine.
It’s up to you how exactly you wind down, adds Professor Groeger. ‘But the key message for getting to sleep is to disengage gradually from those things that are associated with being awake, that means — in no particular order — bright light, loud noise, excess heat, mentally taxing activity, worry, unfinished tasks, heightened emotion, stimulants such as coffee, and exercise.’
GRAB A HOT WATER BOTTLE
‘WheN we wake in the night our body temperature is low which can make you feel uncomfortable,’ says Professor Groeger. ‘A hot water bottle warms and comforts you and makes it easier to sleep.
‘Making up a hot water bottle also quite helpfully breaks the cycle of lying there fretting.’ There’s also a belief that having a discrepancy between the temperature of your skin’s surface and your core body temperature may signal the body to sleep. ‘But it’s more a hypothesis than scientific fact,’ says Professor Groeger.
PLAY RELAXING PINK NOISE
Playing a background sound called ‘pink’ noise during the night increases restorative deep sleep — and may help keep light sleepers asleep for longer, according to a study published last year by Northwestern University in America.
Pink noise is similar to white noise — the static buzzing an untuned TV makes — but with a lower, rumbling quality that is less harsh. and it is sometimes described as similar to rain falling on a pavement, for instance.
The U.S. researchers measured the brain waves of volunteers as they slept — the slower these are, the deeper the sleep —and the results showed they got more deep sleep on the night they were exposed to pink noise than on a night without it.
‘Any kind of steady noise helps distract the brain from sounds outside which may disturb you,’ says independent sleep specialist Dr Neil Stanley.
‘It can therefore be better for some people than sleeping in a silent room. White noise such as a fan can help, but pink noise is a lower frequency sound which may be more soothing.’
You can download pink noise apps for your mobile phone to play while you sleep.
HAVE YOUR CATARACTS DONE
Two-and-a-half million people in the UK have cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens. As well as affecting vision, the condition has also been associated with poor sleep.
Research suggests that cataracts block light entering the eye. This interferes with the production of the hormone melatonin which the body releases at night to make us feel sleepy.
Substantial: Two-and-a-half million people in the UK have cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens. As well as affecting vision, the condition has also been associated with poor sleep
In one 2015 study by Nara Medical University School of Japan, patients fell asleep five minutes faster, slept deeper and stayed asleep longer one month after cataract surgery than before.
A second 2016 study carried out in China which measured people’s levels of the hormone in their blood found that melatonin levels were higher at 11pm after cataract surgery.
PUT A RED LIGHT IN THE BATHROOM
Installing a red light can make it easier to fall back to sleep after any nocturnal bathroom breaks. ‘Bathrooms are normally very brightly lit and even just a few minutes of bright light at night can be enough to stimulate cells in the back of the eye that stop melatonin release — waking you up in the process,’ says Dr Victoria Revell, who specialises in research on the effects of light at the University of Surrey.
‘Red light doesn’t stimulate these cells so you’re more likely to fall asleep quickly when you return to bed.’
For the same reason, Professor Groeger says the common advice to have a relaxing bath before bed may not be all that helpful if you are in a bright bathroom.
READ A BORING BOOK STANDING UP
‘If you can’t sleep after 15 to 20 minutes of trying then get up, get out of bed and do something non-stimulating such as the washing up for 20 to 30 minutes then return to bed,’ says Brendan Street, clinical lead for cognitive behavioural therapy at Nuffield Health. ‘If you are still unable to sleep after a further 15 minutes, get up again for 20 to 30 minutes. Keep repeating this until you do fall asleep.’
It may sound like this would mean you get less sleep, but ‘if you lie in bed without sleeping for long periods you start to associate the bed with wakefulness and agitation,’ he explains, so in the long-run you will sleep better.
As for what to do when you get out of bed, Professor Hughes suggests reading a boring book standing up — for example a textbook or instruction manual. ‘Essentially you are punishing your brain for keeping you awake and after a while it will give up and decide you’d be better off asleep and you will start to feel drowsy,’ he says.
MAKE A TO-DO LIST BEFORE BED
‘It can help to keep a notepad by the bed and if you have trouble sleeping write down your worries or thoughts,’ says Ana Noia, a senior clinical physiologist in neurophysiology and sleep at Bupa Cromwell Hospital, London.
New research from Baylor University, in the U.S., found people who spent five minutes before bed noting down the tasks they needed to do the next day fell asleep 10 minutes faster than people who wrote down what they had achieved the current day.
‘It helps organise your thoughts so you no longer need to go over them in your head — which can keep you awake,’ says Ana Noia.
DOWNGRADE YOUR LUXURY SHEETS
YOU might think investing in luxury bedding couldn’t hurt when it comes to a better night’s sleep. In fact sheets with a higher thread count — a measure of the number of threads per square inch in a bed sheet — that are typically more expensive may make it harder to sleep well.
Snooze: Despite its benefits, seventy per cent of us sleep fewer than seven hours a night
A recent study conducted by bedding company Caspar attached sensors to people sleeping under different types of covers and found the higher the thread count, the worse people said they slept.
One possible reason is that the high thread count sheets trapped air and humidity underneath creating a less comfortable sleep environment. Caspar suggested that the ideal sheet has a 400 thread count.
TRY TAKING SOME OMEGA-3
It’s not just good for the heart and brain, research from the University of Oxford suggests it may boost sleep too.
In a 2014 trial, taking 600mg daily helped a group of seven to nine-year-old children sleep better within 16 weeks. The researchers used wrist sensors that measured how fast the children fell asleep and how many times they woke in the night.
By the end of the 16-week period in which the children took the omega-3 supplements, they were sleeping for an average of 58 minutes longer and woke up seven times fewer during the night than at the beginning of the study. The author Dr Paul Montgomery says it’s likely to work on adults, too.
Exactly why it might work hasn’t been determined, but theories suggest that DHA, a substance found in omega-3 fats, might lower anxiety or help with the release of melatonin which makes us feel sleepy. The research was funded by DSM Nutritional Products (a supplements company) in conjunction with a local education authority.
SIT BY THE WINDOW AT WORK
People who work in offices with more natural light sleep about 46 minutes longer a night than those exposed to less light during their day, suggests a 2014 study by scientists at Northwestern University.
‘Exposure to sunlight during the day helps our brain know when we should be awake and when we need to sleep,’ says Dr Revell. If you work somewhere dark, with no windows or poor access to natural light, Dr Revell suggests trying to at least get outside into daylight for 20 to 30 minutes.
STOP YOUR PHONE KEEPING YOU UP
We’ve all heard the advice not to look at our phones and other devices late at night.
This is because the so-called ‘blue’ light they emit sends the most powerful ‘alerting’ signals to our body clock, blocking the release of sleep-inducing melatonin.
But completely avoiding devices in the evening isn’t always practical, so instead you could simply dim the screen using your phone’s settings.
Phone hacks: Dimming the brightness or switching a device’s ‘night’ mode on can boost sleep
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, in the U.S., showed that dimming the brightness or switching to a device’s ‘night’ mode as well as holding it at least a foot away was enough to prevent the melatonin-blocking reaction.
You can find the Night Shift mode (iPhone) or Blue Light Filter (Android) in your settings menu.
And remember, it’s not just phones that have this effect — people reading an e-reader for four hours before bed took ten minutes longer to fall asleep and felt more tired the next day than when they read a paper book for the same period.
FORGIVE YOUR PARTNER FOR SNORING
Many of us have trouble sleeping because our partner disturbs us — but, according to Dr Guy Meadows from the London Sleep School, often what keeps us awake is not the noise itself, but our reaction to it.
‘A lot of the people I treat have actually developed an anxiety about sharing a bed with their partner — that disturbs them far more than the partner does,’ he says. ‘If your partner does start to snore, instead of fretting about how it’s going to keep you awake simply say “Oh, I hear a snore. Thanks mind, but it’s OK,” and let it go.
‘Bring your attention instead back to the bed and how it feels —how cool the sheets are, how soft the pillow is under your head.’
The idea is that the sooner you stop stressing about your partner’s snoring — and how it’s keeping you awake — the sooner you’ll fall asleep.
If the snoring is constant, and not just on nights where they’ve had a few too many drinks, for example, extremely noisy, and your partner also suffers from daytime sleepiness it might be worth getting them checked out for health problems such as sleep apnoea (where the person stops breathing for a split second many times a night).
Ask your GP for advice.
…AND HOW A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP COULD BEAT DEMENTIA
Most of us feel groggy and grumpy after a bad night, but researchers at Imperial College London are investigating whether poor sleep could be having a more serious impact on the brain by increasing the risk of dementia.
It’s known that people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia tend to have disrupted sleep patterns, and recent studies have shown that poor sleepers are more likely to develop the condition.
Last year, U.S. researchers showed that disrupted sleep increased the levels of toxic amyloid in the brain, which may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s.
But it’s not clear which comes first: is poor sleep causing dementia, or is it simply an early sign of the underlying disease?
To solve this puzzle, sleep expert Professor Bill Wisden, chair in molecular neuroscience, has teamed up with brain specialists as part of the UK Dementia Research Institute. ‘Nobody really knows what the purpose of sleep is,’ explains Professor Wisden. ‘We have to do it every night and it’s essential for health — but we haven’t found out what it’s for!’ He and his colleagues are focusing on the concept of ‘brain washing’ — the natural movement of fluid that flushes out waste chemicals produced by brain cells, including toxic amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s.
The process was first discovered in 2013 by a team of U.S. scientists and is much more active as we sleep.
Using laboratory mice, the Imperial College team are investigating how patterns of brainwaves and ‘brainwashing’ change if the animals are deprived of sleep, and whether this leads to a build-up of toxic Alzheimer’s proteins. ‘It’s a very gentle experiment,’ he says. ‘Just as you or I will stay up late for hours if we’re watching an exciting TV box set, mice will stay awake if we give them interesting new objects like a Lego brick or a pencil every hour or so.’
The researchers then measure the animals’ brainwaves with an EEG scan and use cutting-edge microscope techniques to see how amyloid proteins are moving around inside the brain.
Not only does Professor Wisden hope that the study will answer the scientific question of what’s going on as the brain cleans itself out during sleep, he also plans to turn the findings into a potential treatment. Working with his Imperial College colleague, electrical engineer Dr Nir Grossman, he’s testing a machine that can manipulate brainwaves non-invasively using electrical currents.
They plan to induce the patterns of brain- waves found during ‘brainwashing’ sleep to get rid of amyloid and improve memory in people with early stage dementia. So far, the technique has only been tested on mice but the team will shortly be starting human clinical trials.
‘We’re increasingly realising that dementia and its causes are complex — there are multiple factors at play and sleep is part of that jigsaw,’ says Dr Andrew Sommerlad, a research fellow in psychiatry at University College London.
‘This approach has the potential to tell us more about dementia and give us new ideas for treatments in the future.’
Dr KAT ARNEY