Hallelujah. It seems the world has woken up a bit as there’s finally a far greater emphasis on the idea that we should all be taking better care of our mental health, which couldn’t have come at a more apt time in our history; while, fingers crossed, things do seem to be becoming slightly more ‘normal’ (whatever that means anymore), there is still an air of uncertainty that pervades our everyday lives. Never before have we needed to treat everyone around us with more compassion and kindness, and never before has there been a more concentrated focus on the importance of sleep, our apparent lack of it, and how not getting enough zzzs can have a huge negative impact on our mental health.
But sleeping’s simple, right? You go to bed, close your eyes and fall gently into a peaceful slumber for a solid seven to eight hours before waking up rested and full of energy for the new day ahead. In a perfect world, yes. In reality however, it’s estimated that we now sleep around 90 minutes less each night than we did in the roaring 1920s. Add to this a recent Great British Bedtime Report discovery that almost half of Britons have never taken steps to help them sleep even though a third of us admit that we sleep poorly and it’s obvious that a lot of us are trying to operate in a permanently sleep-deprived state.
Sleep isn’t just time out from our busy routines; we spend about a third of our lives in the land of nod, so it’s fair to say it’s essential—as important to our bodies as eating, drinking and breathing, it’s one of the biggest factors in maintaining good mental and physical health. And yet, if I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone advise another person to ‘push through’ the tiredness (please, for the love of life itself, never tell a new parent surrounded by a mountain of washing up and undrunk cups of cold tea to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’), I’d be a millionaire.
Sleep and health are strongly related—poor sleep can increase the risk of poor mental and physical health, and poor mental and physical health can make it harder to sleep. Fortunately, there are changes and tactics we can put into place right now that can help us snooze more soundly. Here’s our pick of the bunch.
Quality, not quantity
Most people have in their heads the hallowed ‘eight hours’ as the perfect amount of time we ‘need’ to sleep per night to feel great, but actually, many studies have found that adults need between six and eight hours a night depending on the person. Going to sleep and getting up at the same time every day – including weekends, sorry! – helps regulate your body’s internal clock and optimise sleep quality, and there’s no question that six to seven hours of good quality sleep, with your body going through its sleep cycles in a healthy, consistent way, is far better than eight hours of restless, broken sleep.
Minerals not vitamins
If health was a band, showy old vitamins might be the lead singer, but the songwriter? Minerals. Who are finally getting their moment in the spotlight. Particularly magnesium, the queen of all minerals it seems, and one that’s been singled out by doctors and health professionals as the key to improving muscle and bone strength, helping keep our blood pressure in check, and supporting a strong immune system. Around 80% of us are deficient in magnesium alone and the stresses, sleepless nights and bad habits (too much coffee; excessive alcohol; processed foods) of modern life are all depleting our precious mineral levels. Grab a supplement, or try a topical mineral spray to keep yours topped up.
Sleep when you’re tired
This sounds plainly obvious, but a lot of us aren’t really aware of our natural body clocks and simply go to bed when we think we should. The first rule of developing a foolproof sleep routine, however, is to make sure that you’re going to bed when you are tired. Going to bed too early leads to tossing and turning for a couple of hours, which raises stress levels and inhibits our ability to produce ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin – a naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycles. If you think this might be your problem, stay up later and go to bed half an hour before the time you usually fall asleep – it may seem late to you, but the quality of your sleep will undoubtedly improve.
Watch the clock
Try your hardest to stay out of the kitchen and away from temptation after dinner. A 12-hour fasting window e.g. finishing dinner by 8pm and not having breakfast until 8am, is said to prevent weight gain as it regulates our metabolism and means most of the calories we have eaten throughout the day are burned up by the body. Eating little and often throughout this 12-hour period also keeps our blood sugar steady and ensures that our cortisol levels start to wind down when we go to bed, helping to alleviate insomnia.
The hour and a half before you go to bed is considered the ‘golden 90 minutes’ to ensure that we all get the sleep we need, but it involves switching off – physically as well as mentally. Make sure you turn off all your devices that emit blue light, including your phone, tablet, or e-reader, all of which emit a blue light that tells your brain it’s still daytime, thus inhibiting the production of melatonin. It’s best to turn off the box too, as yes, you guessed it, light from the television suppresses melatonin, plus many programs are more stimulating than they are relaxing. Read a book or listen to some chilled out music instead.
Eat to sleep
When it’s near sleep time, our bodies start to produce the hormone melatonin, which causes that lovely drowsy feeling, telling our bodies to start winding down. Certain foods contain an amino acid called tryptophan, which is a precursor to melatonin, and so can help to send you on your way to the land of nod – if you’re a late night snacker, cherries and bananas are good to eat an hour or so before bed, but coffee and tea are a no-no as caffeine can take up to six hours to leave our bodies.
Choose the right bed
The most important thing, when considering buying a new bed, is to actually try it, which can be a bit overwhelming to begin with as there are so many different types of mattress. But, if you try a few, you should soon start to get a feel for what you prefer. Another rule of thumb is that the heavier you are, the firmer bed you tend to prefer, but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs a hard bed. When you try a mattress, you should spend at least 5-10 minutes on each one; you should also try pushing the flat of your hand between the mattress and the small of your back – if it slides in too easily, the chances are that the bed is too firm for your needs. If it is very difficult, it may be too soft.
The Mental Health Foundation have also put together four simple things to consider you to help ‘HEAL’ a period of poor sleep:
We know that poor health affects sleep and vice versa. Mental health problems like depression and anxiety often go hand in hand with sleep problems. It’s important to get any health concerns addressed both for helping physical symptoms and for addressing any worries that might keep you awake.
Where you sleep is important, and the bedroom and bed should be mainly places you associate with sleep. In particular watching TV, playing with phones or screens, or eating in bed can all affect the quality of our sleep. Temperature, noise levels and light all play a part in determining our sleep. If you find yourself experiencing poor sleep, try keeping a sleep diary to see if there are patterns which can help identify a problem.
It’s easiest to get to sleep when we are able to relax, and let go of concerns. We’ve all had a night where we lie awake and worry. In the time before we go to bed, we should try and wind down, be less stimulated, and relax. These days this can be harder than ever, but relaxation techniques, a warm bath or mindfulness practice can all help. If you find you can’t get to sleep, it is always best to get up, perhaps make a warm milky drink, and then try again when you feel sleepier. It can be tempting to turn on the TV or phone screen but this may stimulate you and make it harder to nod off.
What you eat and drink can affect your sleep. Stimulants like caffeine can make it harder to sleep, and a heavy or sugary meal close to bedtime can make sleep uncomfortable. Alcohol might seem to help you get to sleep, but it reduces the quality of sleep later. Taking exercise during the day is also a good way to aid sleep, but exercise releases adrenaline so exercising during the evening may be less helpful.
***We need to start taking sleep more seriously—if you are struggling with sleep to the point where you think you’re developing a mental health problem, please see the advice and support of your GP as a matter of priority. If you are in distress and need immediate help and are unable to see a GP, you should visit your local A&E department. There are also a number of mental health organisations that provide helplines listed here.