There has been a lot of interest lately on how to sleep better. Sleeping disorders are on the rise and this is fuelling the ‘sleep tech’ industry to help people optimise their sleep. It’s ironic, because many people blame technology for the development of these sleep issues in the first place! However, focus on good sleep hygiene is set to increase, and that’s because we now know that sleep is vital to good health and that it is our own life support system preventing and delaying serious illness.
“It is disquieting to learn that vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.” – Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep
Why is Sleep So Important?
Something interesting happens twice a year, and it affects 1.5 billion people across 70 countries. It’s called Daylight Saving Time. Why is this so interesting when it comes to how to sleep better at night? It shows us that even the loss of a single hour of sleep can literally, be heartbreaking.
A study released by Open Heart, looked at 42,000 hospital admissions in the spring when we lose that extra hour of sleep. The findings were staggering. There was a 24% increase in heart attacks – the very next day! But it’s not just losing an hour that can affect you. Healthy, young men, sleeping for just four hours each night end up with testosterone levels equivalent to that of someone ten years older. Similar findings were also found amongst women.
The impact of poor sleep is unmistakable. We all know when someone’s had a bad nights sleep, or got up the ‘wrong side of the bed’. People become agitated, lose concentration quickly, suffer memory lapses, become depressed, feel greater pain and generally are more susceptible to common colds and flu. There is a direct link for those that sleep less than seven hours a night, that they are three times more likely to become infected with a common cold or rhinovirus. Lack of sleep also increases your anxiety levels, leads to increaaed depression and most worryingly, increased suicidal thoughts. Not only this, but poor sleep can increase your risk of serious medical conditions such heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and obesity. Quite simply, lack of sleep is bad for your health.
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The Benefits of Sleep
Sleep makes us better at everything. Disruption to it is just assisting your cognitive decline over time, faster. For students (and anyone doing any training), sleep is a must. Having a good night sleep after studying and learning something new, is like your brain pressing the save button and saving it in your memory. It works like a dry sponge, soaking up the new information overnight.
The benefits of sleep and consistent sleep over 7 hours has untold health, learning and productivity benefits. These benefits include:
- Improving and increasing our learning capacity
- Reducing the risk of dementia
- Reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- Boosting your immune system
- Reducing stress levels
- Improving your driving and alertness
- Increasing your mental health and awareness
- Improving our physical fitness and recovery from exercise
- Improving your emotional stability
- Potentially assisting weight loss (due to less cravings for food and sugar)
Types of Sleep
There are effectively two types of sleep. NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). NREM allows your body to calm and slow down and moves you into your deep sleep cycle. This is the part the enables you to feel rested when you wake up in the morning. This allows us to heal, recover from illness, stress, improve memory and boosts our immune system.
REM, boosts our memory and learning functions. Making sure you’re getting enough REM is important when learning, as it improves our recall and memory. When we are in REM we dream. The reason for this is because it’s the state cwhen we are closest to wakefulness. Whilst there is no empirical proof as to why we dream, scientists are of the opinion that it is our brains processing our memories, thoughts and experiences but also how we process our emotions.
Our Natural Sleep Cycle – The Circadian Rhythm
Our circadian rhythm is our body’s internal clock which runs in the background throughout the day for 24 hours. It carries out on our behalf essential functions for us to live. One of the most important roles of the circadian rhythm is to regulate our sleep. Our circadian rhythm is driven by the ‘master clock’ in our brain which is greatly influenced by our environment – most specifically, light. This is why the day to night cycle is so impactful on our body.
When our circadian rhythm is properly ‘in sync’, we will experience proper, restorative sleep. When it is not aligned, it can cause problems such as insomnia and sleep disorders. Doesn’t jet lag feel wonderful?
Given how sensitive our master clock is to light, our exposure to artificial light during the evenings can greatly impact our natural rhythm and quite literally put us out of sync. That’s why it’s important to understand what’s happening to our bodies as we get towards sleep.
The Stages of Sleep
When we sleep, we do not remain in the same state all night long. Instead, our sleep is made up of numerous cycles which have their own stages. Typically, we will all go through four to six sleep cycles a night. To complicate things further, not all sleep stages are the same length, but on average they last about 90 minutes. These sleep stages vary from person to person but analysis on the brain during scientific research shows that there are four distinct sleep stages.
Sleep Stage 1)
Length: 1-5 Minutes
Other Names: N1
Sleep Stage 2)
Other Names: N2
Length: 10-60 minutes
Sleep Stage 3)
Other Names: N3, Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), Delta Sleep, Seep Sleep
Length: 20-40 minutes
Sleep Stage 4)
Other Names: REM Sleep
Normal Length: 10-60 minutes
(from the sleep foundation)
Each of these stages have their own important role to play in allowing the body to recover and develop. Failure to achieve enough in each phase (and definitely on a consistent basis), has a deep impact on your emotions, your ability to think, memory and physical health.
Your age, recent sleep patterns, alcohol consumption and any sleep disorders you may have, can all impact your own sleep cycle and quality of sleep.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
The average amount of sleep we actually need is driven mostly by your own genetics. The recommended window for optimum sleep is between 7-9 hours, but aim for 8. Less than 7 hours has proven in studies to lead to health impacts, but more than 9 has been shown to have little impact or health benefits, especially as we cannot sleep back any sleep debt we may have accumulated in the week.
Some people boast about not needing any more than four hours sleep a night. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for example, both stated they do just fine on four or five hours of sleep a night. They both claimed that sleep was useless and a bad use of time. It’s interesting, because both went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The likes of Elon Musk and Donald Trump should perhaps take more care of their sleep patterns and follow Amazon founder’s Jeff Bezos’ approach of making sure he gets 8 hours of sleep a night.
Clinical studies have now shown that successfully treating people in their middle age who had sleep disorders successfully delayed the onset of dementia by up to 10 years. It would seem that without enough sleep time, the brain is unable to wash away toxic proteins in the brain (namely beta-amyloid and tau) that are the basis of the Alzheimer’s disease.
The amount of sleep and quality of sleep we get actually decreases with age. We need as much sleep in our 50s, 60s and 70s as we do in our 40s but our brains just reduce their capability to allow us to sleep as long and as well. As a result, our sleep becomes more fragmented. This means more trips to the bathroom in many cases and moments of insomnia where you are just lying awake unable to nod back off.
Scientists have only discovered recently that we cannot repay a sleep debt. What this means is that you cannot sleep less in the week and hope to pay it back by sleeping longer on the weekends, it just doesn’t work like that.
Whilst you may sleep more and the quality might be better on the weekends, you will not repay back that missing sleep time in full. It may only be as much as 50% too. This means you will always carry that sleep debt. The more seep debt we accumulate, the harder it is to pay it back, which then impacts our health and leads to serious medical conditions outlined above.
Sleep is one of the best health kicks you can take daily, and best of all, it’s free! It helps you age well and even live longer.
The Role of Technology on Sleep and How to Sleep Better
Technology has greatly impacted our sleep habits. Whilst the sleep tech industry is booming, it’s our addiction and habits around technology which have had the greatest impact on our sleep. It’s quite normal for us to check phones in the evening and whilst we’re in bed. Unfortunately this greatly impacts our natural sleep cycle.
There is growing and now strong evidence, that using portable devices before sleep (even in dark or night mode) has the same effect as leaving the light on, it effectively wakes the body up. The closer the screen is to your face, the more you will be disrupted. Dimming the screen brightness may help reduce the effect on the body, but it still not as effective as switching the devices off.
Laptops, tablets and smartphones emit approximately 30 to 50 lux, which is about half the illumination of an ordinary room light which then affects the body’s circadian clock and suppresses the hormone melatonin which gives you that ‘sleepy’ feeling. The light suppresses melatonin, which makes it harder to fall asleep and delays the body’s sleep pattern. The more melatonin you have, the easier it is for you to fall asleep, those who do not have enough take longer to nod off.
The most disruptive light to the body clock is short wavelength blue light. The bad news for gadget lovers is that this is exactly what backlit portable screens shine directly into the eyes. The best advice to reduce these light waves into the eyes is to shut down the computer, tablets and phones at least one hour before bed to reduce the impact of the light sources on sleep. If not, your body learns that when it thinks of bedtime that it needs to start waking up due to the tablet use, than to start slowing down and switching off for the day.
Screen related sleeping disorders are on the rise. In the past, computers sat on the desk and were switched off and on to work. Now, the computers have landed in our pockets on phones and become our books on tablets. They are more accessible than ever, with many looking at a screen for over 10 hours a day. Many now even use their phone as their alarm clock. They are embedded everywhere in our lives without us even realising it. To set the alarm, you still need to look at the screen, it’s a vicious cycle.
It’s not just looking at the screen which keeps us awake either. Sometimes the information we read (news or messages) or perhaps the game we’re playing on the device leads to overstimulation and keeps us awake. Just think what reading a bad work email can do to you before falling asleep at night. You’re best leaving emails and messages well alone late at night, howver it’s not just bad news that can overstimulate us, but something that might be engaging such as watching a film or binge watching your favourite TV series too. It’s easy to get sucked in and time passes, and so does the time for restorative sleep.
This is why sleep tracking and sleep technology is on the rise. To try and set better sleep habits and then tell us about them. Here’s some of the areas of interest around sleep:
Whilst it might seem ‘newagey’ the benefits of meditating, and meditating for sleep are now well documented. They can help us bring about a calm state of mind, and help us relax leaving the day behind us. The most popular out there are Headspace and Calm which also incudes sleep stories to lull you into a deep sense of sleepiness.
Sleep Tracking and Wrist Wearables
One of the most well known areas for sleep apps is sleep tracking. Apps and technology that track how much you sleep and for how long. They won’t magically improve your sleep but you’ll get a greater insight into how much sleep you are getting. For some it can be quite eye opening. These are often now available on smart watches such as those provided by Fitbit which can also give you a sleep score. Take it with a pinch of salt though, as not all the information will be as accurate as you might think due to the lack of research in this new emerging area. However, they offer some good advice.
Light Technology and Routines
It’s hard to stop using your phone, so you can actually buy blue light blockers that go onto your screens and even wearable glasses that prevent blue emitting light getting to your eyes from your devices. A study from OPO showed that wearing blue light blocking glasses can improve your sleep. You can also dim your lights in an evening, a few hours before bed to get your body ready for sleep.
Technology such as that found in Philips Hue lighting can schedule lights to dim and change colour, actiing like a sunset, so reducing your exposure to bright levels of artificial light before bed. They also help keep a routine automatically. We all know that impact where we turn the lights off, go to the bathroom and get blasted by bright light in the night! Equally, if you use an alarm clock with a light that comes on gradually in the morning into full brightness, this can act as a sunrise and mean that you wake up gently, not from a sharp jolt to a loud alarm. You can also now link up your smart lights to devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, so that you don’t even need to get out of bed to turn lights off, or with the right bulbs in place, dim them.
You can of course try the good old fashioned eye mark to block out all light.
Sleep Buds and Headphones
For some, using sleep buds at night and headphones can greatly help them sleep. Bose have their Sleep Buds 2’s and these work by masking any sound around you and playing an alarm in the morning as not to disturb your loved ones. You can also try ear plugs (low level tech) that are equally good. With the advent of noise cancelling headphones you can also fall asleep with your headphones on or in your ears, but you may find them uncomfortable if you sleep on your side. This is one area of sleep tech we think will expand in the near future, especially as our ‘always on’ culture means places are open long into the night and noise can greatly disrupt sleep.
How to Sleep Better and Maintain Healthy Sleep Cycles
Here we go through some steps in how to sleep better so you can get better sleep cycles and wake up feeling better in the morning. You will also find that after time you will feel better too as you’ll get yourself into a cycle and routine of between 7-9 hours of sleep consistently at night.
Here’s some tips one how to sleep better and to get a consistently good nights sleep:
When You Wake Up Get Some Sun Light
If you can, first thing in the morning try and get outside and get some natural sunlight on your face. This will be the most natural way you can start your circadian rhythmn. Just 30 minutes of sunshine a day can help regulate your sleep patterns and increase your vitamin D at the same time. A morning walk can also get your metabolism going and improve your mood too.
Dim the Lights at Night
Just as you want to get as much bright light in the morning as possible, if you can, try to dim the lights a few hours before bedtime. This will avoid disrupting your bodies natural melatonin production and put you in that nice warm sleep state.
Switch Off Your Devices
Take a digital detox each day and if you can, leave your devices in another room so you’re not tempted to grab them. If you must use a device such as to use a sleep app, then download the track in advance and then put your phone into ‘airplane’ mode. There’s nothing worse than receiving a 2am phonecall or message when you have to be up for work in the morning. You should ideally stop using all your devices about an hour before bed to allow your mind to relax. This includes TV.
Create a Sleep Routine
Try as best you can to get up and go to bed at the same time. If you’re not sure what time to go to bed, count back 8 hours from the time you need to be up and this will give you your ideal bed time. This means if you need to get up at 6am you need to be in bed at 10pm to get your full recommended 8 hours. Then stick to this, even on weekends to avoid building up a sleep debt.
Eat a Light Meal at Night
Ideally you want to be eating your last meal 3-4 hours before you head to bed, to allow your body to digest the food. Eaiting very late can cause indegestion which can disrupt your sleep completely. As can drinking fluids too late at night too, messing up your sleep cycles.
Don’t Drink Caffeine After 2pm
Caffeine is a stimulant. It temporarily blocks the signal from a vital sleep chemical adenosine which the body keeps creating. As more and more adenosine builds up, it will eventually get through and you will experience that nasty crash feeling and not when you want it, which is when you’re asleep. It can take over 10 hours for the affects of caffeine to leave your body, so try not to drink anything with caffeine after 2pm. You should also be aware of the food you are eating too, as many foods contain caffeine too such as chocolate.
Reduce Your Alcohol
There’s no way to say it nicely, but any alcohol is poison to your body. That said, it’s fun to drink and be sociable too! But just be aware that whilst alcohol can make you drop off to sleep, the quality of sleep you’ll have will not be great. It can actually takes away quality REM sleep and you may find yourself waking up several times in the night too (even if you actually don’t remember doing this). Of course, waking up to a hangover is not much fun either!
Only Go to Bed to Sleep
Seems an odd one, but many of us use our beds as an extended office. We need our brains to associate our bed with sleep. So when you go to bed, go to bed to sleep. Don’t work from your bed, or use your laptop to write essays and social media. It will keep your brain oversensitised but will also teach your brain that this is not a room where sleep happens. Make sure your bedroom is setup with dimmed lights (until morning) if possivle, blackout curtains and that the temperature is set ideally around 18 degrees centigrade. We sleep better when it’s cooler.
Reduce Late Night Exercise
If you need to exercise at night, do so 2-3 hours before bed. Exercising too late will put your body into a state of alerness and disrupt your body’s narural rythmn and cycle into sleep. Of course, you may be shattered form the exercise, but the reality is that it’s best to workout in the day. Your body needs it’s sleep time to recover and you need to be in a calm relaxed state to sleep.
Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Part of sleeping beter is accepting that sleep is important to your life and to each day. You can experiment with different types of technology. For many, a weighted blanket can have a dramatic affect on sleep. It’s a bit like receiving a hug and it stimulates the brain into feeling ‘safe’, allowing you to relax and drop to sleep faster. You could also try different mattresses and blackout curtains. One of the benefits of moving your devices out the room is that it should reduce the little lights that will be seen more clearly in the dark which even with your eyes closed can affect your sleep. Think extension leads with an on light, they glow bright in the dark. Try and make your bedroom as dark as possible and you will sleep much deeper and fall asleep much quicker ready for the day ahead, refreshed, energised and healthy.
How to Sleep Better in the Heat
Part of falling asleep well is falling a sleep in a nice cool, dark environment. In the summer, this can be next to impossible, especially as night time temperatures can approach real feel 25c and climbing and many don’t have access to air conditioning, at least here in the UK.
With this in mind, here’s some tips and tricks to get a better nights sleep in the summer heat:
Keep Out the Heat
During the day, keep you curtains closed on the sunny sides of the house and close the windows to keep the warm air out. When you go to bed, open the windows to let the cool air in and to create a breeze that will move through the house and push out any trapped warm air. If you can, light reflecting blinds work well at repelling heat too over curtains. You could also place a fan facing out of the window to draw out warm air from the house, and push back the hot air entering through the window. This helps cool the house and gets the air circulating.
Don’t Take Naps
If you can, avoid taking naps in the day. This will ensure that come night time you will be very tired and will hopefully just nod off.
Keep Your Sleep Routine
Even if the heat stops you from falling asleep quickly, keep to your sleep routine of getting up and going to bed at the same time. This keeps your circadian rhymn in check.
Remain as Calm as Possible
Just because it’s warm at night, try not to stress. Take your mind off the heat by reading a book or listening to some music. Just because you can’t sleep, don’t start watching TV shows in bed as this will overstimulate the mind and you’ll find it even more difficult to fall asleep.
Keep Drinking Water
Make sure you don’t get dehydrated and keep drinking water throughout the day. Avoid drinking more alcohol just because it’s warm as this can dehydrate you further. It will make you feel worse in the morning too.
How to Sleep Better Summary
Hopefully you now know how to sleep better. Sleep plays a vital part of living a healthy life. If you have any questions about the role technology can play in your sleep patteners, then please don’t hesitate to reach out to us and we can let you know some of the technology we have used and tried over the years, including what worked well and what didn’t. Just make sure you’re not reading this article at 11pm at night.