What if you are not sleeping well?
As a rule, you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go. If sleep doesn’t come there may be some other adjustments you could make.
I hate it when I can’t sleep and am ruthless in tracking down the source of sleeplessness. Here are a few tips to aid a good nights sleep:
Make your bedroom dark, cosy and relaxing. Our sleep improved greatly when we lined our curtains! Light streaming into your bedroom as dawn breaks will trigger a chemical in your body that is designed to wake you up. Keep the room dark and you will sleep until your alarm goes off or your body has had sufficient sleep.
Ditch the TV. It may seem cool to have a TV in the bedroom, but it is a real intrusion. The temptation to watch the news before going to sleep will fill your head with information it has to process. Much better to read a book in low lighting.
Keep the lighting as low as is comfortable to read. Install a dimmer switch or get lamps that have a dimmer setting. Lowering the light before you sleep signals to your body that night is on its way and your body will prepare for sleep.
Ban the smart phone. Using social networks, sending emails, or browsing the web just before sleep will stimulate the brain with lots of rapid-fire information. This will inhibit sleep and wake your body up, even though you have run out of emotional energy to deal with the information. Better to read a book – a biography or a novel.
If your smart phone or tablet is the culprit, ban it from the bedroom. Switch your phone off and leave it in another room. Even the buzz of a vibrating phone can disrupt your sleep. Unless you are the President of America, or Batman, you don’t need your phone in the bedroom.
Avoid horror movies. I haven’t watched a real horror movie since the 1980s. The reason? They stopped me sleeping properly. Why would I scare myself witless just before bedtime? Come to think of it, why would I scare myself witless at all? When you watch horror your mind will have to process the things it has seen. It does this by replaying them in your head. Not helpful if you want to sleep!
Avoid afternoon and evening caffeine. I know people who drink coffee before bedtime. How they sleep I’ll never know. They’re the miracle people. But most of us won’t sleep with caffeine in our system. It’s in coffee but it’s also in tea – lots of teas not just ‘normal’ tea. It’s also in cola drinks and most energy drinks.
In the long list of drugs, caffeine is seen as mild, and with good reason. Compared to the effects of drugs such as cocaine and heroin, caffeine affects the brain in much less severe ways. Which is why it might come as a surprise that caffeine is not just an addictive drug, it’s also a model drug of dependence
Caffeine is produced by more than seventy-five plants, which use it as a pesticide. That’s right – a pesticide! When we consume caffeine, our body thinks that some kind of emergency is happening. It floods itself with dopamine, epinephrine, cortisol, and acetylcholine. That’s what gives us that feeling of stimulation and being wide awake and alert.
Caffeine takes a long time to be metabolized by the body – roughly six hours. This means that at bedtime, some of that lunchtime coffee is still floating around in the bloodstream. And that may prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep, resulting in sleepiness the next day.
Avoid sugar. Refined sugar in desserts, sweets or treats is really unhealthy to the human body. But even natural sugars found in fruit can stimulate the body when we are trying to sleep. Excess refined sugar gives us a quick high, followed by a severe crash in our body’s system. As the body tries to deal with this assault, our sleep may be disturbed.
Avoid alcohol. If you think alcohol will help you sleep, you’ve been misinformed. I used to think I would never sleep unless I had a drink before bedtime. Although alcohol has the effect of initially stupefying our system, it will also disrupt our sleep, preventing the deep refreshing sleep we need. It also stimulates our appetite for food.
If you are going to have a little glass of something, do it much earlier in the evening so that the body has processed the alcohol before you try to sleep.
Ditch the grudge. Holding a nagging grudge with anyone will disturb your sleep. As you try to relax, your mind, free from other cares of the day, will naturally turn to resolving the problem of the grudge. Your mind is trying to protect itself by looking for resolution. If you are unwilling to let go of something in the past, your mind will go round in endless circles, rehearsing every possible scenario until daylight comes in the morning.
Move. If your sleep is being disturbed because you live in a noisy location, try to make a quality life change by finding out if it is possible to relocate to somewhere quieter. A few years ago, we lived near the town centre and were often disturbed at the weekends by drunks staggering home in the early hours. We have moved less than a mile from there and it is so quiet in the night now. It took us a while, some effort, and the chaos of moving house, but it was worth it. Not only is the house better, the nights are so much quieter.
Two sleeps a night are fine!
There is a huge difference between not getting off to sleep at all and waking in the middle of the night. If you wake in the middle of the night for an hour or two and then go back to sleep before morning, don’t worry. That is quite normal.
Evidence suggests that humans used to sleep in two different chunks. We didn’t always sleep for an average of eight hours straight. Instead we would sleep in two shorter periods throughout the night. Sleep started with three or four hours of sleep, followed by being awake for three hours or so and then sleeping again until the morning.
Researchers conducted an experiment where fourteen people were put into complete darkness for fourteen hours a day for an entire month. By the fourth week the participants were able to settle into a very distinct sleeping pattern. The pattern was the same as our ancestors; the subjects slept for approximately four hours, woke for another few and then went back to sleep until morning.
References to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late seventeenth century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next two hundred years filtered down to the rest of Western society. By the 1920′s the idea of a first and second sleep had entirely disappeared from our social consciousness.
Historian Craig Koslofsky suggests:
‘Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute – criminals, prostitutes and drunks. Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night.’
Things changed, however, in 1667 when Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets, and eventually throughout Europe staying up at night became the social norm, and then the industrial revolution happened.
Eventually, we got to the point where parents were forcing their children to sleep at a certain time, and forced them out of the segmented sleeping pattern that was more dominant.
Many sleeping problems may have their roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep. Waking up during the night could be part of normal human physiology. The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block may be damaging. If it makes people who wake up at night anxious, this anxiety can itself prohibit sleep and is likely to affect waking life too.
As for what people did during this in between time of wakefulness, research suggests that they used the time to think about their dreams, read, pray or engage in spiritual practices.
So, what could it be that is disrupting your sleep?
‘Night is coming, when no-one can work.’