Monday, 12 September 2016

The Scientific Secrets to Successful Sleep

by Floss Willcox

Now that term has re-started, we are all reluctantly returning to the tedious routine of early mornings, long lessons and disjointed bedtimes. Most of us will have got into a relaxing habit of not caring at all about when or how we sleep over the summer. In between late night parties and events, combined (for a lucky few) with confusing time differences and long aeroplane flights, we have ample time to catch up on sleep with daytime naps and lie-ins until as late as we want. But many find that the sudden increase in brain and physical activity which is associated with the new school term seems to require so much more sleep, as we all walk around the corridors like zombies.

If the reason you feel so tired is that you're struggling to get a decent night’s sleep, it's probably because you have to wake up ridiculously early, (maybe even earlier if Southern are striking again…) and it's impossible to go bed at a “sensible time” because you have a hundred essays due tomorrow, or you had that hockey match, or you had a singing lesson, or you had to watch the season finale of that tv show, or the Twitter beef was just too good to miss last night.
These problems are solved through your own choices, but when it comes to that point when you're in bed, finally ready for some well-earned shut-eye, there's nothing more frustrating than rolling around for hours trying to fall asleep without being able to instantly do so. As you count down the hours you have left before the alarm will start the whole day again, it seems like there's nothing you can do to speed up the process of dozing off. And aside from counting sheep (if you really believe that works) you're right, there's not much you can do. Well, according to the latest scientific research across a range of disciplines that affect our sleep habits, that's not strictly true - there's something you can do tomorrow night.

Here is how you can use science to get the most out of your precious hours in bed.

Reduce Noise
Many claim that listening to music as they fall asleep is their secret to success, and so that might work for some, but you aren't getting the most out of your rest. As we drift into light sleep, stimuli from our sense organs become partially blocked by our brains, but we are evolved to keep our sound receptors engaged while we sleep, which is why we are awoken much more vigorously by a sudden alarm clock than a bad smell. So even as we sleep, gentle repetitive music may lull us into a snooze, but our brains are constantly detecting and interpreting the noises we hear, which makes our brain work a lot harder than it should do while we are asleep. Sudden changes in rhythm or pitch also interrupt our sleep cycle, even if it doesn't actually fully wake you up. Ensuring you are in a completely quiet environment while you sleep will make for a much more restful and productive night for your brain.

Keep it Dark
Since prehistoric times, evolution has been programming us with a 24-hour body clock which responds mainly to light in order to sync our sleep cycles with the rise and fall of the sun. Daylight prompts our brains to reduce the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which naturally makes us feel more alert, so it is vital to make your sleeping environment as dark as possible when you are falling asleep. This sounds obvious - who sleeps with the bedroom light on? But the biggest issue is our mobile phones. One in eight of us have our mobile phones switched on by our bed while we sleep, and the constant temptation to light up the screen to check social media might be what's causing your sleep deprivation. The bright background light entering your retina at a time when your brain has already adjusted to a dark environment sends your body the subconscious message that “the sun is up, time to re-engage your body ready for a new day”. This obviously makes it much harder to persuade your body and brain to go back into sleep mode just a few minutes later, especially when you are repetitively turning the screen on and off. Prove your self-control and turn off your phone, or if you must keep up with the late night social media: get up, turn on the bedroom light, and don't turn it off again until you are certain you are ready to sleep. This is the kindest way to treat your body which has no possible way of understanding why “the sun” keeps “rising and setting” while it is trying to prepare itself for sleep.

Think About Your Food and Drink
If getting to sleep is becoming a real issue, perhaps consider what you eat just before you get into bed. Foods containing a chemical called tyramine, such as bacon, cheese, nuts and red wine, can keep us awake at night. This is because tyramine triggers the release of noradrenaline, a brain stimulant, and this prevents our bodies from engaging in the usual sleep cycles that we have while we drift off. Obviously caffeine is a similar stimulant and can remain in our system for many hours after consumption, but it's effects on individuals vary depending on a huge variety of factors. Either way, avoid strong caffeine drinks like coffee, energy drinks and Coca-Cola later on in the day. The final big one is alcohol. You will often have no trouble falling asleep after a glass of wine or a big boozy night out, but it's how it affects you while you sleep which can be just as disadvantageous. In the course of a night we usually have six to seven cycles of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, during which our brains process the information we've absorbed during the day. This leaves us feeling refreshed, but a night of drinking means we'll typically have only one to two cycles and wake up feeling tired.

Cut the Stress and Postpone the Excitement
No matter what they're about, a mind full of busy thoughts is detrimental to your sleep. Whether you're buzzing with anticipation or happy past memories, or your freaking out over exams or re-living a recent bad experience over and over in your mind, this keeps your brain distracted from the job of sending your body to sleep and results often in only fragmented and irregular cycles of brief snoozes. If it's absolutely impossible to relax your mind and block these highly-engaging thoughts, it's recommended to get up and do an activity such as a puzzle, reading a book, or tidying your bedroom. This ten or fifteen minutes you lose in the short term is more than made up for when you return to your bed and are then able to engage in a deeper, more regular sleep with the remaining time you have left before the alarm goes off again.

One in three of us suffer from poor sleep, and we you don't act to improve this it's no secret that we tend to get grumpy, less productive, less engaged and generally more annoying to be around! But as well as these commonplace characteristics, research has shown you are also more likely to catch colds, put on weight, suffer from depression and even have reduced fertility.

Hopefully this article has helped you think more carefully about how and when you shut your eyes tonight. 

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