Do you wake up in the morning feeling exhausted? Find it challenging to fall asleep when you go to bed? Do you burn the midnight oil binge watching TV or catching up on work? You’re not alone.
It’s been reported that 36% of adults in the UK find it difficult to slip into a deep slumber at least once a week, and – for the record – women have more trouble falling asleep than men. During the pandemic, “How to sleep fast” has been a commonly searched sleep-related term in Google, unsurprisingly between the dark hours of 3 and 4 am.
With self-care being so scrutinzed over the last 18 months, most of us know that sticking to a regular sleeping schedule is immensely important for our health and well-being. Good sleep habits are fundamental to our immune system (arguably our closest ally right now). Don’t give your body what it needs, and it will rebel: it’s been proven in a scientific study that people sleeping less than 7 hours per night are more likely to develop minor diseases such as winter colds¹. Sleep deprivation is also associated with more serious illness, including a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and cancer². But if that doesn’t send you running for some shut eye, lack of sleep has also been linked to higher levels of mental distress, increasing the incidence of depression and anxiety³.
According to science, the following six methods will help you reach your sleep goals.
Early morning light viewing
Every cell in our body has a 24 clock and if we interfere with this circadian rhythm we’re in for restless nights. The way to set ourselves up for success is to get outside into morning within the first hour after waking, and ideally spend 20 minutes soaking in some photons. Dr Andrew Huberman, Prof of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University, explains that the way our cells know its daytime is through the eye – neurons are activated by the wave lengths of light when its rising. This triggers a cortisol pulse that generates focus and activation for the day, but also sets a 16 hour timer before the release of melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep. Avoid screens first thing, and get natural light into your eye to give your body the correct cues for optimal day and night functioning.
Diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training (DBRT) is an effective – and instant – way in which you can improve your sleep quality. Diaphragmatic breathing refers to the act of breathing while consciously engaging your diaphragm, stomach, and abdominal muscles.
In a study led by Yu Liu, a total of 140 nurses in Wuhan China were asked to complete a DBRT session every night before going to sleep⁴. It took only four weeks to see the first results. First-line nurses who completed each session achieved a significant improvement in their sleep quality proving how breathing techniques are in fact correlated to better sleep. If you’re willing to take 10 minutes to breathe before bed, then try listening to our recent Insta Live between Leapfrog founder Stephanie Drax and the ‘Breath Guru’ Alan Dolan.
Restricting screen time
After a long day at work, our energy levels are so low that binge-watching Netflix seems all we can cope with. The trouble is, once we go to bed we find ourselves staring at the ceiling wondering why we can’t fall asleep. Watching Netflix may require less energy than reading a book, but the television’s stimulating blue light also keeps us awake. It disrupts our circadian rhythm and reducing our synthesis of melatonin because our body thinks it’s day time.
In 2020, the scholar Jing-wen He recruited thirty-eight participants to prove whether screen time has an influence on our sleep³. Half of the participants were asked to avoid using their mobile phones 30 minutes before going to sleep while the other half stuck to their usual routine. After only four weeks, researchers found that the participants who restricted their mobile usage had significantly increased their sleep duration.
Sacrificing a meagre 30 minutes of screen time could make all the difference. Set yourself a bedtime reminder and stick to it.
Our diet has an impact on every aspect of our lives including sleep. A study by Justyna Godos has proven how a Mediterranean diet can have huge benefits on your sleeping schedule, being directly associated with better sleep quality⁵. But what does a Mediterranean diet consist of? According to the study, a Mediterranean diet is characterized by high consumption of vegetables, fruit, legumes, and nuts and a preference for whole-grain cereals, fish and dairy products.
Be mindful that low magnesium levels could be interfering with your ability to sleep. Magnesium is a mineral that has a calming effect on the brain and nervous system and can promote a deep sleep – it’s found in meat, fish and green vegetables.
Fun fact: pistachios contain more melatonin that other legumes and fruits and are also a source of protein, Vitamin B6 and magnesium. Eating pistachios – as few as two – will contribute to a natural rise in your melatonin levels helping you fall asleep and stay asleep.
Have you ever spent a sleepless night worrying about a certain assignment or task? Try some mindfulness exercises. A study led by Way K. W. Lau recruited 364 healthy participants and found that awareness and acceptance are valuable mindfulness mechanisms for improving sleep quality as they help reduce psychological distress⁶.
Practicing meditation or keeping a personal diary are valuable methods to channel awareness and acceptance, and they will help you mitigate your psychological distress resulting in better sleep quality.
We all know that physical activity is beneficial to our bodies in so many ways, but not many people know what type of activity can help us fight insomnia. In order to answer this question, Feifei Wang and Szilvia Boros conducted a systematic review by searching a number of academic papers published from January 2010 and June 2018². Their study found that moderate physical activity is more effective than vigorous activity for improving sleep quality.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep, try to implement some moderate exercise in your routine such as 30 minutes of aerobics. A brisk walk or a bike commute could have the same effect.
Note: If you continue to have trouble sleeping, do speak to your GP who may be able to unlock the issues causing the insomnia.
Here comes the Science…
1. Cohen, Sheldon, et al. “Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold.” Archives of internal medicine 169.1 (2009): 62-67.
2. Wang, Feifei, and Szilvia Boros. “The effect of physical activity on sleep quality: a systematic review.” European Journal of Physiotherapy 23.1 (2021): 11-18.
3. He, Jing-wen, et al. “Effect of restricting bedtime mobile phone use on sleep, arousal, mood, and working memory: a randomized pilot trial.” PloS one 15.2 (2020): e0228756.
4. Liu, Yu, et al. “The effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training for improving sleep quality among nursing staff during the COVID-19 outbreak: a before and after study.” Sleep medicine 78 (2021): 8-14.
5. Godos, Justyna, et al. “Adherence to the mediterranean diet is associated with better sleep quality in Italian adults.” Nutrients 11.5 (2019): 976.
6. Lau, Way KW, et al. “Potential mechanisms of mindfulness in improving sleep and distress.” Mindfulness 9.2 (2018): 547-555.