How To Improve Your Sleep According To An Expert Physiologist
Confused about how much sleep you actually need? How to stop waking up in the night and what exactly sleep hygiene is? We put all questions on how to improve your sleep to Stephanie Romiszewski, consultant physiologist and founder of Sleepyhead Clinic…
Sleep has recently become the new wellness wonder. As a nation we are suffering from orthosomnia: the excessive focus on improving our sleep. The influx of wearable sleep tracking devices has led to us fixating over our quality of shut eye. From dousing ourselves in lavender oil, to hunting for the exact optimal temperature for hitting the hay, the mission to develop the ultimate night time routine can be overwhelming. In this week’s workshop Stephanie successfully debunks the common sleep myths that society has led us to believe, instead offering a surprisingly simple set of secrets that are key to becoming a successful sleeper…
Why do we need sleep?
The topic of sleep has become very zeitgeist, however it is estimated that we only understand 10% of the science surrounding it with research still in its infancy. What we are certain of however is that it is one of the key pillars of health, and a fundamental component to our wellbeing that we can’t survive without. Closely linked to the production of serotonin, getting good quality sleep can be a useful tool in stimulating our all important feel good hormones.
The different stages of sleep
Although we associate night time with the idea of rest, it is actually an extremely active time for your body repairing itself from the previous day through the different stages of sleep. Each type of sleep is responsible for a separate role and function, and dreaming is possible within all phases. Deep sleep is linked to our physical restoration, with the production of growth hormones, restoration of cells and reparation of muscle tears taking place during this time. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep on the other hand is responsible for cognitive performance, emotional resilience and memory consolidation, playing an equally significant role. Therefore, it is important to remember that despite the urge created by sleep trackers to chase endless hours of deep sleep, this isn’t necessary or ideal for a good nights rest.
How much sleep do we need?
Stephanie debunks the common misconception of the ‘eight hours a night’ myth, stating that ‘everyone is different’. Instead she encourages a more intuitive way of looking at sleep: ‘Your body recovers as it recovers. If you feel like you didn’t get enough sleep that is probably a better indicator than someone dictating to you how much they think you need’. Rather than worrying about the amount of sleep you got, focus on the quality.
And if you thought you could compensate for a bad nights sleep with a power nap or a lie in, think again. Stephanie dismisses the idea of sleep banking instead recommending that you stick to your regular routine and go on with the day as normal. One night of bad sleep is unable to have a significant effect on your day overall – it is how you handle it that causes the issue. ‘Slumping your shoulders, ditching the gym and canceling your social activities after work will only cause people to point out that you look awful. It’s better to stop adapting your life to the issue – that one bad night of shut eye will lead to a successful snooze the next night, if you refuse to let it dictate your day’.
What is sleep hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is the art of creating the perfect environment and daily routine to promote consistent, uninterrupted sleep. Stephanie explains how in attempting to perfect our sleep hygiene we are are actually sabotaging ourselves, overcomplicating the science behind something that is actually very straightforward.
Keep it simple. Stick to your routine during the day, find your own way that allows you to relax before bed whatever that may be, dim the lights and block out any disruptive noise from your sleeping environment. There is no need to complete an hours worth of meditation in order to wind down before bed – if anything it will probably leave you more stressed out. You can read more about how to improve your sleep hygiene in this article.
Does blue light affect sleep?
Blue light affects sleep by suppressing the secretion of melatonin which makes us feel drowsy. However, due to her firm belief that night time routines should involve doing whatever you love, rather than going cold turkey, Stephanie simply recommends turning down the brightness of your phone. If it helps you relax then there is no issue in using your device before you drift off into your dreams. You can read more about how to improve your sleep by monitoring blue light here.
How to stop waking up in the middle of the night?
It’s 4 am and you’re suddenly feeling wired? Leave the bedroom and continue the actions you were doing before bed. Removing yourself from the bedroom prevents any negative thoughts or associations being linked to the sacred sleeping space. Make sure to accept and acknowledge the fact that your body doesn’t want to sleep in that current moment, and realise that this is totally fine. Save yourself the unnecessary anxiety which can lead to problematic long-term habitual behaviours.
Sleep divorce – beneficial for relationships?
Studies have shown that couples who sleep in separate beds have more sex and happier, healthier relationships. Humans are not naturally meant to sleep with their companions. Having a partner consistently snore loudly in your ear or hog the covers can lead to restless nights impacting your mood the next day. This in turn can lead to arguments and resentment building up due to your partner leaving you sleep deprived.
Something that can be so serious and detrimental to relationships can be fixed by a small simple step: separate bedrooms. The guilt surrounding sleep divorce therefore needs to be abolished. If you’re wondering how to go about suggesting sleeping separately to your partner why not read our article on sleep divorce where we talk to sex expert Lady Victoria Howard on the bounteous benefits.
How long before bed should you stop eating?
The timing of your meals throughout the day plays a significant element in how to improve your sleep quality. Indeed eating just before going to bed signals to your body the need to metabolise the food instead of doing the all important restoration roles required during sleep. Stephanie stressed the importance of not eating any later than two hours before bed, and the role of structured meal times within your daily routine. This consistency of meal times allows your brain to have a strong circadian rhythm, which regulates your energy levels, hunger signals and metabolism efficiently.
Is magnesium good for sleep?
Despite some sources claiming that magnesium can promote better sleep, the science surrounding these assertions are uncertain. As Stephanie pointed out if there was a miracle cure for insomnia, the NHS would be quick to use it due to the expensive costs and time consuming nature of sleep therapy and treatment. This isn’t to say it you shouldn’t give it a try, especially if other methods aren’t working for you.
Do light alarm clocks really work?
Stephanie declared that light plays ‘the most influential role’ in how to improve your sleep. Our sensitivity towards it therefore can be used to our advantage when attempting to wake up naturally. ‘A light alarm will wake you far more gently than a regular alarm clock, which risks abruptly disturbing you during a period of deep sleep, leaving you feeling shocked and dislocated’.
A light alarm stimulates the third photo receptor in eye which gently nudges you into a lighter stage of sleep. This in turn allows you to feel refreshed and ready to get out of bed, due to the gradual nature of the light. Clinical studies have also shown that dawn simulation can have a dramatic effect in relieving the symptoms of SAD as well as improving mood and productivity throughout the day. Stephanie recommends investing in a light alarm that is medically graded at 10,000 lux for optimal results. Check out the Lumie Bodyclock on the DOSE shop.
What makes a good mattress?
Finding the right mattress is a crucial factor in how to improve your sleep. Investing in good bedding is beneficial for a successful snooze, with Stephanie stating that £500-£600 is the minimum amount she would spend in order to find bedding worthy of a sleep expert. In general the heavier you are the harder the mattress should be and vice versa.
Stephanie advocates taking a book to the bed shop with you, and to try before you buy! This way you can spend a leisurely thirty minutes on each mattress in order to find out if it has the potential to be a true candidate for your bedroom.
Top 5 tips for better sleep
Ditch the data
Stephanie questions the accuracy of trackers. When working with clients she uses high tech equipment worth thousands of pounds that have sensors connected to all parts of the body in order to generate precise sleep results. ‘How can a simple watch manage to do all of this?’. Not only is the validity of the data questionable, but trackers encourage unhealthy obsessive behaviours surrounding sleep. This in turn creates anxiety and insomnia only worsening issues.
Process the day
While excessive night time routines aren’t necessary for how to improve your sleep, Stephanie recommends setting aside five minutes a day to daydream. In doing so we enable our ability to process everything that has happened during the day, and allow free thought flow rather than forced rituals which can lead to even more anxiety about whether your meditation method is ‘correct’. Daydreaming allows any anxious thoughts to be compartmentalised, removing the potential for them to reappear during our all important shut eye.
Stop dictating sleep time, start dictating wake time
We shouldn’t go to bed unless we feel sleepy – ‘give yourself permission to stay up later and go and do something you enjoy to distract yourself from any anxiety surrounding not getting enough sleep’. Remember that it is better to have quality over quantity; the 4 hours of restful sleep will benefit you far greater than a whole night of tossing and turning.
Rather than dictating bed timings, focus on waking up at the same time every day and maintain a structured morning ritual that contains the essentials of light exposure and movement. Although it may be hard for the first week, the long term positive effects are overwhelming with improved mood, hunger signals and energy levels.
Move your body
We are made to move. Sitting at a desk all day in front of a screen can be detrimental to the quality of your sleep. Even if you detest exercise, strive to naturally incorporate it into your day, using unconventional methods which fool your body into working out, or multitask and get outside for a walk whilst on work call meetings.
New mothers can overcome barriers of time constraints by mapping out the day and squeezing ten or twenty minute slots of exercise with amazing resources offered by Wellness_ed. Laying out your gym kit the night before or even wearing it while working from home can help to abolish any excuses not to complete a workout.
There a multitude of platforms, some free of charge, that are available for all abilities – Nike (NRC and NTC), Apple Fitness, Fiit, or the Deliciously Ella app (which includes yoga and mindful movement and also vegan recipes!). There really isn’t any excuse to neglect this area of life.
The perfect sleeper isn’t perfect
Surprisingly the secret behind being a successful sleeper is dropping the pursuit to master the art of sleep and instead accepting that sleep isn’t something that can be perfected. Stop adapting your life around sleep problems – it will only make it worse. No enforced relaxation technique from a wellness guru is going to miraculously cure your insomnia. Realise that a perfect sleeper does not follow the fads that society tries to enforce on sleep habits. The perfect sleeper is balanced.
While 70% of the time they are well behaved, the other 30% they enjoy life to the fullest. They are unafraid to let loose on the dance floor until the early hours of the morning. They never say no to that post meal espresso at a dinner party despite claims that caffeine will keep them up all night. As long as we make up for this behaviour afterwards, by keeping a strict wake up time and morning routine, our sleep the following night will be deeper and better quality.
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