Stop the Sheep

If your nights are filled with fences and sheep, here’s how to swap them for a nice deep sleep...
Thursday , 14 April 2011
Stop the Sheep

You’ve done the warm milk, been wrinkled by the hot bath and you’ve totted up so many sheep you feel guilty when wearing a jumper. But still, getting a good night’s sleep is impossible. Sound familiar? Recent research has found 60 per cent of adults admit to struggling to sleep, leaving us not just grumpy and frustrated, but in danger of serious health issues as a new study by the European heart journal discovered that a lack of kip can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke. “Sleep is an essential part of the ‘health’ triangle – along with diet and exercise – that is essential for wellbeing and happiness,” explains independent sleep researcher, Dr Neil Stanley (thesleepconsultant.com). “All areas of our lives are affected by it, from our physical and mental health to our personal and professional relationships.” And sadly, he believes that it’s women in their 30s who are at a significant high risk of sleeplessness due to them having “busier lives than ever, trying to juggle careers, relationships and, in many cases, a family,” says Stanley.

The good news is that the idea that we’re all supposed to be slotting eight snuggly hours of it into each day is a myth. “How much sleep you require differs from person to person,” says Stanley. “And the amount you need is enough to make you feel awake, alive and effective during daylight hours.” Easier said than done though, eh? Thankfully there are many ways to super-boost your sleep and Stanley says you should start preparing to hit your pillow from the moment you wake up. But before you start fretting about having one more thing to squeeze into your schedule, don’t. Read on for tips on how to stop your snoozing struggles and get set for a successful sleep tight...

During the Day

Don’t just sit there

Most of us drive or taxi-it to work and spend our days plonked in front of a screen, so when it comes to sleeping, while our minds may be exhausted, our bodies are packed with energy. “People who exercise get a better quality

of sleep,” Stanley confirms. “Getting your heart pumping through swimming, cycling or running just three times a week for 20-30 minutes will make a difference.” He does warn not to exercise less than four hours before you go to bed though, as you need to give your body enough time to relax before you hit the pillow.

Set your ‘food clock’

“The body likes to prepare for things to happen and eating regularly will tell it that bedtime is coming,” says Stanley. He recommends avoiding heavy meals up to three hours before bedding down, but suggests that no matter how late, you should always eat something before you sleep. Wondering what to nibble on? The NHS recommends foods like houmous, eggs and turkey, which all contain tryptophan – the amino acid that generates serotonin and is the neurotransmitter that calms your brain.

Curb your vices

That after-dinner coffee or sneaky cigarette can make an impact on how well you nod off. “Caffeine and tobacco are both stimulants,” explains professor Colin Espie, director of the University of Glasgow Sleep Centre and co-founder of Sleepio (sleepio.com). “They pep up your central nervous system which will keep you awake. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a depressant, which means that while it may help you slumber, withdrawal symptoms can wake you up.”

During the Evening

Create your crib

Chances are, you do a lot more than just sleep in your bedroom (and no, we’re not talking about that!). These days we use it for everything – watching TV, working, chatting to your mum on Skype – it’s no longer the tranquil oasis that it used to be. “But to get a good night’s sleep your environment has to be peaceful – think of it as creating a ‘nest’ for yourself,” says Stanley. Here’s how:

● Choose your bed wisely

So, we justify spending Dhs1,500 on a handbag, but many of us rarely think about investing so much in a bed. While it comes down to preference, Stanley says “the bigger it is, the better!” Head somewhere like And So To Bed (andsotobed.co.uk) on Jumeira Beach Road and try before you buy. You may think you need two pillows but maybe no pillows is right for you. You might need a thick duvet or perhaps just a sheet. The key is to experiment.

● Enter the darkness

Your bedroom should not be brightly lit, even before bedtime. Our brain responds to the dark by releasing the sleep hormone, melatonin, into the body, so the room should be very dark once you’ve switched the light off. Espie recommends thick curtains or blinds and a sleep mask if it suits.

● Crank up the air con

“A room that’s too hot (usually more than 24C) can cause restlessness, whereas one that’s too cold (less than 12C) can make it difficult to get to sleep. The ideal temperature is around 16-18C,” says Stanley. Bring on the air con!

● Switch off

What’s the last thing you do before you dive into the duvet? Whether it’s switching off Desperate Housewives, checking your mortgage statement or a fast Facebook session to friends back home, chances are that you don’t give your mind time to unwind beforehand. And according to Stanley, this is because most of us don’t know how to switch off anymore. “It’s imperative that you remove yourself from your day at least half an hour before you get into bed.” How you do this is down to you, but it shouldn’t include stimulants like your mobile phone, the TV or your laptop, which can all perk you up. “Be it a drink, meditation, reading a book on your balcony – calm your brain and a calm night in bed will follow.”

● Make a list

The deadline you’ve got to meet. The colour to paint the living room. The dress you need to buy. Are these the type of things ruling your brain at 3am? “It can be hard to gain perspective on your thoughts, especially in the middle of the night,” says Stanley. For this reason, he suggests writing two lists before you get into bed; one of the things you need to do  the next day and how you’ll achieve them, the other of any extra niggles you may have. “When you find yourself lying in bed thinking about these issues, remind yourself that you have a plan of action in place already, to be dealt with when you’re most capable of solving problems – wide awake, in the cold light of day.”

During the Night

Sleeping with the enemy

Whether it’s your other half snoring, wriggling or lashing out, studies have found that, on average, couples suffer 50 per cent more sleep disturbances if they share a bed. “If your husband is stopping a good night’s sleep then it might be worth considering seperate bedrooms,” suggests Stanley. So, it’s not very romantic, but neither is arguing the next day when you’ve had a bad night’s sleep. Rather, join up again at the weekend – it’ll give you something to look forward to!

Learn to relax

It’s been 57 minutes and 43 seconds and you’re still wide awake. “Lying in the darkness, willing yourself to drop off isn’t going to work,” says Espie. Rather, he recommends a specific technique; Progressive Muscle Relaxation that has been proven to ease you into a relaxed state. The next time you’re tossing and turning, take 10 minutes to rehearse it:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation: “Turn your attention to your arms and hands,” says Espie. “Create tension in them by pressing your fingers into your palms and making fists. Do it with both hands, your fingers, wrists and forearms. Keep it going for a few seconds, now let go, let those hands flop and do whatever they want to do. You’ll find that your fingers will just straighten out and flop. Breathing slowly and deeply, think of the word ‘relax’ each time you breathe out – your hands and arms should relax more and more. Your arms and your hands are now so heavy and rested, it’s almost as if you couldn’t be bothered to move them. Let go of the energy and tension that was in the muscles, breathing slowly and deeply.”

● Find links to buy the full Progressive Relaxation audio on sleepio.com and find out more about your sleep at worldsleepsurvey.com.