The demands of modern life and our penchant for resisting the universal, biological need for shut-eye mean we’re squeezing more into our waking lives — but at what cost to our nightly slumber?
Of the 20,000 people we surveyed for our recent sleep snapshot, just 12 percent said they wake up feeling refreshed — and 75 percent said they have trouble falling asleep at least some of the time.
If these results are anything to go by, many of us struggle to hit the hay and get good sleep.
But since you’re going to spend a third of your life dozing, it’s worth developing some healthy habits.
Make the right amount of sleep a priority
It’s important to set aside enough time to get adequate sleep each night.
On average, adults need eight hours to feel properly rested. Some require slightly less while others require a little more — it’s best to listen to your own body.
According to the Sleep Health Foundation, poor sleepers often make a habit of getting fragmented sleep by spending too much time in bed. Unless you have lengthy sleep requirements, you should limit your time in bed to no more than 8.5 hours.
While your experience of sleep changes as you get older, your sleep requirements remain largely the same. Unless a sleep problem has developed, seven to eight hours is the recommended nightly dose for adults aged 65 and above.
Stick to a consistent sleeping pattern
Going to bed and getting up at about the same time each day is one of the best ways to set your internal body clock’s sleep-wake rhythm.
Despite the sanctity of the Sunday morning sleep in, this directive applies on weekends too. Choose a wake time that works for you and aim to get up within 30 minutes of that time, seven days a week.
According to sleep experts, you should avoid sleeping in, even if you have had a poor night’s sleep.
The extra sleep drive will help you consolidate sleep the following night, and sleeping in late can actually disrupt your body clock.
Soon after waking, seek out morning light. Light exposure helps reset your biological clock, and reminds you that it’s time to get up.
Gently wind down from the day
Overstimulation of the mind or body before bed can make sleep both difficult and delayed.
Ease the transition from wake time to sleep time by gently winding down with a period of relaxing activities an hour or so before bed.
Steer clear of blue screens, vigorous exercise, doing work or discussing emotional issues. Instead, try to listen to music, read a book, watch television or take a bath.
It may help to set aside time earlier in the day to reflect on any worries or concerns you have and how you might deal with them. This can help you avoid recurring stressful thoughts when your head hits the pillow.
Once you’re in bed, pleasant and somewhat repetitive mental imagery can help soothe an active mind. Practicing meditation can also be very useful.
Create a sleep haven
Your bedroom should be quiet, dark, comfortable and slightly cool.
Avoid using computers, mobile phones or watching television in bed, and remove any physical reminders of work that might prompt stressful thoughts. To strengthen the association your brain makes between being in bed and being asleep, limit your bedroom activities to sleep and sex.
As night falls, the sunset outside will promote your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Reinforce this biological response by reducing the amount of artificial light you expose yourself to, at least 30 minutes prior to bed.
Turn off your screens
Our internal body clocks are highly sensitive to the blue light emitted by mobile, laptop and tablet devices.
Researchers at Harvard University found screen time before bed suppresses melatonin secretion, delays the circadian clock, prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, and reduces alertness the following morning.
Keep your use of bright screens and interactive technology to earlier in the evening.
Limit your consumption of caffeine and alcohol
Caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, coca cola and energy drinks act as stimulants that almost certainly interfere with sleep.
It’s recommended that you avoid caffeine for four to six hours before bed. Similarly, smokers should refrain from using tobacco products too close to bedtime, as nicotine also acts as a stimulant.
When it comes to alcohol, it may help to initially bring on sleep — but its sedative effects wear off after just a few hours. It increases your likelihood of waking up, and decreases the quality of your sleep. Alcohol also makes sleep problems like snoring and sleep apnoea worse.
Similar to caffeine, it’s best to avoid alcohol in the hours leading up to bed time.
Get active and eat early
Regular exercise is a great way to improve your sleep, and studies show that people sleep better when they routinely work out. The key, though, is in the timing: try not to work up a sweat too close to bedtime.
Exercise in the morning is a terrific way to wake up your body. If your schedule only permits you to work out after dark, consider lower-intensity activities like yoga or Pilates.
It’s important not to go to bed hungry, but you should avoid heavy meals when it’s late — having a full stomach makes it difficult to sleep. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, the evening meal should be at least two to three hours before bedtime.
If you do have a snack before going to sleep, it should be small and light. And try to limit your fluids, so that you don’t have to get up during the night to go to the toilet.
Limit naps to 30 minutes
Many of us begin to feel tired in the early afternoon, and napping can be a great way to improve alertness and concentration. Naps can also be of great benefit to shift workers, and help drivers stay awake for longer — but this comes with a few caveats.
When you feel sleepy, it’s best to take a nap between 15 and 30 minutes. If you nap regularly, you should try to nap at the same time each day.
Napping for too long or too late in the day can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. A nap does not replace good quality sleep at night, and should only be used when your nightly slumber is not enough.
Don’t watch the clock — get up!
Staring at a clock when you’re trying to fall asleep tends to make you anxious and stressed about not being asleep.
If you have a clock you can see overnight, take the clock out of your room, or turn it around to face the wall.
If you find you can’t get to sleep, experts recommend getting out of bed and doing something you find relaxing until you feel drowsy again.
Keep the lights dim, and when you become tired and ready to sleep, return to bed.
Commit to changing your habits
It’s not always possible to follow these guidelines, but you should try to stick to them on most days.
If healthy sleeping habits are maintained, chances are your sleep will improve.
Keep in mind that changing poor sleeping habits can take six weeks or more — so hang in there.
That said, more severe sleeping problems require the attention of a doctor or specialist. If your sleeping problems persist, it’s best to consult your GP.