It’s a demoralising experience, feeling considerably worse than it actually is in the grand scheme of things. But not being able to get to sleep – especially when you feel tired – is guaranteed to bring you low. Indeed, not getting enough sleep – and that means eight hours a night, no natter how macho you may feel in your capability to get by on less – is one of the things that will actually bring you low. Sleep staves off depression. It also improves your memory, polishes up your cognitive abilities, increases your testosterone levels, maintains your physical stamina, speed and strength. Yet sometimes sleep just will not come. Laying there in the dark and quiet only seems to make the experience all the more exasperating.
But that’s one hint our body is giving you. If you can’t get to sleep in 20 minutes or so, don’t just lie there. Get up and go to another room. Do something of low cognitive impact – like reading a book or listening to slow, quiet music – until you feel drowsy again. Think of this as a positive time – extra time to do something you enjoy. Keep the lighting low. Don’t reach for anything with a screen. It’s quite likely that it was looking at a screen in the hours – or even minutes – before bed that has kept you awake. Blue light – the kind emitted by screens – is a stimulant. It’s suppressing the circadian mechanism that kicks in to send you to sleep. Avoid consistently using your phone through the evening.
The same goes for coffee. So everyone knows that caffeine is a stimulant. Few know to what extent. In short, a single espresso – like that blue light – has a half-life that means it’s acting to suppress the brain’s sleep system for around five hours or more. The hard line is this: if you don’t want to impair your sleep – and, just so you take this seriously, disrupted sleep has been connected with a shortened lifespan – don’t drink coffee or energy drinks or any other highly-caffeinated liquid after mid-afternoon. Or switch to decaffeinated.
While you’re up and enjoying your book, eat a high carbohydrate snack – some bread, a banana, some cereal. Carb-laden foods have been shown to help regulate circadian rhythms – the chemical in and out flow that regulates your sleep. Have a cup of warm milk, as mother might have once recommended: milk contains tryptophan and calcium, both of which encourage the production of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep.
Much better to swallow these than any pill. Keeping your normal sleep system ticking over without disruption is why reaching for sleeping pills at the first hint of unwanted wakefulness is a bad idea. Yes, they work, in as much as they get you to sleep. But it’s sleep of a kind. Good sleep moves through equally important phases of what are called REM and N-REM sleep – when your brain does different things. Sleeping pills greatly reduce the amount of time your brain spends in sleep’s restorative phases. And then there are the side effects of swallowing those chemicals, not least the the grogginess/chemical hangover in the morning. As an alternative, you might consider taking a natural melatonin supplement, but only in the lowest suggested dose. Taking more that recommended will not help.
So what more practical steps can you take to get to sleep? For one, make sure your bedroom is dark – properly dark. Even with your eyes shut, your brain is remarkably sensitive to light levels (diminished light over an evening is what gradually prepares your body for sleep, and rising levels in the morning for wakefulness). Install black out curtains if sleeplessness is a recurring problem. Likewise, turn down the heating/turn up the air conditioning: your body’s core temperature necessarily drops as it moves into deeper sleep, and you can help it move towards that by keeping your bedroom cool, even a touch on the chilly side – somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees fahrenheit typically.
Next day – hopefully after a good night’s sleep – you can make some adjustments to your lifestyle too. For better sleep get plenty of exercise every day; a tired body is one that does not stay awake. And impose a routine: try to get to bed at the same time every night (at whatever will allow you to fit eight hours of sleep into your schedule) and, likewise, get up at the same time too, even if the opportunity for a lie-in presents itself. Lie-ins feel good but, contrary to myth, they do not allow the body to catch up on lost sleep, nor store up some kind of magic substance that allows you to forego sleep in the future. In fact, a lie-in is most likely going to disrupt your sleep to come, thus, of course, persuading you that you need a lie-in. You don’t.