few years ago, I carried out a large-scale survey examining the lifestyles of people who
sleep well and wake up feeling refreshed. The results revealed that the secret of a great night’s sleep is surprisingly simple, and comes down to the following 12 techniques.
1 Avoid the blues
When your eyes are exposed to light, your brain produces less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially stimulating and, unfortunately, computer screens, tablets, smartphones and LED lighting all emit a lot of blue light. Try not to use these devices in the two hours before you go to bed. If you must use them, turn down the brightness or wear amber-tinted glasses designed to block blue light.
2 Tub time
There’s a decrease in your body temperature just before you fall asleep. Taking a bath or shower artificially raises your body temperature, but when you climb out of the tub or shower, this temperature abruptly drops and sends a signal to your body that you are ready for sleep. Take a bath or shower immediately before you head to bed.
3 Steer clear of the nightcap
Although a small amount of alcohol might help you get to sleep more quickly, it also gives you a more disturbed night, increases the chances of snoring and disrupts dreaming. Don’t drink alcohol in the hours before bed.
4 Follow the 90-minute rule
Every night your brain goes through several 90-minute sleep cycles. You feel good if you wake up towards the end of a cycle because then you are closest to your normal waking state. To increase the chances of this, decide when you want to wake up and then count back in 90 minutes blocks to discover the best time to fall asleep. For instance, if you want to wake up at 8am, you should aim to fall asleep around either 11pm or 12.30am.
5 Distract your brain
Although scientists have yet to assess the impact of counting sheep, research suggests that you will fall asleep quickly if you tire your mind. Try counting backwards from 100 in threes. Or, if you’re not good with numbers, think of a category (countries or fruit and vegetables) and then come up with an example of that category for each letter of the alphabet. A is for Albania, B is for Bulgaria, or A is for apple, B is for banana, etc.
6 Make a list
Are you struggling to fall asleep because you are worrying about a problem, or thinking about what you need to do the next day? Put a notepad on your bedside table and, before you nod off, make a list of what’s on your mind or make a to-do list for the next morning.
7 Try the magic yawn
Your behaviour influences how you feel. For instance, smiling makes you feel happy, and forcing your face into a frown makes you feel sad. The same is true of sleep. Fool your body into thinking that you are tired by letting your eyes droop, your arms and legs feel heavy, and even faking a yawn or two.
8 Fool yourself
If you want to nod off, try to keep your eyes open and stay awake. Oddly, attempting to stay awake is surprisingly tiring and helps you fall asleep. But remember that you have to use the power of your mind – you must try to keep your eyes open (you are allowed to blink), but are not allowed to read, watch television, or move about.
9 Condition yourself
Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov famously rang a bell each time he presented a dog with food, and eventually found that the sound of the bell alone was enough to make the dog salivate. The same concept can help you to fall asleep. Choose a soporific piece of music that you like, and fall asleep with it quietly playing. Over time, your brain will associate the music with sleep, and simply listening to it will help you nod off.
10 Don’t just lie there
If you’re awake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, get out of bed and do some form of non-stimulating activity, such as working on a jigsaw or a colouring book (avoid bright lights and computer screens). This helps to prevent you associating your bed with sleeplessness. And if the problem arises later in the night, climb back out of bed and distract yourself again.
11 Relax, don’t worry
Lying awake makes many people feel anxious, and this anxiety disrupts their sleep even more, creating a vicious cycle. If you are struggling to sleep, remember that you are probably getting more sleep than you think (research shows that we all underestimate how much of the night we spend sleeping) and that just relaxing in bed is good for you.
12 Consider segmented sleep
Preindustrial diaries and medical books show that many people didn’t sleep in one solid block, but instead slept for about four hours, woke up for roughly an hour, and then slept for another four hours.
The hour between the two periods was spent thinking, reading, chatting and having sex.
Some modern-day researchers have argued that such “segmented sleep” might reflect a natural sleep pattern, and be good for the mind because the period of wakefulness helps to promote the production of a feelgood hormone called prolactin. If you tend to wake in the middle of the night, try embracing segmented sleep.
Professor Richard Wiseman is based at the University of Hertfordshire, and is the author of Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep (MacMillan).