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Learn how to sleep better – 21 tried & tested tips from an ex-insomniac

How to sleep better - image of woman in bed

What’s the Idea?

Getting a good night’s sleep can really improve your mood. Here’s 21 tips on how to sleep better – from someone who used to be an insomniac!

What’s the story

I used to have terrible trouble sleeping.

The worst bout of insomnia I ever had was when I was a student.

For some reason I never managed to get to sleep before about 5am – even when I was going to bed at a reasonable time.

That lasted for about 6 weeks.

At one point I honestly thought I was going to go mad!

I also struggled with anxiety and depression which I now think was partly linked to my insomnia.

Over my years of research, I came to understand the huge difference getting a good night’s sleep can make.

Now I’m happy to say that I generally sleep pretty well, apart from waking up in the night for an hour or so from time to time.

(A vast improvement on my previous sleep performance!)

I know when you’re in the throws of insomnia it feels like you will never sleep again.

So I wanted to share 21 tips on how to sleep better which I have collected over the years.

Perhaps not all the tips will work for everyone, but there’s bound to be a few in there which will help you personally.

People should do this because…?

Sleep is absolutely essential to life.

The minimum we should all be getting is around 7 or 8 hours.

This is enough time for your brain to cycle through the various stages of sleep, leaving you feeling rested the next day.

Bearing in mind that REM sleep doesn’t really occur until right at the end of the sleep cycle, and is the one you most need.

(Find out about the 5 stages of sleep here.)

Interestingly, people with anxiety or depression tend to sleep for less than 6 hours a night.

Some of the long-term effects of sleep deprivation are:

  • Mood changes, anxiety and depression
  • Trouble with memory and concentration
  • Weakened immunity
  • Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease
  • High blood pressure

So learning how to sleep better is highly beneficial both in the short and long-term.

How do you do it?

If you would like to learn how to sleep better, I personally have used all 21 of these tips and have found them to make a big difference.

Tip 1 – No caffeine after 12pm

Well, that’s what I do, but I am very sensitive to caffeine. Maybe you could cut off a bit later, but certainly by mid-afternoon.

I also only drink decaf coffee and mostly green tea or chamomile tea.

Caffeine can stay in your body for a long time after drinking it – 5 hours or more.

So it really can have a detrimental effect on sleep.

And don’t forget that caffeine is found in chocolate as well as tea and coffee!

Tip 2 – Cut right back on alcohol

I know people rarely want to hear this, but honestly, alcohol disturbs your sleep like nothing else.

It’s because it is a sedative and makes you less receptive to brain signals.

So your brain helpfully turns up the volume!

That’s why you can have crazy dreams and wake up frequently in the night after a heavy drinking session.

If you’re finding it hard to cut down on alcohol, One Year No Beer is a really good support programme.

Tip 3 – Reduce screen time, especially at night

I think most people know this now, however whether or not we do it is another question!

It’s to do with the ‘blue light’ emitted by screens.

It’s been shown to suppress melatonin, which is one of the hormones we need to sleep.

So ideally you shouldn’t have a TV in the bedroom.

Also you should avoid looking at your phone or laptop 1-2 hours before bedtime (easier said than done!)

I have also seen advice around not using e-readers (e.g. Kindle) but I have to say they don’t seem to make much difference for me personally.

Tip 4 – Keep to a regular bedtime and getting up time

This one seems impossible when you’re exhausted at 6pm and can barely keep your eyes open.

However, establishing a routine will ‘train’ your brain to sleep at certain times.

If you need to stay awake until bedtime but you’re struggling, try some light exercise, such as yoga, or a gentle walk.

And set your alarm for the morning and try to get up within 10 minutes of it going off.

If you stay in a horizontal position, then your brain and body relaxes again and it’s harder to get going.

Tip 5 – Invest in the best mattress, pillows, and covers you can afford

A firm mattress and natural fibre pillows and bed-covers will go a long way to helping you sleep better.

A combination of memory foam and pocket sprung seems to be the best option for mattresses.

(See the Which? report here.)

If you don’t want to use goose down or any kind of feather for ethical reasons, then there’s various options available to you.

Find out more at moralfibres.co.uk.

Tip 6 – Take a herbal supplement

I’m not personally a fan of taking melatonin, which some people recommend for both insomnia and jet lag.

It just never really agreed with me.

However I have used both Nytol and Valerian root.

These have both succeeded in getting me off to sleep (although they don’t always stop me waking up in the night).

Tip 7 – Wear natural fibre night clothes or nothing at all

You may not know that your body temperature fluctuates during the night.

It’s a natural part of your body clock meaning you cool down in the evening ready to sleep, and warm up in the early hours, ready to wake up.

If you’re like me, this can mean that you wake up between 4 and 5 am, absolutely boiling!

And then it’s very hard to get back to sleep.

To get round this I wear cotton night clothes, or sometimes nothing at all – like Marilyn Monroe(!)

(Possibly too much information!)

Tip 8 – If it’s hot, keep a window open

In the Spring and Summer I tend to keep a window open to sleep.

You might not feel you need it when you first go to bed, but it can really help keep you asleep during the night.

The only challenge you might have is that this lets light and noise in, so you may want to invest in an eye mask and/or ear plugs.

Tip 9 – Use an eye mask and/or blackout curtains

Speaking of which….

Personally I am super light sensitive, so I always have blackout blinds or curtains in the bedroom.

I also make sure that all phone and clock radio lights are hidden.

It can be a nightmare in hotel bedrooms sometimes! (literally!)

With all of the various lights that seem to be constantly winking at you.

So I own several eye masks and always ALWAYS take one away with me, wherever I’m going.

You can find some really cool ones on Etsy:

https://www.etsy.com/uk/market/funky_eye_mask

Tip 10 – Limit liquid intake before bedtime

Maybe this is one for us older people!

But if I drink too much before bedtime, I find that I need to get up several times in the night to go to the loo.

And of course then it is hard to get back to sleep.

So typically I will have my last drink 1-2 hours before I go to bed.

Then I just keep a glass of water by the bed in case I get thirsty in the night.

Tip 11 – Take a bath before bed with low light and soothing music

There’s lots of different ways to build relaxation into your day, this just happens to be one of my favourites.

I run a nice bubble bath, not too hot (otherwise it can be too much to stand for too long).

I dim the lights or light some candles (or both).

And then I listen to classical music, but you might prefer something else.

(Jacqueline Du Pre playing Elgar is my favourite – find her on Spotify.)

Tip 12 – Don’t nap in the day

This one crushes me a bit because sometimes there is nothing better than 40 winks.

However, if you are genuinely struggling to sleep at night, unfortunately you need to try to keep awake in the day.

This will help reset your circadian rhythm.

Of course, if you’re so exhausted it’s physically impossible to stay awake, then of course take a nap.

Just try to limit it to 20-30 minutes.

Tip 13 – Eat carbs 4 hours before bedtime

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that eating carbs a few hours before you go to bed can help you sleep.

Try to keep it healthy though.

A banana and/or a slice of wholegrain bread would be ideal.

Tip 14 – No pets in the bedroom at sleep time

Obviously this only applies if you have pets to begin with.

But if you do, you will have a better chance of a good night’s sleep if you gently remove them from the bedroom at the end of the day.

Most of us adore our furry friends and get a lot of comfort from having a cuddle with them in bed.

However the chances of them scratching the door to get out at dawn (cats) or scratching or licking themselves during the night (dogs) are pretty high.

Tip 15 – Start a daily meditation practice

This is another relaxation tip, and is bigger than just learning how to sleep better.

Meditation has proven benefits in all sorts of ways, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

It’s easy to get started too, and you don’t even really have to ‘understand’ it.

If you just start doing it regularly, you will still get results.

Find out more on our Stuffer page – Try Meditation.

Tip 16 – Learn some techniques to help you fall back to sleep

Apart from cutting down caffeine and alcohol, this has probably been the single thing I’ve done which has been most helpful.

It’s probably because I have a certain type of insomnia called ‘semi-somnia’.

It means you fall asleep ok but you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep.

The best technique I have learned is super-simple, but takes a little bit of practice:

  1. Get in a comfortable position (I find on my back with my arms at my sides is best)
  2. Lightly close your eyes
  3. Start to count your breath
  4. One breath in and out counts as 1
  5. As you count, visualise the number you are counting in your head
  6. Try to only visualise the number, nothing else
  7. If your thoughts bounce off elsewhere, gently pull them back and start again at 1

When I first started using this technique it would take me several goes to get off to sleep.

Now I will typically be asleep within 1 or 2 attempts, by around number 15.

So I guess there is some kind of ‘brain training’ involved.

Tip 17 – If you wake in the night and really can’t get back to sleep, get up

This one feels counter-intuitive but absolutely works.

If I’m lying restlessly in bed and the breath counting isn’t working for whatever reason (too much alcohol!), then I get up and go downstairs.

I sit quietly in the living room with low light and read a book for a while.

Generally I will start to nod off.

At that point I creep back up to bed without turning any lights on.

Usually I can get back to sleep at that point.

Tip 18 – Keep the room quiet or invest in some decent earplugs

Personally I am less sensitive to noise than light, but if I have the window open at night sometimes the dawn chorus can wake me.

I can highly recommend investing in some high quality ear plugs.

Noise cancelling / mouldable ones can be very good, and not too expensive.

Or if you have the money to invest, you could get some custom made to your ears.

That is worth doing if you need to wear them every night.

Tip 19 – If your partner snores, have the occasional night in separate rooms

Sometimes even really good ear plugs can’t drown out a persistent snorer!

Resist the urge to put a pillow over their face or get divorced – just spend the occasional night in a separate room.

Even a quiet night on the sofa can be better than a noisy night unable to sleep if you’re feeling exhausted.

Or you could try going to bed an hour earlier than your partner.

That way you should be reasonably deeply asleep before your other half gets going.

Tip 20 – Try playing a deep sleep hypnosis tape while you sleep

I have used self-hypnosis for lots of things (stopping drinking, losing weight) and I absolutely swear by it.

You just need to make sure you have headphones you can wear which are comfortable in bed.

Or if you’re on your own you could play the hypnosis out loud.

I particularly like Michael Sealey for sleep-related hypnosis:

This one on YouTube is good.

But hypnosis can be very personal and you might prefer a different voice or accent.

Just search around, there’s loads of free options available.

Tip 21 – Resist the itch!

This is something very few people know but which could honestly change your life.

As you are falling asleep, your brain sends a signal to your body to check it is really sleeping, and something hasn’t gone wrong.

This usually manifests in the form of an itch.

If you can resist the urge to scratch it, your brain will take it as a signal that, yes, you do want to sleep.

From that point on it will be much easier to drop off.

If you are trying the breath counting sleep technique (tip number 16) you may well start to notice an itch spring up whilst you’re counting.

That is the itch you should try to ignore.

Hopefully these 21 tips will help you learn how to get better sleep, which in turn will help your mood and overall mental and physical health.

Stuff you may need

Depending on which techniques you try you may need to invest in some kit.

Links to other articles on the web

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/why-lack-of-sleep-is-bad-for-your-health/

Links to other videos on the web

Links to apps

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317816

Links to books

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