WHY DO WE SLEEP? AND TEN TIPS TO HELP YOU NOD OFF

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The irony is not lost on me – I was a neuroscientist, specialising in sleep, and I struggled to get off to sleep myself. Secondly, people would always ask me the same question…why do we sleep? And I would have to give the answer that every know-it-all dreads…I don’t know. We have theories backed by strong scientific evidence as to why we sleep, but nothing definitive. I did a temp job that required me to do night shift and to cope with the change of sleep schedule, I had to pull from my knowledge about sleep patterns. I studied sleep in toddlers; however, I discovered that many of the tips offered to parents for kids with bedtime resistance, could be applied to myself when I was trying to get to sleep at 8am in the morning. It occurred to me that these tips could be used by anyone, of any age, who find themselves lying awake, staring at the ceiling.

Create a sleep routine

I use the same routine whether I am getting into bed at 10pm at night, or 10am in the morning. I have a hot shower; if I’m wearing make-up, I remove it with a creamy make-up remover and a soft face cloth. I then use a Clinique soap to wash my face. I brush my teeth and then I get into bed. Whilst in bed, I apply serum and face oil and give my face a nice massage. Now, no matter where in the world I am, or what time of the day it is, this routine sends a powerful signal to my brain – it’s time to get sleepy. It is behavioural conditioning at its best.

Create a comfortable and clutter-free sleep environment

Make sure you have a decent mattress and some nice bedding. Ensure you have plenty of blankets in the winter and a good pillow. Bed should feel like a little nest. Spend 5 minutes per day tidying the sleep environment. A busy, messy environment can get into your head and make it hard to relax. I’m the queen of having five books, numerous magazines and a notepad by my bed. There is also usually a chair covered in clothes and throw pillows on the floor – I’m working on this.

Temperature

Find a good temperature for you. Warm and dry will make you sleepy, but too hot/cold will kill your relaxation. If you have a bed partner who likes a different temperature, think about having your own duvet – you can each have a different weight that suits your individual body temperature.

Take a hottie with you

Mind out of the gutter! I mean a hot-water bottle. I get cold feet in bed, therefore I take a hot-water bottle to bed with me, or use an electric blanket. It makes me feel warm and cosy and when I feel warm and cosy, I get sleepy. Taking the cold edge off the bed when you get into it can really help. It can be difficult to get to sleep when cold and hungry, as this sends a signal to our subconscious mind that we should not relax, we should be vigilant and alert.

Stay off social media close to bedtime

There are two very common reasons why we can’t sleep at bedtime. First, we have had a few rough nights and a few tired days at work. Now, we worry about not getting enough sleep and this creates anxiety around bedtime ‘what if I can’t sleep tonight again, work is going to suck tomorrow’. Secondly, we ruminate. To ruminate is to start thinking too much whilst in bed. If we are busy, bed is often the first time we have to listen to our own thoughts in a day. Add adrenaline into the mix and you have some fast-moving and possibly unproductive thoughts banging around up there. It is common to hit social media to distract ourselves from these thoughts. But this is the time you will see that guy who has just got the great job, the girl who is traveling to that country you always wanted to go to, the perfect body you worry you will never have. Social media is a minefield for the ‘my life isn’t good enough’ thoughts. And these are not the thoughts you need at bedtime.

Listen to meditation music

There are a couple of meditation tracks I listen to at bedtime if I’m wired. I have a great pair of headphones and as I listen, I imagine I am somewhere else – somewhere that feels safe. I imagine this place in detail – e.g., the colour of the sand on the beach and the sound of the waves. This task is great for taking your mind off work or anything else you might be ruminating over at bedtime.

Block your senses

When sensory input reaches our brain, it activates the firing of neurons, alerting us to the stimulus. If you are a sensitive person, things like light or noise can stimulate your nervous system at bedtime. When trying to get to sleep after a night shift, I would pop in earplugs and put up dark curtains. Our brain will naturally want to sleep at night when it is dark and quiet. A part of our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, otherwise known as our biological clock, trains us to sleep at night and be alert during daylight hours. So a dark room with earplugs may help trigger sleepiness. Also, remove all electrical devices with a light. When my laptop is charging, the little light on the charger can illuminate the whole room!

Watch comedies

TV will stimulate you close to bedtime, but if you have to watch it, watch something light. Watching something that makes you laugh will relax you and release the weight of the day. It will also make any of your worries feel less stirring. Scary films or drama can activate your nervous system, or lead to anxiety which can trigger negative thought patterns – the enemy of sleep.

Don’t go to bed hungry…

In the same breath, don’t go to bed on a full stomach either! If it is an hour or so before bed and you’re still hungry, have a small portion of porridge with walnuts and half a banana. For some reason, this bowl of comfort curbs the hunger without making you feel overly full.

If you still can’t sleep…

Don’t lie there obsessing about it, get up and do something mindless for a while. Preferably something that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. Remake the bed, have a warm drink with lemon and honey, read a few pages of a book, say some nice words to yourself and then try again later. Sometimes it just takes a bit of time and patience to break the grip of insomnia.

If you are like me and information helps you to feel more in control of your health and wellness, watch this amazing video by Professor Russell Foster titled Why do we sleep? He condenses most of the literature review from my thesis into 22 minutes. On that note, if you want to fall asleep – I could send you a copy of my thesis. Dad made it a few pages in before he started nodding off…

 

Sleep tight, much love xx

 

 

 

 

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Hi, I’m Katie. I am a kiwi neuroscientist with a love for consuming and creating content. This site is where I share my personal thoughts and the thoughts of incredible minds from around the world. PhD in Neuroscience, University of Otago.

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