How to get to sleep in seven steps

When it comes to sleeping well, both quality and quantity matter. As Bryce Mander, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, says: ‘You can sleep for a sufficient number of hours, but not obtain the right quality of sleep.’ For this, we need to complete several sleep ‘cycles’ of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep, each lasting around 90 minutes. Studies have shown that seven to eight hours of sleep is the optimum length, and that oversleeping can be just as detrimental to our focus and brain power the next day as undersleeping.

Keeping to a routine is one of the simplest ways to improve sleep quality. The body runs to an internal clock, our circadian rhythm, which dictates the peaks and troughs of wakefulness and tiredness through the day. To keep our circadian rhythms in check, all we have to do is aim to sleep and wake at the same time each day. A long lie-in at the weekend isn’t necessary, even if we’ve missed out on sleep during the working week – an eight-hour sleep should be sufficient to balance sleep-debt. Follow our simple seven-step sleep plan to ease you into a restful, restorative sleep.

Set the scene for

For undisturbed sleep, think of the bedroom as a cave: cool, dark and quiet. While there may be disputes over the thermostat, anywhere between 15°C and 20°C falls in the recommended range. One of Liz’s favourite tricks is to place a small square of duct tape over the blinking lights of digital clocks, chargers, and other electronics. Alternatively, wear an eye mask. Foam earplugs also help you to settle into a quiet environment, if foam varieties are too big for your ear canals, try wax or silicone varieties instead.

Six hours before bed…

Set a caffeine curfew. For the same reason many of us enjoy a morning coffee, we should reconsider our consumption from mid-afternoon. One study to investigate the effects of a dose of caffeine equivalent to a large coffee-shop filter coffee found that caffeine, even six hours before bedtime, can significantly affect sleep. Bear in mind that tea and chocolate also contain caffeine. Camomile and passionflower teas have traditionally been used for insomnia, and make better drink options before bed.

Five hours to bed…

Be active, ideally outside – but not too soon before bed. Studies have reported that moderate exercise can improve sleep for people with sleep complaints. One study in Japan measured the effects of two-hour forest-walking sessions, and found an improvement in people’s sleep time and quality, particularly following afternoon walks. Exercising in the late afternoon raises our body temperature for around five hours, after which it drops, which appears to signal to the body that it’s time to sleep.

Three hours till bedtime…

Flip the switch on light-emitting devices, or don ‘blue-blocking’ glasses if you really must use technology late at night. Tablet and phone screens emit a higher concentration of blue light than normal light, and this can affect our levels of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Research showed that participants given blue light-blocking glasses to wear for three hours before bed, while still carrying out their usual routine, and found it increased night-time melatonin levels by nearly 60%.

Two hours before bed…

Skip the nightcap. While alcohol can help us fall asleep, it disrupts important REM sleep. One study found that the onset of REM sleep was delayed regardless of the amount of alcohol involved, and that less REM sleep was experienced over the course of the night. REM sleep is important because it can influence memory and serve restorative functions – a lack of it can have a detrimental effect on concentration, memory and motor skills. ]

One hour to bed…

A regular wind-down routine sends a signal to the body that it’s time for bed. So, whether you take a bath, read, listen to music or stretch, you need to draw a line between your daytime and your night. One study looking into the effects of both bathing and a hot foot bath before bed found that each helped people fall asleep faster than those who had neither.

Bedtime.

Go to bed only when you feel tired. It’s not only our circadian rhythm which contributes to our being able to sleep, but also something called the homeostatic sleep drive. This is our desire to sleep, and increases according to how long we’ve been awake. While our circadian rhythm keeps us going through the day, when it signals that it’s time for bed, the homeostatic sleep drive kicks in to help us nod off. To avoid lying awake at night, it’s best to hit the hay only when we feel truly sleepy.