- Sleep Well Podcast
- From the BBC series Just One Thing
If you have difficulty falling asleep or maintaining quality sleep, you are among a third of the population.
A survey by the US Centers for Disease Control found in 2016 that one in three American adults did not get enough sleep on a regular basis, using the parameter of at least 7 hours a night.
Doctor Michael Mosley, presenter of the health series Just One Thing, from the BBC, is part of this statistic. So he set out to investigate simple, scientifically proven techniques that would help him and other insomniacs sleep better.
The result is the Sleep Well podcast, which features the following tips:
1. Slow down your breathing
A simple but incredibly powerful way to relax is to breathe slowly and deeply. Allow your breathing to come into rhythm. Exhale for a little longer than you inhaled.
Research cited by Mosley points out that participants who managed to reduce their breathing rate fell asleep an average of 20 minutes earlier – and slept better, waking up less during the night.
Slow breathing has a positive ripple effect: from changing your brain chemistry to calming your body and heartbeat.
The key to understanding these effects lies in a small group of cells in a region of the brain called locus coeruleus🇧🇷
“If sleep doesn’t come and your mind is agitated, it’s the locus coeruleus that’s active,” says Mosley.
Active, it shoots noradrenaline (a chemical that awakens) through the brain.
Professor Ian Robertson, from Trinity College (Ireland), and his team discovered that reducing the speed of breathing has a direct effect on this brain system.
The recommendation is to breathe in a 4-2-4 rhythm (inspire counting to four, hold the air for two seconds, and exhale counting to four), and also abdominal breathing: place one hand on the chest and the other just below the rib cage.
As you inhale, you should feel the lower hand rise, while the hand on your chest remains relatively still.
It’s a way to calm down if you wake up with a racing mind in the middle of the night.
2. Take advantage of the morning light
Mosley says that one of the best pieces of advice he received when dealing with chronic insomnia was to wake up at the same time each morning and use the morning light.
This is because it is believed, based on scientific research, that the time a person wakes up has more influence on the biological clock than the time he goes to sleep.
And a big part of that is due to daylight.
When light reaches the eye, it excites receptors at the back of the eye, which send signals to a region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
Morning light stops the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and tells the body that the day has begun.
This starts a series of events in the body so that, about 12 hours later, melatonin starts to rise again, preparing the body for a deep rest.
3. Enjoy the bed
According to Mosley, if you can’t sleep, the best thing you can do is get up.
Perhaps it sounds contradictory, but it is about ensuring that the bed is a space that the mind associates with sleep and tranquility, and not with the impossibility of sleeping.
According to Colleen Carney, director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at the Metropolitan University of Toronto, Canada, the basic idea is that you shouldn’t struggle to sleep if your body and mind aren’t ready. This, according to her, forges an association that turns her bed into a battlefield.
If you get up when you can’t sleep and lie down again when you feel drowsy, this negative association can break down.
If this association is very ingrained, you may initially have to get out of bed several times and go somewhere warm and quiet to do something unstimulating.
Along these lines, another recommendation is to avoid naps in the middle of the day and avoid using the bed for activities such as watching TV, using your cell phone, writing on your notebook…
4. Warm up to cool down
A warm bath or shower before bed can also help you fall asleep more quickly.
A recent summary of 13 studies found that people who took a hot shower before bed fell asleep 36% faster than others, had better sleep quality and felt more rested the next day.
When heating parts of the body, especially the hands and feet, the blood vessels that radiate heat begin to dilate.
This brings more blood to the surface of the skin, which helps speed up heat loss, so the body temperature drops, and this acts as a signal to sleep.
If you don’t feel like taking a hot shower, you can get the same effect with a hot water bottle or warm socks, for example, that start the initial blood flow to the hands and feet to signal the body.
5. Listen to the body
We’re used to being told we need eight hours of sleep—but the pressure to reach that goal can be stressful and futile.
Adults tend to need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but that’s an average. Some people are perfectly fine with less, and others with a little more. It is something that also changes throughout life.
It is also known that the 8-hour average is relatively new. In pre-industrial times, it was common for people to go to bed a few hours after dark and then wake up — then do activities such as talking to neighbors, studying, having sex — and then going back to bed for a second shift of sleep.
That is, it is normal to wake up in the middle of the night.
Professor Nicole Tang, from the University of Warwick (UK), advises that insomniacs stop looking at the clock at night and worrying about the amount of hours they sleep.
It’s best, she says, to listen to your body: If sleep comes during daytime activities, it’s a sign that you probably need to sleep a little more.