How to get a better night’s sleep

Why is it so important to get a better night’s sleep? Sleep is a topic I love writing about because not only is it interesting, it’s (in my opinion) the single largest influence on your health after getting enough calories and water to survive. I’d place sleep far above eating a ‘healthy diet’, maintaining a ‘healthy weight’ and exercise, any day of the week, and it’s my goal in this blog to explain why that is and how you can get more of it.

Sleep is a period of each day where an animal falls into an unconscious or semi-conscious state. It’s observed in just about every life form, with even extremely simple creatures like worms spending part of the day in a state described as ‘docile’. Because of the ubiquitousness of sleep, scientists in the area have concluded pretty unanimously that it’s absolutely necessary for life, but there’s one little problem: they can’t actually explain WHY.

There’s no consensus on what the role of sleep actually is. There’s nothing that happens during sleep that could not happen outside of it, but for whatever reason, we all do it, and the stuff that does happen there is critical for health. Indeed it’s estimated that the ideal amount of sleep for adults is 7-9 hours per night, with a minority falling a little below and a little above this amount. You can survive on less, for sure, but long-term sleep deprivation is associated with a number of consequences.

This is unfortunate, because in the modern world the majority of people are at least a little under-slept, with this being made worse by the fact that research suggests that chronic undersleeping – while leading to a lot of problems – doesn’t increase subjective sleepiness during the day. Basically you’re tired but you just don’t know it.

This is a huge problem, for the following reasons:

• Undersleeping leads to an increased tendency to involuntarily fall asleep. This is pretty obvious, but if you’re planning to do anything requiring attention (be that work or driving) you’re going to struggle if you haven’t slept enough.

Bad sleep causes reductions in cognitive performance. Your performance in tasks requiring prolonged concentration and fast reactions is SO affected by poor sleep, that these tests can be used to measure fatigue. Not only that but your ability to think straight, and think creatively, tend to be worsened by poor sleep, meaning you get less effective at your job.

• Driving performance has been shown in numerous studies to be severely decreased (meaning more crashes) when sleep is restricted to 4-6 hours per night. Most crashes in the world happen at around 2am local time.

Sleep restriction leads to a decrease in the effectiveness of your immune system and an increase in background inflammation. This can result in more frequent illness/poorer recovery from sickness, as well as an increased risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

• Chronic undersleeping leads to an oversecretion of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is usually a good thing, but when secretion is chronic it can lead to a number of problems, with the following being only one of many: cortisol breaks down proteins for use by your body, with one of the main targets being collagen. Collagen is the thing that causes your skin to have an elastic quality, and cortisol breaks this down. Undersleeping physically causes an increase in wrinkles and early ageing. 

• And the big one, not sleeping enough alters your appetite. Appetite is not something often thought about or considered to be ‘real’ but this is a mistake. Far from being a subjective phenomenon, appetite is a physical process governed by your endocrine (hormone) system. Two of the most important hormones for appetite are Grehlin – considered to stimulate hunger, and Leptin – considered to mediate general appetite overall. This can be conceptualised as such: Leptin controls your background hunger in order to keep you at a given energy balance (it is leptin which decreases day-to-day when you lose fat beyond your set-point, and this is what initiates a lot of the ‘fight back’ against dieting) and Grehlin acts to induce acute hunger at mealtimes. With sleep restriction, overall leptin secretion is suppressed which in turn can lead you to generally eat more during the day, while grehlin secretion gets more frequent, and when you secrete it there’s more of it. All of this means that sleep restriction causes a greater amount of hunger. Indeed one of the most well researched and strongly supported consequences of bad sleep is an increase in obesity and diabetes risk. Increased BMI is correlated with poor sleep in individuals as young as 3-8 years old.

• To make the above worse, bad sleep leads to impaired decision making and self-control. One of the areas of the brain most strongly affected by sleep restriction is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for personality expression, planning complex cognitive behaviour and decision making. Because of this, sleep restriction makes it far harder to avoid acting on impulse which, when combined with the above appetite alterations, can severely impact your success with controlling your food intake.

Not sleeping enough, in short, is REALLY, REALLY bad for you, and the above stuff happens after as little as ONE HOUR of sleep deprivation, ONCE. There’s a problem though: sleep is, of course, not always the easiest thing to do well. This doesn’t have to be the case, however, so to end this blog I’d like to provide some really key tricks for getting the best out of it.

  1. Make a routine, and get to bed on time. It sounds obvious but if you want to get 8 hours of sleep that means you need to go to sleep 8 hours before you have to get up. If you rise at 6, that means you need to be ASLEEP by 10, and so you’ll need to start doing whatever you do before sleep a fair bit earlier than that. The biggest killer of sleep is simply not doing this, and instead going to bed when you feel like you don’t want to do any more awake stuff (be that work, watching TV, or whatever). Work out how long it takes you to get ready for sleep, and start doing that in enough time so that once you nod off you actually have 8 hours before you need to be s awake again.
  2. Switch off artificial light sources an hour before sleep. One of the things that wake you up in the morning is when blue spectrum light from the sun enters your eye (it does this through your eyelids) and interacts with your ‘body clock’, which is a dense bundle of neurons in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (supra-kye-az-matik). The problem is that blue spectrum light is really bright and clear, so that’s what your TV, phone, laptop and tablet all emit. This tricks your brain into thinking it’s not night time, and you’ll be made to be more alert.
    A lot of tech products now enable you to switch to red spectrum light, which works great, but in the absence of this, it’s best to just switch off and do something else (Talk to a person, for example).
  3. Make the room cool. To fall into a deep sleep your body temperature drops, and it can’t do this if it’s too hot – crack a window. To assist this, a hot shower or bath prior to bed brings blood to the surface of your skin which, when you leave the water, starts to cool you down. Being clean also feels nice, which can help you drop off.
  4. Avoid excessive alcohol or spicy food. Up to 2 units may improve sleep by reducing sleep latency (the amount of time between closing your eyes and being asleep) but more than this disturbs sleep, even though you might feel like you’ve slept really deeply – passing out and sleeping are different!
  5. Use clean, comfy sheets, a good pillow, and a mattress you like lying on. This goes without saying but it DOES make a difference.
  6. Avoid caffeine after lunchtime if possible. Caffeine is good, but caffeine late in the day is not – as little as 50mg of caffeine (a cup of instant/one espresso) can reduce sleep quality in studies, and caffeine stays in your system a LONG time. It’s got a half-life of 6 hours, meaning that if you drink a strong coffee with 3 shots (180mg) at lunchtime, at 6pm there’s still up to 90mg in your system, and at 9pm most of that is still there. Keeping caffeine to breakfast time is the best bet here.
  7. Write a journal. This sounds a bit airy-fairy, but one of the reasons that LOADS of people say they can’t sleep is that their brain won’t switch off. Pouring your thoughts into a journal helps you think through and solve problems you’re worried about, and writing a To-Do list for tomorrow lets you forget about what you need to do safely in the knowledge that the you of tomorrow has it covered. You’ve made a plan and worked out what needs to be done, there’s nothing more you can do right now, and so your brain might wind down.
  8. Exercise regularly, ideally early in the day. Exercise within 2 hours of sleep seems to make sleep worse, at least initially, but those who exercise in the early evening or before tend to sleep far better.
  9. Eat a higher carbohydrate meal in the evening. This causes a rise in the storage hormone insulin (no it won’t cause fat gain, only calorie surpluses can do that), with this having a calming effect on your brain. Ever heard of a carb coma? Yeah, do that on purpose.
  10. Finally, be intimate with someone. It helps you sleep. I think that one explains itself.

Listen to an episode of The Ditch the Diet Podcast which talks about sleep…


"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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