The secret to a great night's sleep

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Why we’ve teamed up with one of the UK’s leading sleep experts

Silentnight has enlisted the support of sleep expert, Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan to talk about various ways in which you can improve and enhance the quality of your sleep and the benefits good sleep can bring to everyday life.

Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan is a physiologist, sleep therapist, author and consultant who has specialised in maximising individual and organisational performance for more than 15 years. She has a strong belief that everyone can live healthier and more fulfilling lives by finding optimal energy and balance through sleep. Nerina is committed to helping individuals and organisations find unique and inspirational solutions that will help them harness the energy for optimal performance both at work and at home.

Author of Tired But Wired, Nerina provides a guide to understanding sleep, from what happens when you are asleep to why you can't sleep.  Nerina's work comes from almost two decades of working with and studying sleep as well as her own personal interest in insomnia as, for many years, she battled with her own sleep problems.  As a Sleep Therapist at Capio Nightingale Hospital London; Nerina works on the patients' sleep, energy and physical health programmes which are designed to support mental wellbeing.

As she says: "We all know how important a good night's sleep is and the impact a lack of it seems to have on us all. It can have a detrimental effect on our work, health and relationships which is compounded by the stresses and strains of our daily lives. However, there are some essential tips we can all follow to help us get a great night's sleep."

Dr Nerina Landing

Dr Nerina's toolkit to improve your sleep

With increasing pressure at home and work, the drive for sustained performance and technological demands, the need for efficient strategies for recovering energy is critical.  For most of us, the time when we are most likely to attempt to recover energy is when we sleep.  Often, by this time the body's energy deficits are such that a night of sleep may not be sufficient to 'repair' the damage done by the day's stresses and strains; over time this debit effect can become cumulative and eventually the symptoms of exhaustion and burnout become evident.  This may particularly be the case for those working shift work patterns.

We spend approximately one third of our lives asleep, but surprisingly no one really knows why we engage in this mysterious activity.  Theories suggest that that we sleep in order to process and file information that was taken in during the day as well as to repair and rebalance the body physically and mentally.  So what impact does work and lifestyle have on our sleep quality?    In simple terms, handling more information daily, working longer hours and fewer breaks can change the dynamics of our sleep resulting in a greater demand for 'information filing' sleep and less time available for rejuvenating deep sleep.  How does this feel?  Many of my clients report the following types of disrupted sleep:

  • "I fall asleep in front of the TV but can't sleep when I get to bed."
  • "I have so many work-related dreams, as if I've been in the office all night."
  • "I've been waking around 2 or 3am and finding it difficult to get back to sleep."
  • "No matter how much sleep I get, I still wake up feeling tired."

We can make better use of our sleeping time by managing ourselves better during the day and preparing our minds just before going to sleep.

The following are some basic strategies for optimising sleep quality and managing fatigue.  They are tried and tested methods that I have been recommending to my clients for a number of years and are also based on in depth knowledge of the architecture of sleep patterns and human circadian rhythms.

1. TAKE REGULAR BREAKS DURING THE DAY

Regularly seeking rest and recovery throughout the day is one of the most effective ways of improving sleep quality.  Even a break of 3-5min duration can be sufficient to enable the body to renew energy physically and mentally.  Use the time to go for a walk, stretch, change channels mentally, drink a glass of water or eat a piece of fruit.   Try to take a lunch break of at least 20-30min duration every day.  Use the time to recharge mentally and physically and avoid checking emails or surfing the Internet during this time.

2. FOLLOW A REGULAR WIND DOWN ROUTINE

Human beings, like most animals, respond well to familiar rituals.  Try to get into the habit of allowing you some time to wind down before going to sleep.  Read a book, listen to relaxing music, have a bath and use some relaxing essential oils such as lavender to help promote sleepiness.  Delay going to bed if necessary - you are more likely to be able to access efficient deep sleep if you have allowed the mind and body to relax than if you rush to bed feeling anxious about trying to get good sleep.  You are more likely to feel rejuvenated if you have had five or six hours of efficient sleep than seven or eight hours of shallow, restless sleep.

3. MANAGE THE WORK/HOME BOUNDARIES

Talking about your work when you get home can be a good thing and a positive way of gaining support from family and friends.  However, try not to let the work talk spill over into your whole evening and bedtime.  If necessary, set some rules about when you stop talking about work and allow your mind to wind down and switch off.

4. TIME MANAGEMENT

Write your to-do list before leaving work instead of at the beginning of the day.  This stops you worrying about work in the evening and you are less likely to wake up during the night thinking about tasks that have to be done the next day.  If you are planning to take work home, make a commitment about whether you are really going to do it or whether it is just going to sit in your briefcase all evening creating guilt and anxiety.  Weekend working is often best done first thing on Saturday morning so that the rest of the weekend is available for rest and relaxation.

5. EXERCISE

Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress hormone levels (mainly adrenaline) thus enabling you to sleep more deeply.  The American College of Sports Medicine guidelines recommend three or four sessions of aerobic exercise (swimming, cycling, jogging, fast walking) for 20-30min per week.  Competitive exercise can cause the production of stimulating hormones (eg endorphins) making it more difficult to get to sleep so it might be worth delaying sleep by 45mins or so to wind down properly before getting in to bed.

6. MINIMISE STIMULANTS

Caffeine has a direct impact on reducing sleep quality. The half-life of caffeine is approximately 5hours.  This means that it can take up to 10 hours to completely remove all of the caffeine from your body if you drink a cup of tea or coffee.  If you are having problems sleeping or are waking up feeling tired no matter how much sleep you get, minimise caffeine and increase your fluid intake by drinking more water, herbal teas and dilute fruit juices.    Remember, alcohol can also impair deep sleep quality so you are likely to wake up feeling tired and fuzzy-headed if you have overindulged the night before.

7. WHAT TO DO IF YOU WAKE UP DURING THE NIGHT

If you wake up during the night, try to avoid looking at your clock and registering the time.  If you do this, you are more likely to start worrying about how little sleep you will get if you don't fall asleep again.  This then reduces your chances of getting back to sleep even further!  Instead, lie on your back and try to consciously relax each part of your body starting from your toes and working up to your head and face.  Breathe deeply from your diaphragm and tell yourself that it doesn't matter if you don't fall asleep and that you will just use the time to rest and relax. 

8. LEARN HOW TO POWER NAP

Short naps of 5 to 15 mins duration have been proven to be very effective at promoting energy renewal and increasing cognitive function.  A nap involves sitting or lying comfortably in a well-ventilated room, progressively relaxing muscles and breathing deeply from the stomach.  The subject will approach a near sleep state without actually falling asleep and will be conscious of their surroundings during this time.  The more adept the individual becomes at practising this technique, the more readily they are able to rapidly achieve a state of relaxation and rejuvenation. Incorporating visualisation techniques into your power nap - eg relaxing scenes - can make it even more effective.

9. IS EIGHT HOURS THE NORM?

I have encountered many individuals who have become anxious about their supposed sleep deprivation because they feel they might not be achieving the 'normal' amount of sleep.  Sleep requirements vary from person to person and also depend largely on whether the above strategies are being practised regularly.  For most of us, living in this age of information overload, the challenge is to achieve efficient deep sleep rather than a certain quota of hours.

10. YOUR SLEEP ENVIRONMENT

Keep your sleep environment free of clutter and junk.  Don't bring work into your bedroom and keep the laptop and blackberry out of your bed!  Ensure that your bed, mattress and pillow are comfortable and just right for you.  The ideal temperature for good sleep is slightly cool so keep windows open or have a fan in the room.  The white noise from the fan can also help to create a white noise effect that cuts out distracting background noises.

11. THE OPTIMAL SLEEP MINDSET: GOOD REST VS. POOR SLEEP?

To sleep well we almost need to let go of wanting to sleep well.  In other words, the more pressure we put on ourselves to sleep, the less likely we are to actually fall asleep.  This may particularly be the case before big events (eg getting up early to catch a plane, the night before an important meeting or presentation).  In these situations it might be helpful to dispel with using the word 'sleep' and to use the word 'rest'.  So tell yourself the night before any big event 'it doesn't matter if I don't sleep tonight, I'm just going to use the time to rest'.  It's a bit of trickery but you'll be surprised how quickly you then get to sleep - particularly if you use the technique regularly.

12. NUTRITION AND SUPPLEMENTS

In order to get good sleep, we need a good balance of the hormones serotonin and melatonin in our system.  Adequate amounts of vitamin B6 and tryptophan are needed to boost these hormone levels and they are found in chicken, cheese, tofu, tuna, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk.  So drinking a glass of milk before going to bed can help to induce sleep.  Other sleep-inducing foods are oats and lettuce.

Herbal nightcaps - it is best to resort to sleeping aids (natural or pharmaceutical) only as a last resort.  They should be used when other avenues have been exhausted and then only occasionally.  Valerian (tablets, tincture or tea bags) is sometimes called nature's Valium and can aid sleep for most people.  Passionflower and hops also have mild sedative effects.

Finally, remember that sleep - although incredibly vital to our health and wellbeing - is only one way in which we renew, rebalance and energise ourselves.  Also vitally important are other aspects of our physical health (nutrition, exercise, other forms of rest and relaxation, hydration), as well as our mental, emotional and spiritual health.  Paying attention to all of these other areas of our health can go a long way towards restoring balance and wellbeing.

Toolkit

Nerina on ...

What's considered a good night's sleep?

Sleep requirements vary from person to person and also depend largely on whether correct routines are being practiced regularly. However, the optimum of eight hours rest a night will always help re-charge our batteries.

What impact does your bed / mattress really have on your sleeping pattern?

Almost a third of our lifetime is spent tucked up in bed sleeping and re-energising our bodies, yet many people don't give their mattress a second thought, sleeping night after night on an uncomfortable, old mattress. Silentnight takes sleeping seriously and has spent time developing a large collection of beds and mattresses that take your needs, preferences and preferred comfort levels into account.

Having a bed / mattress which is right for you (and your partner) plays an integral role in how you sleep. Old, worn out and ill suited mattresses can leave you having many an uncomfortable, sleepless night. Silentnight insight reveals 80 per cent of people sleep better on a new mattress which goes to show how important sleeping in the right bed really is.

Zoned support is important in a mattress and can make all the difference to your quality of sleep. It can help prevent 'roll off,' minimise partner disturbance and gives you peace of mind that your body is being supported in all the right places you need for a good night's sleep. 

Certain areas of the body, like shoulders and hips retain tension and have more pressure put upon them while you sleep; it's important your bed gives you the right support. Silentnight's exclusive Miracoil® and Mirapocket® mattresses distribute body weight evenly up and down the bed to give you all the support you need.

How often are you supposed to change your bed / mattress?

The secret to a great night sleep is to change your bed / mattress every five to seven years. The longer you keep your mattress, the more worn out the springs become and the less support it gives your body. Older mattresses can also be a breeding ground for dust mites and bed bugs - something we all want to avoid! Silentnight has a comprehensive range of beds / mattresses to choose from should you be looking to upgrade.

Buying a new bed - A Sleep Council guide »

How important is your sleep environment?

It's important to keep your sleep environment free of junk and clutter. Don't bring work into your bedroom and keep the laptop and Blackberry out of your bed! Ensure that your bed, mattress and pillows are comfortable and right for you and make sure your bedroom is cool, so keep windows open or have a fan in the room.

How can people change their sleeping habits / patterns?

Try not to let the work talk spill over into your whole evening and bedtime. If necessary, set some rules about when you stop talking about work and allow your mind to wind down and switch off. Regularly seeking rest and recovery throughout the day is one of the most effective ways of improving sleep quality.  Even a break of three to five minute duration can be sufficient to enable the body to renew energy physically and mentally.  Use the time to go for a walk, stretch, change channels mentally, drink a glass of water or eat a piece of fruit.  Try to take a lunch break of at least 20-30 minutes every day.  Use the time to recharge mentally and physically and avoid checking emails or surfing the Internet during this time. 

Human beings respond well to familiar rituals. Try to get into the habit of allowing yourself some time to wind down before going to sleep.  Read a book, listen to relaxing music, have a bath and use some relaxing essential oils such as lavender to help prompt sleepiness.

What should people do if they wake up during the night?

If you wake up during the night, try to avoid looking at your clock, registering the time and checking your phone.  If you do this, you are more likely to start worrying about how little sleep you will get if you don't fall back to asleep. This then reduces your chances of getting back to sleep even further! Instead, lie on your back and try to consciously relax each part of your body starting from your toes and working up to your head and face.  Breathe deeply from your diaphragm and tell yourself that it doesn't matter if you don't fall asleep and that you will just use the time to rest and relax. 

Nerina On

Tips for new parents

Becoming a new parent brings with it some new found delights and surprises, but it also means adjusting to a new sleep routine. It is this particular element of parenthood that new parents often struggle most with, so here are some of my top tips on how a new parent can try to get as much sleep as possible while looking after a small child.

"Babies have a different sleep pattern to adults and it is this change to sleeping habits that parents most struggle with. Babies have a polyphasic sleep pattern; this means they have several sleep phases in a 24 hour period as opposed to a monophasic sleep pattern that we adults have - that is one main sleep phase at night.

"Also, remember a good night's rest is much better than you lying trying desperately to get to sleep - so don't put too much pressure on yourself," comments Dr. Nerina.

  • Try to rest when baby rests.  Avoid the temptation to try and get a million things done when baby sleeps. This means drop the perfectionism!  Even short naps of five - 20 minutes can help to 'mop' up the fatigue.  Do this two to five times a day for maximum benefit.
  • When baby wakes you up at night for feeding or other reasons, try to avoid checking the time and getting anxious. The important thing is to remain as calm, relaxed and rested as possible.  This will help both you and baby to get back to sleep more quickly. 
  • Mum and dad should take it in turns to occasionally have longer naps if possible.  A very good time to nap is between 2pm and 4pm for no longer than 40 minutes.  This is called a 'replacement nap' and is particularly powerful for replenishing energy and rebalancing the immune system.
  • If you're getting run down by constant interrupted nights, negotiate a night of uninterrupted sleep, sleeping alone in a spare room on a good bed and mattress.  Again, take it in turns to do this.
  • Try to get enough exercise, good nutrition and hydration and avoid the temptation to drink caffeinated drinks to stay awake - this will just add to your fatigue and stop you getting to sleep at night.

Tips for getting your beauty sleep for a big day

Organising and preparing for any big day or important event can be exciting or somewhat of a daunting task. With a never ending list of things to do and a head swirling with information and thoughts, it can prove difficult for anyone to switch off at the end of the day. Throw in additional stresses and strains of daily life and sleeping through the night can prove even trickier than usual.

However, getting a good night's sleep in the run up to a big day is one of the most important things you can do, as beauty sleep helps you to feel renewed, refreshed, full of energy and vigour. 

Here are my top tips to help restless sleepers find optimal energy and balance through sleep and look and feel good for their big day.

"The key to getting some much needed sleep, is to know how to get to sleep easily, and then getting into those deep sleep phases that are vital for skin repair and renewal, this is the sleep that ensures you'll look and feel good in the morning.

"Many of us will have experienced the feelings of anxiety, stress and anticipation before a big day or an event and all these can affect your sleep.

"Just try to think of as many positive things that you're looking forward to, and before you know it you'll be drifting off to sleep."

  • Minimise electronic equipment in your room.  It may be tempting to tweak that work presentation or even to send out a couple of emails before you head to your bedroom, however you should avoid spending time on laptops and smart phones in the 60 to 90 minutes before bed if you want to look and feel refreshed the next morning.
  • While some of you may like to skip breakfast if you're in a rush, this can have an adverse effect and actually affect your sleeping pattern. You need to eat healthily and avoid skipping breakfast. People who eat breakfast produce more melatonin and therefore sleep better. Include protein in your breakfast for an even greater effect.
  • Ensure your sleep environment is just right for you - the right degree of support and comfort from the right kind of mattress and pillow, the right level of light, room temperature and sound levels.  The secret to a great night sleep could be as simple as changing your bed / mattress. The longer you keep your mattress, the more worn out the springs become and the less support it gives your body.  Research from Silentnight shows 80 per cent of people sleep better if in a new bed or mattress, so it might be worth considering splashing out on a new bed if you find your sleep is often disturbed.
  • Ensure you are well hydrated during the day - dehydration is a key cause of frequent waking or 'shallow' sleep.  This will also keep you looking as well as feeling good.
  • Research shows that people who go to bed happy tend to sleep better. So deal with your worries before you put your head on the pillow.  And if you can't let those worries go then get up, go to another room and write down all the worries in your head on a piece of paper. Then go back to bed and get as comfy as possible. 
  • Remember a good night's rest is much better than you trying desperately to get to sleep.  Try not to lie there thinking "I must get a good night's sleep tonight; I must sleep well so I perform well the next day". Trying too hard to sleep can set you up for a bad night's sleep, so don't put too much pressure on yourself. Just relax.
New parents