The secret to a great night's sleep

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Dr Nerina's Sleep Toolkit

Our research has revealed that a massive 75% of people in the UK are not getting a good night's sleep. And its not surprising - with increasing pressure at home and work, not to mention modern technology making us 'switched on' at all hours of the day, finding time to let go and unwind can be difficult.

As Dr Nerina explains: "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."

If you feel that your lifestyle is impacting on your sleep start by following Dr Nerina's essential sleep tool kit for the next four weeks.

1) Your sleep environment

Your bedroom is one of the most important factors when it comes to getting a great night's sleep. A calm, tranquil bedroom free from clutter, junk and technology will help you become more relaxed and rested.

Your bedroom is your personal sanctuary. Never bring your work life into the bedroom - keep lap tops and mobile phones out of this room - it should be a technology free zone.

The ideal temperature for good sleep is slightly cool so keep windows open, change your duvet with the seasons and use a fan in the bedroom. In fact, the white noise from the fan can also help to create a white noise effect which can cut out distracting background noise, especially if your partner snores.

Rugs and heavy curtains will help to reduce other environmental noises which might keep you awake at night.

Lighting is personal to each individual - you may want to consider black out blinds, especially if you live near street lights, or you might like to wake up to some light in the room. Try this out and see what works best for you. If you choose black out blinds make sure that you open them as soon as you wake to help prepare yourself for the day ahead.

Aromatherapy oils such as lavender and eucalyptus can help to create a calm and soothing sleep environment.

Pets can be great bedtime companions and help us feel secure at night but they can disrupt sleep patterns - it is always preferable to give them their own place to sleep.

Invest in a good quality bed and mattress which supports your spine and body contours. Mattresses should be changed every seven years - when was the last time you changed yours? If you're struggling to remember it might be time for a change.

2) Follow a regular wind down routine

Winding down properly before getting in to bed is crucial to helping you sleep better. You are more likely to access efficient deep sleep if you allow your body and mind to relax than if you rush to bed feeling anxious - so even delay going to bed if necessary.

Try and get yourself in to a regular wind down routine and you will notice a huge difference to the quality of your sleep. Read a book, listen to relaxing music, have a bath and use some relaxing essential oils such as lavender to help promote sleepiness.

Keep your wind down routine calm and relaxing - choose fiction over work-related reading materials or self-help books.

If you can, try and switch off from work as soon as you leave the office and avoid checking your emails or social media accounts 90 minutes before going to bed - put you phone, laptop and tablets away!

Remember - 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) Minimise stimulants

Caffeine has a direct impact on reducing sleep quality. The half-life of caffeine is approximately five hours. 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.

4) Learn how to power nap

Power naps can help to rejuvenate you during the day - giving you more energy to live a fulfilled life. The most important thing to remember is that a power nap is not sleeping - I define it as follows: "A power nap is 10-20 minutes in which you will be aware of thoughts, noises and sensations but at the same time will be in a deep state of relaxation - not asleep but not awake."

The best time to power nap is during the day if you start to feel sleepy or find yourself losing concentration. Many people have a natural dip in energy levels around 3pm - making it the ideal time for a power nap.

Step 1 - get comfortable, but not too comfortable. You can power nap on the sofa, in the car, or even on the floor. Find somewhere where you can physically and mentally relax

Step 2 - set an alarm for 10-20 mins or ask someone to rouse you

Step 3 - close your eyes and become aware of your breathing … slow it down. You will be aware of external sounds and your thoughts but keep focusing on your breathing

Step 4 - feel yourself sinking deeper into relaxation with every breath that you take

Step 5 - when your alarm goes off rouse yourself gently, slowly open your eyes. After 2-3 minutes you should feel more energised

5) 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 not to use the word 'sleep' but replace it with 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 get to sleep - particularly if you use the technique regularly.

6) 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.

7) Take regular breaks during the day

Taking regular breaks during the day is one of the most effective ways of improving your sleep quality. Stepping away from what you are doing just for five minutes can give your energy levels a boost. Try and go for a walk, stretch, change channels mentally, drink a glass of water or eat a piece of fruit.

If possible, take a lunch break away from your desk or work environment for at least 20-30 minutes - use the time to recharge mentally and physically and avoid checking emails or surfing the internet.


8) 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. If you regularly take part in competitive exercise it might be worth delaying sleep by at least 45mins to wind down properly before getting in to bed.

9) Think positive thoughts

If you're lying in bed and you can't sleep - cast your mind over your day and think about all of the small positives things that have happened. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and you will be asleep before you know it.  Similarly when you wake up in the morning don't head straight for your mobile phone or laptop - spend a few minutes being thankful for what they day will bring. 

10) 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.

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 you're going to put it off 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.

11) Is eight hours the norm?

I have encountered many people 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 depends largely on whether positive sleep 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. That said, eight hours is a good average to work towards and if you are regularly struggling to sleep or sleeping too much you should review my sleep tips to make sure you are following the best lifestyle practices for optimal sleep.

12) Diet

Diet and nutrition is essential to us leading a happy and healthy lifestyle - including getting a great night's sleep.

To help us sleep as well as possible we need a good balance of the hormones serotonin and melatonin in our system. Eating foods such as chicken, cheese, tofu, tuna, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk will help to boost these hormone levels. A glass of milk before bed is a great way to induce sleep.

Eating breakfast within 30 minutes after waking up is one of my golden rules. So many people who struggle to get out of bed skip breakfast and become reliant on caffeine to get them through the day. Eating breakfast within 30 minutes of waking sends a message to the brain that there is adequate food in our environment and creates the ideal internal chemistry for optimal sleep.

The ideal breakfasts for good sleep include things like porridge topped with nuts and seeds, eggs with wholemeal toast or natural yoghurt with muesli and fruit.

Snacking during the day on yoghurt, fruit, nuts, seeds, lean meats or hummus will help to keep your blood sugar level stable.

Avoid a heavy meal before bed time. If you often wake up in the night feeling hungry then try having a very small snack before bed - such as a slice of toast with honey or hot chocolate.

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.