Ten Top tips for a better night’s sleep
Posted 01-09-2021 | Updated
If you have followed me on social media for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate of cultivating healthy behaviours, habits and mindsets. Arguably the most important habit that you can establish, both in relation to your health and to your fitness, is getting a good night’s sleep. But why exactly is sleep important and how can you ensure that quality sleep isn’t something that only happens in your dreams?
Sleep is the time when our bodies and brains repair themselves and recover from the trials and tribulations of the day. So, it’s a crucial period of time for our health. The sleep council recommend that adults get 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Research (1) has shown that increased wakefulness (broken sleep) can lead to a host of health issues including:
- Low immunity
- Elevated appetite and obesity risk
- Increased diabetes risk
- Various psychological disorders
- Low sex drive
- Higher risk of heart attack
- Reduced quality of life
- Increased stress responsivity
- Somatic issues including stomach pains and headaches
But it doesn’t stop there, as other research has found that poor sleep is also associated with:
- Increased antisperm antibody production in men, reducing fertility (2). Interestingly this was found to be the case in those sleeping more than the sleep council top-end recommendation of 9 hours, too
- Reduced fertility in women, though the specific mechanism isn’t entirely clear because there are multiple potential explanations (3)
- Reduced sexual function in men (4)
- Reduced sexual desire and function in women (5), though admittedly this is a far more poorly studied phenomenon in women than it is in men (as is often the case, unfortunately)
Most of these are the cumulative result of chronic wakefulness, typically sleeping 5 hours or less, but research has shown that losing as little as one hour’s sleep per night is enough to increase risk of obesity and diabetes. (6) Moreover, many of these issues are considered to be bidirectional (1). This means that problems that arise from poor sleep can go onto negatively impact sleep further. For example, chronic wakefulness has been shown to increase stress responsiveness which goes on to worsen sleep and so on. Breaking the cycle can therefore be difficult and is often something that only occurs due to conscious effort.
As noted above in relation to male fertility, while it’s fairly well understood that reduced sleep can cause problems, there does appear to be some interesting results from oversleeping too. In a 2012 study, researchers plotted adult sleeping patterns in the USA and cross-referenced them with health conditions. It was found that that excessive sleep was associated with many of the same issues as under sleeping, including increased BMI, cardiovascular disease risk, and all-cause mortality (7). We should be cautious when interpreting these results, however, as is always the case with observational research. It could be the case, for example, that these conditions lead people to feel more tired and so sleep more, or it could be that a lifestyle including large amounts of sleep may have obesogenic aspects, too. Regardless, between 7-8 hours per night seems to be the sweet spot we should aim for.
But what can you do to improve your sleep quality or quantity? The tips below should help you out!
Note – sleep disturbance can often be attributed to factors that aren’t entirely within your control, such as narcolepsy, use of certain medications, pain, obstructive sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome and certain psychological disorders (1). In these and other similar cases it’s important to work with your primary healthcare practitioner to best manage your symptoms, but even here many of the tips below can be extremely useful and will at least give you a chance of improving sleep quality somewhat.
Have a Set Bedtime
Scheduling a bedtime and sticking to it is the first step in ensuring you get better sleep. Like many things, sleep is a habit and because of the way your circadian rhythm works, your brain will be conditioned to expect sleep at certain times and then release the right hormones to assist with this. If your sleep pattern is all over the place your body will not know if it’s time to sleep or time to wake, making it harder to fall asleep in the first place and making it more difficult to get out of bed in the morning. (8)
Use light to your advantage
One of the primary ways your body regulates sleep is through your circadian rhythm which is partly controlled by light. Bright light wakes you up, darkness helps you sleep, and so timing your exposure to light intentionally can help you sleep better. Generally speaking it’s a good idea to expose yourself to sunlight (or another high UV light source) as early as possible in the day and then ensure that your sleeping environment is as dark as possible at night. Doing both of these things allows your circadian rhythm to ‘know’ when daytime and nighttime are, and this can help you develop a far more regular sleeping pattern. Going for a morning walk and then avoiding screens late in the day, turning alarm clocks to dark mode and leaving your phone in another room are all excellent strategies! (13)
Your body temperature needs to drop to reach REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, so if you’re too hot, you’re going to struggle to nod off and stay asleep. You could open a window or take a warm shower (yes, believe it or not a warm shower can lower your body temperature better than a cold one) before bed to help your body reach the temperature it needs and get relaxed. Make sure your bedding is appropriate for the time of year– using a thick winter duvet during the height of summer will obviously make you feel very hot, which in turn will disrupt your sleep. (12)
Keep it Quiet
Reduce noise pollution as best as possible. Use ear plugs or ‘white noise’. Your body is programmed to wake at the first sign of unfamiliar noise so putting a white noise recording on while you sleep could cancel this out (that or banish your snoring partner to the spare room!) (8)
Cut the Caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant that stays in your system for around 6-hours after consumption, which means that if you drink coffee or tea at 5pm it’s still in your system and keeping you up at 11pm. So, cutting out caffeine after 2-4pm may allow you to nod off easier. It’s good to be aware of ‘hidden’ caffeine sources such as fizzy drinks, chocolate, and certain medicines (such as cold and flu tablets) as these often contain moderate to high doses of caffeine too. (8)
Check out the table below to see the most common sources of caffeine, some of them might surprise you! (18)
|Product||Caffeine per 100g (mg)||Caffeine per serving (mg)|
|Single Espresso Shot||212||64|
|70% Dark Chocolate||80||40|
|Standard Energy Drink||32||96|
|Cold and Flu Tablets*||5000||50|
*100g far exceeds the recommended dose of cold and flu medicine. Please never take more than 2 pills at once, every 4 hours.
Eat a balanced diet
Research in this area is largely observational and as such tends to be mixed, hard to interpret, and generally low quality. There is, for example, a suggested mechanism for carbohydrate improving sleep quality by leading to an increase in tryptophan in the brain, which increases serotonin, itself a precursor for melatonin which is vital for sleep quality. However, this mechanism has been questioned and this is also hard to reconcile with the fact that high GI diets are associated with insomnia. Regardless, the evidence is fairly clear that a moderate protein and carbohydrate diet, rich in Omega-3, and without excessive amounts of foods containing saturated fat (typically in studies a high sat-fat diet indicates a diet high in processed food) is associated with better sleep. Moreover, an adequate intake of vitamin C (A common component of fruits and vegetables) is associated with better sleep, though whether or not this is causal isn’t clear. (9)
It can be tempting to drink alcohol before bed when you’ve been sleeping poorly, with a ‘night cap’ being something with which many of us are familiar, but this is often a mistake. Alcohol can reduce sleep latency, meaning you get to sleep faster after first closing your eyes, but it also disturbs sleep quality meaning that even after 8 solid hours you won’t feel rested. Reducing alcohol as much as possible is your best bet for restful sleep (and on that note, stopping drinking entirely a little while before bed is a good idea, there’s nothing worse than waking up desperate for a pee!) (8)
Eat enough micronutrients
Micronutrient deficiency can affect sleep through a number of different mechanisms. Specific deficiencies in Vitamin D (9) and magnesium (10) are associated with poorer sleep, possibly due to the role the former plays in inflammation, and the role the latter plays in sleep regulation directly. These are both nutrients in which people are commonly found to be deficient (9, 11). But there are effective doses of both of these nutrients, and more in everyday vitamin supplements, such as Awesome Supplements Daily Dose.
Stress and anxiety can keep you awake. Using mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques like meditation or breathing therapy can help. Writing down your thoughts in a journal, making a job list for the next day or simply talking to your partner about your day can all help to reduce stress and calm your mind ready for the act of sleep. Exercise can also help work off some symptoms that contribute to stress. (8)
Sometimes pain is unavoidable. If you’re carrying a sports injury or have a nasty sore throat then you’ll have to take paracetamol and ride it out, but if you are suffering with chronic pain and are being woken up in the night this is a major health risk and is definitely worth mentioning to your doctor. Any pain that affects sleep will be considered serious enough to act on. But your GP might not be in the best position to help with this so try and get a referral to a specialist. If you can afford it then go directly to a reputable bodyworker like an osteopath or sports physio to assess your injury and prescribe passive treatments like rehabilitative exercise. (1)Final word
Sleep is really important for your health. Feeling tired in the morning, or waking up frequently in the middle of the night are red flags for poor health and should not be ignored. Too many people self-diagnose themselves and then identity as an insomniac when their issues could be resolved either by improving sleep hygiene and lifestyle practices or speaking to a professional. Do not be that person. While feeling a bit tired short term can be managed with an increased caffeine intake, that’s not a workable strategy for the long haul and some of the chronic effects of poor sleep can take a while to manifest. Sleep is often referred to as ‘the third pillar of health’ alongside proper nutrition and regular exercise, and this is for good reason!
A good starting point for exploring your health is my open Facebook group #askbencoomber where you can ask questions and myself, my team members and other members of the community lend advice or share experience. This is not a substitute for professional clinical advice of course but, if nothing else, seeing how many other people experience similar things to you can often help you to develop acceptance and awareness to the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
- Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. E. (2017). Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and science of sleep, 9, 151–161. https://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S134864
- Liu, M. M., Liu, L., Chen, L., Yin, X. J., Liu, H., Zhang, Y. H., Li, P. L., Wang, S., Li, X. X., & Yu, C. H. (2017). Sleep Deprivation and Late Bedtime Impair Sperm Health Through Increasing Antisperm Antibody Production: A Prospective Study of 981 Healthy Men. Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research, 23, 1842–1848. https://doi.org/10.12659/msm.900101
- Kloss, J. D., Perlis, M. L., Zamzow, J. A., Culnan, E. J., & Gracia, C. R. (2015). Sleep, sleep disturbance, and fertility in women. Sleep medicine reviews, 22, 78–87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2014.10.005
- Cho, J. W., & Duffy, J. F. (2019). Sleep, Sleep Disorders, and Sexual Dysfunction. The world journal of men's health, 37(3), 261–275. https://doi.org/10.5534/wjmh.180045
- Kalmbach DA, Arnedt JT, Pillai V, Ciesla JA. The impact of sleep on female sexual response and behavior: a pilot study. J Sex Med. 2015 May;12(5):1221-32. doi: 10.1111/jsm.12858. Epub 2015 Mar 16. PMID: 25772315.
- Cooper CB, Neufeld EV, Dolezal BA, et al. Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: a brief narrative review BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2018;4:e000392. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000392
- Luyster FS; Strollo PJ; Zee PC; Walsh JK. Sleep: a health imperative. SLEEP 2012;35(6):727-734.
- Irish, L. A., Kline, C. E., Gunn, H. E., Buysse, D. J., & Hall, M. H. (2015). The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: A review of empirical evidence. Sleep medicine reviews, 22, 23–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2014.10.001
- Zhao, M., Tuo, H., Wang, S., & Zhao, L. (2020). The Effects of Dietary Nutrition on Sleep and Sleep Disorders. Mediators of inflammation, 2020, 3142874. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/3142874
- Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeghniiat, K., Shirazi, M. M., Hedayati, M., & Rashidkhani, B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, 17(12), 1161–1169.
- Crowe, F. L., Jolly, K., MacArthur, C., Manaseki-Holland, S., Gittoes, N., Hewison, M., Scragg, R., & Nirantharakumar, K. (2019). Trends in the incidence of testing for vitamin D deficiency in primary care in the UK: a retrospective analysis of The Health Improvement Network (THIN), 2005-2015. BMJ open, 9(6), e028355. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028355
- Okamoto-Mizuno, K., & Mizuno, K. (2012). Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm. Journal of physiological anthropology, 31(1), 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/1880-6805-31-14
- Tähkämö L, Partonen T, Pesonen AK. Systematic review of light exposure impact on human circadian rhythm. Chronobiol Int. 2019 Feb;36(2):151-170. doi: 10.1080/07420528.2018.1527773. Epub 2018 Oct 12. PMID: 30311830.
- Pouteau E, Kabir-Ahmadi M, Noah L, et al. Superiority of magnesium and vitamin B6 over magnesium alone on severe stress in healthy adults with low magnesemia: A randomized, single-blind clinical trial. PLoS One. 2018;13(12):e0208454. Published 2018 Dec 18. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0208454
- Vitamin B6. Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. NIH updated Feb 2020.
- Gao Q, Kou T, Zhuang B, Ren Y, Dong X, Wang Q. The Association between Vitamin D Deficiency and Sleep Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2018;10(10):1395. Published 2018 Oct 1. doi:10.3390/nu10101395
- USDA, Agricultural Research Service. Food Data Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1104244/nutrients
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