How to get the best night’s sleep

A few days ago, we introduced Dr Schiller and she explained how sleep works from a top-line scientific point of view: the circadian rhythm and the sleep drive. If you missed it, you can read it here.

Today, World Sleep Day, she shares her top tips on what you can do to set yourself up for the best possible night’s sleep. She focusses on the importance of having a sleep routine, and highlights a number of concepts you should consider when designing your own sleep routine.

Dr Schiller’s list of ideas that could guide you toward a better sleep routine:

Keep regular sleep hours

Going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time every day will both maintain, and strengthen the effects of the circadian rhythm. Ideally, you should sleep when you get the strongest effects of the melatonin, and you should aim at following the rhythm of your natural sleep drive.

Consider your sleep drive if taking naps during the day

A day of normal activity commonly results in a strong sleep drive by night-time. A nap during the day will lower the sleep drive, which might affect your ability to fall asleep at night. Even though you fall asleep properly, it could still reduce your sleep quality, which in turn will increase your sleep drive the next day and consequently also the wish to take a nap in the afternoon. You may easily get caught up in a vicious circle.

Be active every day

Physical activity during the day increases the need for recovery and therefore strengthens your sleep drive. Intensive physical activity even has a calming effect on the bodily systems. However, only after a while, when the increased cortisol levels have dropped off. Therefore, intensive physical activity too close to bedtime might make it more difficult to unwind and relax when going to bed.

Winding down before bedtime

A stressful and very active day can increase sleep drive, but high levels of stress in the evening will activate a range of bodily systems that keep us alert and interfere with sleep. Stress and sleep are therefore often seen as each other’s antagonists. Clear, recurring evening routines will signal to the brain that it’s time for sleep, enhancing the possibility for the body to wind down and relax. Such routines are therefore crucial during stressful periods in life.

Avoid stressful thoughts in bed

If you don’t manage to switch off and unwind before going to bed your brain might get caught up in stressful or negative thoughts that will make it difficult to relax and fall asleep. Stressful thoughts like worries and rumination can be hard to switch off from. These repetitive and often irrational thoughts might keep us awake for a long time. When we finally fall asleep, the quality of sleep might be affected, through more awakenings and more fragmented sleep. One way of handling these thoughts is to write them down and choose a specific time during the day when you should process these thoughts more consciously.

Lay in bed only to sleep

Your brain should connect your bedroom to calmness and rest. Tossing and turning in bed will trigger the stress system and your brain will connect your bed, or your bedroom with negative feelings and thoughts, which in turn triggers the stress system even more. You could break this vicious circle by getting up and doing something calm and relaxing for 15 minutes or so, and then go back to bed again. This method is well founded in research.

Make sure to get enough daylight during the day

Spending time in daylight, preferably in the morning, will make you more alert during the day, as daylight suppress the release of melatonin. It will also strengthen the effects of the circadian rhythm, since the production of melatonin will be more pronounced in the evening – making it easier to fall asleep. Research has shown that 30 minutes of daylight will have positive effects on sleep.

Put away your screens before going to bed

Just like daylight, all screens that we use daily, such as TVs, computers, iPads and mobile phones, project a blue light that suppresses the release of melatonin. Therefore, you should not use the screens right before going to bed, at the very least you should use a filter for the blue light, which is available on many of these devices. Screens will also keep your brain active, when it in fact should be winding down.

Keep your bedroom dark and cool

Even when your eyes are closed, light will inhibit the release of melatonin. Therefore it is very important to keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Low bedroom temperature will also strengthen the effect of the circadian rhythm since body temperature, thanks to the biological clock, decreases during night.

Avoid coffee, alcohol and nicotine

Different substances that many people consume daily, such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine have a direct effect on our central nervous system and on our physiological systems. Consequently, sleep could be affected. Coffee, and also nicotine will make you more alert and you should keep in mind that caffeine has a half-time of seven hours. Alcohol has, despite its calming effects, a very negative impact on sleep, since once it‘s been combusted (after only 2-3 hours, consequently often during sleep) you will get a reaction of arousal from your bodily systems, making it very hard to maintain good sleep.

Avoid heavy meals too late at night

Since our metabolism slows down during the night, thanks to the circadian rhythm, you should ideally refrain from eating late at night since your bodily systems will need to process your food and it may disturb your sleep. Try not to eat to heavy food rich on and carbohydrates, too late at night. Make sure not to go to bed hungry either. This can make it difficult to fall asleep.

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Dr Helena Schiller holds a PhD in Public Health and is co-author of the internet-based CBT-program for better sleep at