World Sleep Day: 10 expert-approved ways to get a better night’s sleep
Getting a good night's sleep affects everything from our mood to how well we function at work – but despite this, far too many of us find it difficult to sleep soundly through the night.
In fact, around half of the UK aren't getting the optimal seven to eight hours of shut-eye, according to the Twinings 2023 sleep census.
Meanwhile, a quarter are getting just five hours or less sleep a night, for reasons including staying up too late to watch films or TV, feeling stressed about finances or worrying about work, the research of 2,000 British adults revealed.
Due to sleep deprivation, nearly a third of us have experienced a lack of productivity, more than a fifth (22%) have fallen out with friends or partners, and a similar number (21%) noted how it makes them question their appearance, abilities or decision-making.
Tracy Hannigan, aka Tracy The Sleep Coach, is hoping to help raise awareness for World Sleep Day on Friday 17 March and beyond. She says poor sleep could be due to a host of reasons, including health conditions, insomnia and other sleep disorders, stress and not allowing/having enough time to sleep.
"When we don't sleep well, we tend to over-focus on the negatives and discount the positives in our daily life," says Hannigan. "Our ability to think outside the box (lateral thinking) also decreases. Combine this with increased emotionality and it's easy to see how lack of sleep long-term can significantly affect our relationships and quality of life."
She says it can also cause "deficits in memory, attention and retention of new learning. Longer-term insomnia is associated with an increased risk of physical and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety."
Our sleep can be affected temporarily by a wide range of factors. "We tend to think of negative stressors like job losses and break-ups as things that spark off a bad bout of sleep," says Hannigan.
"Sometimes though exciting, more positive changes such as moving home or getting married can also create enough excitement and mental arousal to make sleep become challenging."
Here Hannigan shares her 10 top tips (and a bonus point!) to help you get a better night's sleep, whether you're struggling with short-term or long-term difficulties.
Helping intermittent sleep problems
1: Don't got obsessed with trying to 'fix' sleep
Before sharing the many useful ways to try and improve sleep, Hannigan first wants to make clear that these should not add to stress, i.e. if it doesn't work – you haven't 'failed' and you don't need to try harder.
"The single most important thing that a person with intermittent or short-term sleeping problems can do is to not get obsessed with trying to fix their sleep by developing complicated routines," she says.
"Accepting that these situations are often normal is hugely helpful to drop the sleep 'struggle' which can create a lot of anxiety. The more frantically we try to fix it, the more our sleep efforts can backfire."
2. Re-think that evening tipple
While there is no judgment for those who enjoy an evening glass of something, it's worth considering the effects even just the one can have if you're someone who struggles with sleep.
"In times of stress, many people turn to a glass of wine or a beer to help take the edge off," says Hannigan. "But this can make sleep worse.
"Many people think alcohol helps sleep, but it does more harm than good. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can severely affect sleep quality. If you do drink, try to keep it to no closer than three or four hours before bedtime to reduce the impact on deeper stages of sleep."
3. Put your laptop to bed (literally) for the night
Hannigan suggests 'time-blocking' the use of laptops to protect 'after dinner' time, especially when work is busy. "Develop a routine of closing the laptop, putting it in a sleeve, and putting it to bed (literally!) for the night," she says.
"Most people use a laptop to work from, and so the association we have with those devices is one that promotes our 'work brain' to be active." Don't be temped to log back on after hours.
Read more: These viral sleep hacks could solve your shut-eye
4. Be aware of sleep procrastination
Often find yourself the only one still awake in your home?
"We all deserve time to ourselves, but be aware of sleep procrastination," says Hannigan. "This is when we save all our 'time for us' until we've done everything for everyone else and this reduces the amount of time we have available to sleep.
"This will naturally happen sometimes – when children are sick, for example. However, if it happens a lot it could be a sign that our boundaries and overcommitment need a review."
5. Tire yourself out like a child
Try the old-fashioned way. Hannigan says, "Our mums had us go run around outside, expecting us to sleep well that next night."
While we all know exercise is helpful for the mind and body, Hannigan explains that it also helps to build 'sleep drive'.
"Sleep drive is the only thing that can generate sleep," she says, "so if someone's sleep is having a particularly wobbly time, getting an extra workout or two in during the week can be helpful."
However, there are other ways 'tiring yourself out' can be achieved, for those who are able to. For example, Hannigan suggests, "If someone is housebound, doing things like taking extra trips up the stairs can help accumulate more drive for sleep."
Helping longer-term sleep problems
6. Nap the right way
"Everyone says 'don't take a nap' – and there's some truth to this," says Hannigan. "However, if someone is very sleepy, napping can help take the edge off sleepiness and make their daytime safer."
She says it's important to remember, "Naps are for sleepiness, not for sleep.
"So resist the temptation to sleep a long time as it will have a negative effect on building consistent sleep drive. Naps should be early and short, and the person should go to bed later to make up for the sleep drive they have lost."
7. Get up at the same time each day
"Most people think of 'going to bed' at a specific ideal time as key for good sleep but I consider waking up at the same time of day more important," she says.
Read more: Bad night's sleep linked to feeling 'decades older'
'Sleep drive' is built up the longer we are awake and the more active we are. The timing of when this happens is organised by what's known as our circadian rhythm. As this sleep cycle starts in the morning, a set morning time is very important.
8. Pick an enjoyable 'evening buffer zone'
Hannigan's top recommendation for what to include in your wind-down routine aka your 'evening buffer zone' is...."whatever you enjoy!"
"It could be TV, reading, knitting or playing with pets," she says. "Recovering from insomnia is not a short-term project, so if you end up staying up late, look at it as building up sleep drive for the future, as opposed to 'missing out on sleep' – because you may not have slept anyway."
9. Consider bedtime snacks carefully
Apparently, snacking can affect people differently and for some it can even help with sleep.
"Those who usually snack at bedtime can benefit their sleep by improving the quality of that snack – ideally to contain protein and carbohydrate and be low in artificial sugars," says Hannigan.
"However, for those who don't normally snack at night, adding in a snack may not be helpful (and doing so could contribute to weight gain)."
10. Don't linger in bed while you're awake
"When we get anxious about our sleep, and start 'chasing sleep' by going to bed early, sleeping in, laying in bed 'trying to make sleep come', we disturb the normal associations with our bed," explains Hannigan. "This only makes it harder for our body and mind to use the bed as a cue to fall and stay asleep."
11. (Bonus point) Live life despite not sleeping well
While there's lots we can do to help our sleep, we're still going to wake up feeling tired from time to time. But Hannigan says, "Sleep doesn't have to be our idea of perfect to see friends, engage with people and do things you enjoy.
"Will it be harder? Yes. But if we reduce our life to one of doing nothing because of our sleep, that only gives more power to the sleeplessness and deprives us of the joy life could bring us."
And for those who might not have the luxury of getting a full night's sleep, such as parents of young children, Hannigan stresses that "making sure that the sleep a person does get is of high quality is even more important.
"A shorter span of high-quality sleep can actually be better for a person's daytime functioning than a few hours more of sketchy sleep."
Watch: Tips if you're struggling to sleep