Our sleep is one of the most important factors in our health and if we don't get good sleep then we will be likely to suffer in many ways. Our sleep is an 'anabolic' state which means it is a state in which the body is repairing itself and rejuvenating itself. All the chemicals our body produces are produced to this end such as growth hormone, and as we aren't using up energy or damaging tissues our body has all the time in the world to do this.
However sleep isn't just a matter of closing your eyes and lying down and some sleep is certainly better for us than other sleep. Here we will look at the best ways to sleep and to make sure that it is as beneficial for us as possible and that it leaves us feeling rejuvenated and full of energy when we wake.
Get Into a Routine
We humans are by design creatures of habit and that extends to our sleeping behaviors – if our body 'knows' that it is time for sleep then they are more likely to doze off more readily and more deeply and it's a good idea to get into a rhythm so that your body can regulate its production of hormones and become conditioned to respond to certain cues. So set a time to get to bed and set a time to wake up and your body will then work with you to maintain this routine – if you are forced to break this cycle then you can force yourself to return to that routine the next day and you should find you slip into it easily if it's become habit.
Pay Attention to External Cues
At the same time it's best if that routine is synchronous with the natural 'day/night' cycle. This is because our body uses external cues such as the light outside and social cues in order to regulate its own internal body clock. Things like the sun going down and temperature dropping cause our body to produce melatonin which aids sleep, thus if we are sleeping when this happens we will find it easier to drift off rather than fighting against these signals. Even better is to try and wake 'naturally' as the daylight comes through the curtains which is also a more gentle and natural way to come around (it also encourages you to go to bed at the right time when it's getting dark outside, though things such as street lamps can cause a problem here).
As mentioned having the sun gently wake you is a great way to synchronize your body clock with the daylight outside. At the same time though it's also great because it causes you to wake gently and this is far healthier for us than being 'startled' out of sleep by the sound of a loud buzzing which is the experience you get with most alarm clocks. This means that we progress through the stages of sleep rather than being woken potentially from SWS (slow wave sleep) which is the deepest stage and sure to leave you feeling groggy and struggling for energy.
However this isn't always convenient and there are various reasons why we can't always use natural changes to wake us up. As mentioned there's the matter of other light coming from outside, but at the same time there's also the fact most of us have a set time to be up every morning and we aren't in the position to wait for the sun to decide when we get up.
Instead then one option is to use a 'daylight lamp' which wakes you via a gently lightening light which makes waking feel more natural. Alternatively you can wake yourself with some quiet music – for instance with a CD in a radio alarm that you know will wake you but that is nevertheless 'gentle'. Some alarm clocks are also designed specifically to wake you when you are in the correct stage of sleep through clever timing – and here you set a 'range' in which you are happy to wake and it then adjusts this to try and ensure you are woken when you are already sleeping lightly.
Another important way to improve the quality of your sleep is to avoid overly long lie-ins and though you might think that this would of course make you more rejuvenated (more of a good thing) it is in fact too much of a good thing and will cause you to feel lethargic and over tired. At the same time it will cause you to be less tired at night the next day and that will damage your rhythm. Make sure then that you get eight hours sleep and don't be tempted to press snooze on your alarm.
Keep Your Bedroom for Sleeping
As well as taking cues from the time and those factors, your brain will also take cues from its surroundings and you can start to classically condition your body to know when it's 'bedtime'. To do this, you should make an environment that you keep entirely for sleeping and ensure that you always sleep when you're in it. You'll be most likely to achieve this by keeping your bedroom solely for sleeping – so make sure that you don't spend too much time during the day working in your room or socializing in it. If you live in a bedsit and you're forced to spend time around your bed, then try to section it off for instance with a curtain. This way, when you head to your bedroom your body will know that it's time for bed and it will start to slow down for the night.
Create the Perfect Environment
Having a comfortable environment can greatly help you to sleep well and this means eliminating anything that could wake you up or prevent you from sleeping as heavily – light, noise and other distractions. To prevent light this means getting heavy curtains, and removing any sources in your room. Something as simple as an LCD display on a CD player or alarm clock can create enough light to disturb you as you sleep, so choose things that aren't too bright and turn them to face the wall. One simple solution is an eye mask.
Likewise you should also aim to avoid any noise pollution that might keep you awake and this means making sure to close your window to avoid noise from traffic, and making small changes to your room such as removing clocks. Again these small differences can make a big change to how soundly you sleep and again if you can't change the noise levels you can address the problem with ear plugs.
Use a Comfortable Bed
The next thing to consider is your bed and it's important to ensure that this is both comfortable and supportive. You need to make sure that it is comfortable in order to help yourself to doze off to sleep, but at the same time you need it to be supportive and this will help to keep your spine straight and prevent backache or neck ache in the morning. Memory foam is particularly good at meeting both these criteria.
Similarly you should think hard about the pillows you use, and it's important not to prop yourself up too high or you can again suffer from a back neck as a result. Then there is the matter of getting the correct temperature and this is achieved both by maintaining the temperature in your room, and by maintaining having the correct bedding and duvet. The best system is to have a thin duvet and a secondary blanket that you can pull over yourself as needed as this allows you to adapt to changes in your body temperature throughout the night.
Address Sleeping Problems
If you have any particular sleep disorders then no manner of regulations or memory foam mattresses are going to help. This might be snoring, sleep apnea, night terrors or something else, but either way you can address the problem by seeing a sleep specialist who will observe you through the night and can this way identify anything that might be interrupting your sleep. Sleep apnea for instance is a condition in which you wake up during brief spells in the night and this is as a result of your stopping breathing. There are various causes of sleep apnea but obstructive apnea can be treated fairly easily by encouraging weight loss, sleeping in a more upright position, avoiding lying on your back, or using a CPAP device (continuous positive airway pressure). The problem with sleep apnea though is that you only wake very briefly and though this is enough to disturb your sleep patterns it won't necessarily be enough for the patient to remember it happened – thus you can suffer from sleep apnea without being aware. If you find yourself often tired and lethargic then go to the doctor as there are any number of things it might be.
What you eat and drink before you sleep can have a big impact on how you sleep. If you eat a big meal for instance then you will find that this causes you to have a fitful sleep as your body works to digest the food. Fatty foods are worst as these take longest to digest, but you should in general avoid eating at least for two hours before sleep. Likewise avoid alcohol as though this will cause you to sleep and has a sedative effect, it also impacts your natural sleep cycles. What is good for you is water as it hydrates you for the long night, and milk which has amino acids to help your body repair itself and stimulates the production of the sleep hormone 'melatonin'. Avoid drinking lots before bed though as it will cause you to wake in the night.
The very best way to sleep easily and calmly is to enjoy just relaxing and to take yourself out of your own head. If you are struggling to get to sleep, then worrying about sleeping and trying to 'force' yourself will only cause you to struggle more as it will get you stressed and so increase your heart rate. If you learn to just enjoy lying and relaxing then this will help you to drift more easily off to sleep.