Get your sleep schedule back on track

You scrimp on an hour of sleep here, an hour there – the negative effects get diluted and you might not realise they’re linked to a lack of sleep. Meanwhile, your sleep schedule shifts further away from what you’d like it to be.

Although I’ve been outspoken about the importance of sleep, especially when you’re training, I have to fess up that I’ve completely slipped off the bandwagon in the last week. Ever felt this way? I’ve pushed my bedtime out to a half hour past midnight and my sleep is totalling just over 6 hours – not good.

I feel like it’s common for sleep to be the first thing that slips off the radar as soon as you have a lot going on. Even if, like me, you’re keen on good quality sleep and you work at a company focussed on sleep improvement prioritising sleep can be a challenge. It’s a never-ending struggle. You scrimp on an hour here, an hour there – the negative effects get diluted and you might in fact be ascribing them to a poor diet or time of year. Meanwhile, your sleep schedule shifts further away from what you’d like it to be. Not to mention that you’re actually more likely to make poor eating choices when you’re sleep deprived.

Oh man.

For me it’s now been a full week and a half of scrimping on sleep. Here’s how I know I’ve been overdoing it:

  • – I’ve been battling the afternoon slump a lot. Since I’ve gone on the bulletproof diet mid-May, I haven’t experienced this annoying dip or the sugar cravings that accompany it.
  • – Maintaining focus is more difficult. There’s plentiful of research linking sleep deprivation to a drop in productivity and even an increase in errors and erroneous decision-making.
  • – Pimples. The link between sleep and hormone balance is still terrifyingly under-researched, but we do know that sleep interacts with at least the hormones melatonin and the human growth hormone. Alongside this, sleep difficulties are a common symptom of menopause so it’s not a stretch to assume that a lack of sleep can throw some hormones out of balance.
  • – My morning lie-ins are getting ever longer. Obviously, this is another factor helping my sleep schedule slip out of control.

 

Now that I’m on a mission to get back to my ideal sleep length (which is between 7h10mins and 7h30mins) here’s what I’m doing to get myself back on track:

 

1. Wind-down routine

…or the holy grail of good sleep. As I’ve learned from Sleepio, you absolutely need to have separation between wakefulness (or daytime) and time for sleep (nighttime), lest they intertwine. This line of separation is your wind-down routine. This means not climbing into bed with your work, either on your laptop or in your head. It also means putting more emphasis on relaxation and enjoying or being present for your nighttime rituals (like locking up the house or brushing your teeth).

So an hour or so before I’m ready for bed, I’ll do dim the lights and do a bout of stretching or yoga followed by foam rolling (on some days). The stretching I do in the evening is slightly different from my morning moves, so it’s a clear signal to my body that bedtime is soon to follow.

In people who for example have insomnia, it’s often that their signalling has broken down – their bed is a place where they are awake and once they get into it, their body begins to stress about the wakefulness they know is coming up. They can’t get to sleep no matter how tired they might feel. This is why sleep hygiene advice, such as having a wind-down routine, is the first piece of advice you’ll get from a sleep expert if you’re struggling with poor sleep.

If you need a bit more help to enforce a wind-down routine and structure it around your day, I would recommend that you check out Sleepio*, a sleep improvement program tailored to your data. Downloading the app from the App Store will give you a 10-day free trial during which you’ll have access to a range of relaxation exercises and the first two sessions of the program (the second session is all about good sleep hygiene).

2. Dim the lights + bedtime curfew

Light is a big signal for our natural body clock or circadian rhythm, the system regulating processes in our body such as when we sleep. For centuries before we had electrical lighting, the sunrise and sunset were controlling our sleep schedule. Our body clock was in sync with the natural light. Today however, many of us rely on artificial lighting to help us extend the workday, and we use our computers and other screens until we’re close to passing out as our sleep drive peaks.

So I like to give myself a little nudge to prep for sleep by dimming the lights. I love the ambience my Himalayan salt lamp creates and the gradual change in lighting helps me to nod off more easily later.

I’m also instituting 10.15pm as the absolute latest time to get into bed. By 11pm I want to already be sleeping. To help ensure this happens I’ll have my last meal before 7.30pm. After that, only water and tea are allowed so that digestion doesn’t lower my sleep quality.

3. Watch the diet

Pshaw! Well this is an obvious one. Nonetheless, how often have you had a big meal late at night recently? It seems like a great idea in the moment, but nighttime should not be when our digestion is revving up. The workings of the digestion system can interrupt the circadian system preparing our body for sleep and once again, you might find yourself going to bed later or feeling unrefreshed after waking up.

If you consume soda drinks or sugary snacks close to bedtime, these can also prevent you sleeping as well. And although you might think alcohol helps you get to sleep, it will also wake you up earlier in the morning, disrupting your sleep schedule again.

4. No technology in bed

Although more research needs to be done around blue light and how it can impact on sleep, early findings do suggest that this light emitted by the screens of our modern devices, can inhibit the production of melatonin. Why is this a problem? Well, as you might already know, melatonin is dubbed the sleep hormone – its production and release into the blood stream is how the body prepares for sleep. A lack of melatonin can make falling asleep very difficult or it can also affect how refreshed we feel after sleeping. For example, this very interesting study used blue light as a stimulant to help prevent night-time drivers falling asleep, and it seemed to have worked as well as caffeine.

However there’s a bigger reason why I’m banning technology in bed – self-control. More often than not I feel like it’s not any blue light keeping me awake and glued to the screen, but interest in what’s happening across the interwebs. While I’m no longer tortured by the fear of missing out, I am still curious enough to extend my bedtime for another sweep of Twitter, if allowed. Surely I can’t be the only one?

5. No more reading time in the mornings

One of my favourite ways to relax is to read a book when I wake up in the morning. This usually lasts from 20ish minutes on weekdays to an hour or more on the weekends. Whilst this gives me pleasure, I do acknowledge it’s a cheeky way to enjoy a bit of a lie-in. Unfortunately, lie-ins are not good for our sleep schedule, especially if there’s more than a couple of hours difference between weekday and weekend times.

So my plan is to get out of bed immediately after waking up and stretch under the sunshine pouring through my window. (By the way, if you need ideas for stretching and functional movements, I compiled a list of ones recommended by Joe De Sena in this post.) Getting out of bed and into the natural light is a surefire way to restart your body clock for a new day, so that, by the time evening rolls around, you’re ready to sleep again.

 

* Full disclosure: I work at Big Health, the creators of Sleepio.

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