Experts agree that most adults need at least 7 hours sleep per night for optimal health and mental alertness. The Great British Bedtime Report by the Sleep Council in 2013 showed that the average for UK adults is just over 6.5 hours and that only 30% get more than 7 hours per night. According to a Gallup poll in the same year the average for Americans is 6.8 hours. For some people, it’s a personal choice to sleep fewer hours. Others maybe would prefer to sleep longer but don’t have time. However, a large number of people who don’t get 7 hours or more suffer from sleeping problems and would like to find a way to sleep better.
Why do we need to sleep?
Despite extensive research, no clear answer has been found to this question. What is more clear is how inadequate sleep affects us. We can:
- Feel irritable and anxious
- Make mistakes/have poor judgement
- Have slow reactions
- Have poor concentration
- Be less creative
- Have memory problems
- Struggle with problem solving and reasoning
- Be less alert
There’s also been some suggestion that long term sleep deprivation may put us at higher risk for developing serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. However, as yet there is no conclusive evidence on this.
How our bodies make us sleep
It’s thought that two different mechanisms work together to maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle.
- The circadian clock, the body’s natural built-in timer, which keeps the sleep cycle in tune with day and night light cycles.
- The drive to sleep, regulated by how long since we last slept/how long we have been asleep.
The drive to sleep increases throughout the day, but the circadian clock overrides this until the evening. During the evening it initiates the production of melatonin which induces sleep.
As morning draws closer, production of melatonin ceases and the circadian alerting system becomes more active.
When it goes wrong
If these mechanisms are working properly, then we should be able to fall asleep within half an hour of going to bed, sleep well and wake up refreshed. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Problems include:
- Failing to fall asleep quickly after going to bed
- Waking in the night and not being able to go back to sleep
- Not having adequate deep sleep
- Being too easily disturbed
Why does insomnia happen?
Episodes of insomnia often start during a period of stress. Once a bad sleeping pattern occurs, this makes stressful situations harder to cope with and also becomes a source of stress in itself. This results in a downward spiral which is difficult to break. Disturbance to normal sleeping patterns, such as noise from neighbours can also cause insomnia, especially if the disturbances cause anger and frustration.
How to sleep better – solutions to insomnia
Getting back into normal sleeping habits usually takes time and a combination of strategies. Other than medication, most strategies to sleep better fall into one of the following categories:
This involves developing habits which will help you sleep better, for example:
- waking up and going to bed at the same time each night
- getting out of bed if you can’t sleep
- taking exercise and fresh air during the day
- having a relaxing evening routine
Strategies for coping with stress and anxiety
These include relaxation techniques, meditation, massage and vaporising essential oils.
Cognitive restructuring and understanding sleep better
This is to encourage you to take a calmer view of insomnia and your perceptions of how it is affecting you. Often, worrying about insomnia doesn’t only make sleeping more difficult, it also carries through into the day. After a bad night, many people are so sure they will have a bad day that this makes the effects of lack of sleep worse. Also, research shows that some people don’t actually have as much of a sleep problem as they believe. Taking a calmer approach to the problem will make you more likely to have a good night and not feel so bad if you don’t. See below for how to find out more about this.
Firstly, you should follow the usual recommendations for healthy eating. A diet full of processed foods and low in nutrients is likely to make sleeping patterns worse. Secondly, you should avoid certain foods and drinks in the evening in the evening. Thiirdly, there are some foods that it may be helpful to have in the evening.
Food and drinks to avoid:
Caffeine is a stimulant and it takes several hours for all traces of caffeine to leave the body, so it is best not to have any food or drink containing caffeine in the evening. Common caffeine-containing foods/drinks include coffee, tea, chocolate and cola.
Alcohol is a depressant. It may help you to fall asleep initially, but can cause sleep disturbances later on in the night.
High fat foods take a long time to digest and so shouldn’t be eaten close to bedtime
Foods that help you to sleep better:
Foods containing tryptophan: As described above, melatonin plays an important part in the sleep/wake cycle. Melatonin is made in the brain from serotonin, which in turn is made from the amino acid tryptophan.. In order to ensure adequate levels of serotonin in the body, your should eat foods high in tryptophan. Good sources of tryptophan include:
- Seeds and nuts
It is thought that the insulin response initiated by eating carbohydrate makes tryptophan more available for use by the brain to make serotonin. This could explain why people often feel sleepy after a starchy meal. Eating an evening snack that is high in tryptophan and carbohydrate may therefore help to induce sleepiness. See below for ideas for evening snacks.
Note: cheese also contains tryptophan but is best not eaten in the evening. This isn’t because it causes nightmares – which appears to be a myth – but because of its high fat content.
Foods containing magnesium: Many people have magnesium deficient diets. There are various problems linked to magnesium deficiency, including insomnia. Good sources of magnesium include:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
Lettuce: An evening meal or snack including lettuce may help you to feel drowsy. This is because it contains lactucarium which has sedative properties. Lactucarium is the white milky fluid that you see when cutting lettuce, so you should choose a variety that has plenty of this.
Ideas for evening snacks to sleep better
- Banana smoothie made from banana, milk and yoghurt
- Hot milk and almonds
- Banana sandwich on wholemeal bread
- Yoghurt with nuts and/or seeds
- Nut butter on wholemeal toast
- Banana & custard
- Tuna/turkey and lettuce sandwich on wholemeal bread
- Small wholemeal pitta or wrap with apple, yoghurt & lettuce
- Wholegrain seedy crackers
Remember that changing your evening eating habits should only be one part of a plan to help you sleep better. Improving sleep habits takes time and a combination of strategies. If you want to find out more about the cognitive strategies mentioned above then have a look at this book. Written by Dr Gregg Jacobs of Harvard Medical School, it’s an excellent resource to help you understand insomnia, get it into perspective and then train yourself to sleep better.