1. STOP WORRYING
Anxiety is the enemy of good sleep. Worrying that you’re not getting enough will actually stop you sleeping and create a vicious circle that’s hard to break.
“The view that we all need eight hours is nonsense,” says Professor Jim Horne, founder of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. Experts say most of us can cut down to six hours without suffering major knock-on health effects.
The “inflammatory markers” that raise your risk of disease tend not to kick in until you get below six hours for long periods.
2. HAVE A ROUTINE
We enforce a bedtime routine for our children – milk, bath, story, cuddle – but how many of us have one ourselves? We should. Those 60 to 90 minutes before bed are crucial to the length and quality of sleep.
The aim is to wind down and get rid of what psychologists call the “mind chatter” of the day. Turn off screens an hour before sleep, make a to-do list so worrying about tomorrow’s tasks won’t wake you later, have a bath, a small snack or warm drink (but not a meal), and keep the bedroom dark, quiet and clutter-free.
3. WATCH WHAT YOU EAT
What you eat has a big effect on your sleep – and not just in the last couple of hours before bed.
Surprisingly, breakfast is really important. If you eat within half an hour of getting up, research shows you will produce more of the sleep hormone melatonin during the day.
“Include protein with your breakfast, as the amino acids help make the hormones that will send you to sleep later,” advises Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Tired But Wired (£11.49, expressbooks.co.uk).
Caffeine from coffee, chocolate or cola isn’t a good idea in the afternoon – and caffeine sensitivity increases with age. Drinking alcohol late in the evening is bad too: it may send you to sleep quickly, but fragments sleep while the body metabolizes it.
4. TRY AN ELECTRONIC SUNDOWN
Smartphones, tablets and the instant, 24-hour connectivity they provide can be a disaster for sleep if used late in the evening. We’re overloading our brain with too much information that it can’t process before sleep and research shows the bluish light from screens can delay the body’s production of melatonin.
“Ask yourself, is it really important to check your emails at 10pm?” says Dr Ramlakhan. “Our phones are amazing devices but we need to create healthy boundaries.” She advises turning off your tablet/computer and putting your phone downstairs an hour before sleep and don’t use it as an alarm clock.
TV is OK before sleep, as it doesn’t stimulate the brain so much.
5. TUNE OUT TWICE A DAY
Some studies say just 10 minutes’ meditation a day will give your body as much rest as the final phase of night-time sleep. That’s because when you tune out, your brain has the chance to consolidate and recharge.
There are lots of free apps that teach a daily meditation, but if that feels like a step too far, try other ways to reboot. “Walking does it for me,” says Professor Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre for Stress Management.
“It’s a time to switch off, listen and reflect.”
6. HAVE A WIDE-AWAKE PLAN
It’s perfectly normal to wake up 10 to 15 times a night, so have a plan to avoid lying there and fretting. Try not to check the time because that brings you back into full consciousness (and makes you worry how few hours there are until getting up time).
Stay as sleepy as possible and don’t put lights on, even if you have to go to the bathroom. Get comfortable and bring your attention to your breathing, advises Dr Ramlakhan.
Breathe deeply into your belly and follow your exhalations. Then slowly count each breath. “Go back through the previous day and recall every small positive thing that happened – a hot shower, a nice cup of tea etc. It’s a surprisingly effective technique.”
7. GET A SHORT NAP
A short afternoon nap can actually help your night-time sleep. But set your alarm (anything over 20 minutes may involve deep sleep, which could disrupt your night).
In fact, you don’t need to sleep to get the benefits: just five to 20 minutes of zoning out with your eyes closed is restorative, even if it’s face down at your desk.
Studies show a 15-minute nap during the afternoon dip (1 to 3pm) is as good as extending night-time sleep by an hour.
8. EXERCISE MIND AND BODY
Some kind of physical exertion every day is important to ready you for sleep – 20 to 25 minutes is enough.
But don’t do it within three hours of going to bed, as it will keep your body temperature too high to sleep. Get half an hour a day outside as daylight helps melatonin production.
Staying socially engaged and keeping the mind busy are also key, says Professor Horne. In one study, he discovered that it wasn’t the sea air that made people tired at the seaside but the mental effort of taking in new sights and sounds.
The newly retired often report insomnia, probably because they’re not getting enough mental stimulation in the day.
9. SORT OUT MEDICAL ISSUES
As we age, sleep becomes more fragmented, often because of disruptive physical complaints such as pain from arthritis or menopausal hot flushes.
Sometimes it’s the drugs used to treat illnesses that prevent sleep. Beta-blockers, diuretics and cold remedies are all common culprits.
Snoring is a huge problem: twice as many women as men visit the doctor for insomnia, probably because their partner is waking them. If yours is a snorer, there’s a chance they have sleep apnoea (60 per cent of over 65s have it).
This can be dangerous as those affected stop breathing for short periods, so ask them to see their GP and get referred to a sleep clinic so it can be effectively treated.
1O. CAN’T SLEEP? ACCEPT IT
If you can’t get to sleep or you wake up very early, accepting the problem can help resolve it. Tell yourself your body is still resting, you’ll be able to cope the next day even if you can’t sleep, and try to enjoy the stillness of the night.
“Value that additional time you have rather than feeling you’ve been robbed,” says independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley. “You can’t chase sleep – you have to let sleep find you.”