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How to sleep better in 2019

How to sleep better in 2019


Margaret Thatcher famously got by with only four hours of sleep – a nightmare for her successor John Major, who was expected by the civil service to do likewise. Conversely, Winston Churchill slept in until 8am, napped daily from after lunch until 6.30pm and even kept a bed in the Houses of Parliament. (He often worked late into the night, but still.)

Just as lunch was once for unproductive wimps, so sleep was for snoozing losers. But while some masochists still voluntarily torture themselves with sleep deprivation, our bleary eyes are being prised open to the manifold health benefits of vitamin ZZZ, many of which were covered in University of California neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s bestselling 2017 book Why We Sleep. (Add it to your bedside table if you haven’t read it.)

Routinely fail to get your eight a night and you dramatically increase your risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart failure, to name but a few. Just one night of shuteye deficiency can cause you to shed muscle and accumulate fat; a week can leave your blood sugar levels pre-diabetic. Reckon you can “function”? So can some alcoholics – and research shows that being under-slept is equivalent to turning up to work half-cut.

But lest you lose sleep over these inconvenient truths, the opposite is also true: sleep is a prescription-free panacea that makes almost everything better. Which explains why wearable tech firm FitBit has added a sleep score to its metrics, or trendsetting transatlantic health club group Equinox now offers sleep coaching to its members. Don’t sleep on what the New York Times dubbed “the new status symbol” – or these tips for making sleep your superpower.

Set your clock

Maintain a regular to-bed and wake-up time – yes, even on Saturday and Sunday. “Sleeping in at weekends reduces your sleep drive,” says Melanie Rutherford, a Tier X personal trainer and sleep coach at Equinox in London’s St James’s. In layman’s terms, ‘sleep drive’ is how much your body wants to hit the hay, which varies at different times of day and according to how much sleep you got last night. Lie-ins knock yours off-kilter, so by the time bedtime comes, you’re still wide awake.

If you must stay up or sleep in, do so by no more than an hour – otherwise you’ll pay for it come Sunday: “You’ll start to build up sleepiness later in the day and will therefore be less sleepy at bedtime.” Besides, you can’t fully catch up on sleep lost during the week by lying in until midday at the weekend. Similarly, naps can make up for lost sleep, but they can also reduce your sleep drive at night. Walker warns against napping after 3pm and strongly recommends setting an alarm for when it’s time to go to bed: “If there is only one piece of advice you remember, this should be it.”

Don’t sweat before bed

Physical activity can help the sandman enter promptly when your go-to-bed alarm sounds – but not if it’s performed too late and strenuously. “Cortisol, your stress hormone, can disrupt sleep, and exercise provides a stress stimulus,” says Rutherford. “It may be worth skipping high-intensity interval training or heavy weights sessions if you need to go to sleep within the next two or three hours.”

Instead, try light cardio: a walk on an incline will tire you out without revving you up. Studies associate morning and afternoon workouts with better sleep at night – perhaps because they regulate your circadian rhythm, particularly if you exercise outside and soak up some body clock-resetting sunlight. But it’s individual, so if you have no problem hitting the hay after HIIT, go for it.

Shut down gadgets

If you didn’t know that your smartphone, tablet and computer play havoc with your sleep, consider this a wake-up call. These kinds of screens emit short-wavelength light that suppresses melatonin, the hormone your body releases to make you feel sleepy (the energy efficient bulbs in newer street lights have the same effect). Which is why the perfect bedroom has no screens and blackout blinds, plus a dumb alarm clock so you don’t bombard yourself whenever you check the time, or get sucked in by new notifications. (Mental stimulation is another reason to put your devices in sleep mode.)

“It's OK to include watching TV as part of your wind-down,” says Rutherford. “Just make sure that you watch it on the sofa in a dark room. TV in bed is a no-no.” Indeed, you shouldn’t do anything in bed apart from sleep or have sex – including stressing about not sleeping. Walker counsels that if you toss and turn for more than 20 minutes, or start to feel anxious, get up and do something relaxing – like reading a book – until you begin to nod off.

Eat, sleep, don’t repeat

Again, you hopefully know not to order a double espresso when the waiter asks if anybody wants coffee after dinner: caffeine binds to and blocks the receptors in your brain that otherwise attach to sleepiness chemical adenosine. But other drinks and food also interfere with your forty winks.

“Limit fluids in the two hours before bed, and try not to eat for three or more,” says Justin Jacobs, Tier X manager at Equinox. “Fullness negatively impacts sleep quality, and can even cause acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion.” He also advises avoiding foods that are difficult to digest, inflammatory or stimulative: anything spicy, sugary or processed, fast food and, for some, dairy. And while alcohol might knock you out, it also limits the deep, quality sleep that you need to wake up feeling refreshed. And when the booze wears off in the middle of the nights, you wake up. Probably to pee.

Breathe (out) deeply

Mind whirring? “An easy way to calm down is by making your exhales longer than your inhales,” says Michael Gervais, a yoga instructor and creator of Equinox’s HeadStrong meditations. Breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in until you reach the land of Nod. And if you return before you’re scheduled, resist the temptation to check the time, urges Rutherford.

“Will that change when your alarm goes off, or how much more sleep you'll get?” she says. “The only thing that happens when you check the time is that your brain becomes more alert: you start doing sums, working backwards how many more hours before until your alarm goes off – then bam, guess what? You're wide awake and wondering why you can't get back to sleep. If I could give one piece of advice, it would be this: if you wake up in the night, the last thing you should do is look at the time. Trust that your alarm will wake you after your allotted eight hours.”


Words: Jamie Millar
Illustration: Tim Lahan