To understand some sleep problems, it’s good to understand the brain and what it’s up to. Our brains go through the circadian cycles, which are triggered by light and dark. In a natural environment with no electricity, our body produces melatonin about 2 hours before sleep, which helps to relax you. Tryptophan is the substance that allows melatonin to be produced and it is also the basis for serotonin – the feel-good neurotransmitter. Our bodies extract Tryptophan and melatonin from the foods we eat.
About 2 hours before dawn, Cortisol levels rise, to help us wake up and be alert. Cortisol plays a large part in our fight and flight response, and high-stress levels can affect your ability to go to sleep, or it may wake you up early. Snoring can do the same, elevating your cortisol levels if you suffer from sleep apnoea.
Light levels influence our sleepiness and wakefulness, the blue light of morning keeps us awake, going for a walk in the morning can help us recalibrate. In the evening, keep lighting levels low and use filters on your blue screens.
A good way to work out the best time to sleep and rise is to work out your circadian cycle. Each cycle is roughly 90 minutes long. If you have to rely on an alarm clock to get up in the morning on a weekday, it could be you’re in the middle of a cycle which will leave you feeling a bit discombobulated. What time do you naturally wake up at the weekend? Then work roughly 90 minutes back and these times will be your wake up times.
For example. I wake at 6 am naturally so my cycle is 6, 7.30, 9, 10.30, 12, 1.30, 3, 4.30. So I need to be asleep by 10.30 pm. I know I need about half an hour to get comfortable and drift off to sleep, so bed by 10 pm.
It’s best to eat your main meal at least 3 hours before bed so that your digestive system has time to do its job without disturbing you. Drinking water is preferable in the evening to alcohol, as alcohol dehydrates which increases your chances of being woken up early. Avoid caffeine after a certain time, as it will delay the sleep pressure. I often recommend cherry juice before bed as it contains melatonin, and if you’re a red wine drinker, then it’s an excellent replacement.
Winding down to sleep
Between dinner at 7 pm and bed, you will need at least an hour to wind down. Stop any work on a computer or laptop by 9 pm. Read a book – if you read devices like kindles, only use it on a blue light filter, have a bath, listen to music. Turn down the lights. Relax.
Try not to watch action movies, the news or anything which wakes you up. Leave that to earlier in the evening.
Make sure you cool down properly, turn off the radiators in the bedroom, or open a window. Set the central heating to go off earlier. Take a warm shower or bath to speed up the cooling period and help relax you.
Listen to relaxing music, read a book, use eyeshades and earplugs if you’re sensitive to light and sound. Sleep tight.