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Tis the Season for New Beginnings & Better Sleep!

Maria M. Hadjimarkou, PhD, Lecturer School of Psychology University of Sussex

As we say goodbye to 2022 and welcome the new year, we may spend time thinking about changes we would like to make to improve our life satisfaction, health and well-being. This reflective exercise may mean different things for each of us, as we all have different priorities. Today I will be discussing some aspects of sleep hygiene, that may help improve one’s sleep.

We all need sleep although we may need different amounts depending on our genetic makeup, age, etc. Ideally, we would like to sleep well so that we feel rested and energized the next morning, so the emphasis is on the quality of sleep that we get. Many people are suffering from insomnia, a condition associated with difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep. Insomnia is the second most prevalent condition among Europeans, only second to anxiety disorders. There is a good chance that some of you may have experienced these difficulties with sleep from time to time so you may seek to regain that sense of rest and rejuvenation with each morning awakening.

Thinking of sleep leads us to the scene where sleep takes place, the bedroom. Ideally, the bedroom should be a place of serenity and calmness, a clean and peaceful environment that is used only for sleep. We should avoid engaging in other activities in the bedroom such as working, eating, etc. A bedroom should be devoid of clutter, it should be quiet and a bit cool. The bedding and colours may also be important, so we can easily relax and sleep.

There is a major tendency to use electronic devices at night for work, communication, reading or just scrolling social media. Using laptops, smartphones etc around bedtime will mislead our brain that it is still daytime and postpone the secretion of melatonin which may delay sleep onset when we eventually do decide to go to sleep. In addition to light exposure, many who go on social media may end up feeling anxious or aroused before sleep, which is the opposite of what we would like to be doing at that time. Thus, the avoidance of electronic devices is recommended for at least one hour before bedtime. Ideally, we should sleep in total darkness although this may be tricky with younger children or those who are afraid of the dark.

It would be nice to develop a habit of a bedtime routine as part of our daily schedule. We are very good with establishing bedtime routines for our babies and children because we are motivated to rest when they fall asleep. We start to engage in quiet activities, we may go for a walk, give them a bath, read a bedtime story and then lights out. It would be good if we started to value a bedtime routine for ourselves too! As evening comes, we could start to wind down, switch to more quiet activities and dim the lights in our house if we can. We can take a shower, read a book, listen to music (many prefer natural sounds) or to the radio or podcasts before switching the lights off. The routine helps with making the transition from wakefulness to sleep and if this takes place at a regular time, it trains our brain to anticipate relaxation and sleep. The biological clock in our brain operates optimally when the cues we provide are consistent, and ideally, in sync with the circadian rhythm, the time of day. Of course, deviations will take place because life happens, but it would be good to retain some regularity in our activities. Sleep happens (or should happen) naturally after we spend hours of wakefulness and being active during the day. Many of us may enjoy a cup of coffee or two during the day or a few cups of tea. As these contain caffeine, they are stimulating the brain and prolong wakefulness so it would be good to stop our coffee/tea intake in the early afternoon or switch, if possible, to caffeine-free, as the caffeine we have accumulated in our bodies takes many hours to be metabolized. Having caffeine on board interferes with sleep, delays sleep onset and we may end up waking up in the morning feeling unrested and unrefreshed so this may lead to more caffeine and ongoing reliance on it, in order to reach and maintain sufficient levels of alertness.

On the opposite end, many find it hard to wind down in the evening after a difficult, tiring and stressful day, so they feel that having a drink or two may help them to de-stress and sleep better. Although it makes sense and subjectively, there may be a feeling of relaxation that follows alcohol intake, the reality is that alcohol is a suppressant of neuronal activity and it sedates us, it does not induce or enhance natural sleep. We may have the impression that sleep comes more quickly or effortlessly when we drink, but that is because we inhibit our brain, we are shutting it down. Normal sleep is not shutting down of the brain, it involves diligent work that yes, includes slowing down and reduction in neuronal activity but then the brain bounces back and is highly active during lighter stages of sleep. Alcohol disrupts sleep, especially in the second half of the night and may result in us feeling groggy and unrested.

Similarly sleeping pills taken to help us sleep should be avoided as much as possible and that is for many reasons. In a similar way to alcohol, sleeping pills do not induce normal sleep. Besides that, they may lead to tolerance and dependence and their action may extend beyond the night and affect our alertness the next morning. However, the greatest danger is that these methods of dealing with sleep difficulties may prevent us from seeking help or tackling the real reasons behind this inability to go to sleep. Finally, if for some reason it is difficult to go to sleep, avoid staying in bed awake for too long. Get out of bed and read or do something else before going back to bed. It is also helpful to remember that sleep is a natural progression and a continuation of our waking time so having a good day, where we are active and have pleasant interactions with others, will make it easier for us to also have a good night’s sleep.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year!

Posted in sleep on Jan 01, 2023