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A good night’s sleep is just as important as daily exercise and a healthy diet. Good sleep has the potential to keep your overall mood and health in shape.
Research shows that bad sleeping habits can have immediate negative effects on your mood, hormones, performance, and brain functions. It can also make you obese and increase the risk of catching random diseases.
On the contrary, good sleeping habits can help you digest and exercise better, maintain your sanity and stay healthier. It keeps your mood in shape and really does help get rid of bags under your eyes. Nevertheless, it’s also essential for your heart, weight and even your mental state.
Over the past few decades, due to ever-increasing rat race and lifestyle changes, both quality and quantity of sleep has declined. In fact, many people regularly get poor sleep.
We had the opportunity to speak to Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a professional physiologist and sleep therapist at Nightingale Hospital in London who has worked for 25 years and has shared her expert advice on sleeping better.
Here are 8 of Dr Nerina’s tips to sleep better at night.
1) Expose yourself to bright light during day
Exposure to bright light helps you to sleep better as it helps to optimise your circadian rhythm. It does this by influencing various levels of hormones such as cortisol – the stress hormone that we need to produce in the right quantity first thing in the morning to get going. It also increases levels of serotonin – the feel-good hormone. Light is the principal control of our day-light cycle. Not getting enough light during the day can cause excessive daytime sleepiness and insufficient melatonin production at night.
2) Avoid caffeine after 3 pm
The half-life of caffeine is around 5 hours – this means if you have a cup of coffee at 5 pm you’ll still have half the amount in your system at 10 pm. Caffeine is a stimulant so it wakes you up even more and stops the melatonin – the sleep hormone – from working effectively. Ideally, you should avoid caffeine after 3 pm although people have different sensitivities to it.
3) Avoid irregular or long daytime naps
The exception is if you are a shift worker when you’re constantly dealing with a sleep deficit. Ideally, you should nap at some point between 2 and 4 pm. A power nap is a nap we can all benefit – it is no longer than 20 mins and is a state of relaxation rather than sleeping. This will quickly revive your energy levels and concentration. A replacement nap is a longer nap of up to 40 minutes. She recommends these if you’re feeling run down and ill as it can speed up recovery. Napping too late – after 4 pm – can stop you sleeping at night as it reduces your sleep drive. This is the biological desire to sleep that is built up through the course of the day.
4) Avoid alcohol at night
Alcohol is a relaxant but also a stimulant – it can keep you awake in the early hours as it stops the liver breaking down the stress hormone adrenaline during the night. The increase in this hormone creates more wakefulness.
5) Try to dine early
Ideally, give yourself a few hours to digest a heavy meal as otherwise your physiological resources are diverted to digestion rather than optimising sleep. This can keep you awake. An overly full stomach can also cause physical discomfort.
6) Take a relaxing shower or bath
Washing the day off is a good hygiene habit and it also helps psychologically to let go of the day, relax muscles and optimise body temperature for good sleep. An overly hot bath can be overstimulating for some people while others might even prefer a cool shower before bed to lower the temperature of the extremities – this can help some people to fall asleep quicker. It’s about working out what’s good for you as we all have a unique relationship with sleep.
7) Stay well hydrated throughout the night
I don’t advocate this as part of my sleep programme. I place more emphasis on being well hydrated throughout the night. Getting up to urinate during the night is entirely normal and the more we worry about it the less likely we are to actually get back to sleep if we do need to get up.
8) Avoid melatonin supplements
Often used to treat insomnia, melatonin supplements are quite popular sleep aid and may be one of the easiest ways to fall asleep faster.
However, melatonin is a no-no for Dr Ramlakhan. Her sleep programme is all about helping people to sleep naturally through lifestyle, psychological and spiritual interventions. She says that taking a drug – such as melatonin – switches off the natural functioning of the circadian timer which is the part of the brain that regulates sleep. Regular usage of melatonin also causes a build up of tolerance so increasing doses are needed to produce any effect.
About Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan has worked as a professional physiologist and sleep expert for 25 years. She worked for a decade conducting sleep and wellness programmes at Nightingale Hospital in London, coaches on burnout prevention at Ashridge Business School and is the original founder of BUPA’s Corporate Wellbeing Solutions. Nerina works with individuals as well as numerous corporate clients from various industries including sport (Chelsea Football Club) and hosts a regular sleep programme at Vale De Moses yoga retreat, Portugal.
Nerina is author of Tired But Wired (Souvenir Press, 2010), Fast Asleep, Wide Awake (Thorsons, 2016), and The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (Gaia, 2018) and her work has been featured in The Times, Telegraph, Guardian, New Scientist, Psychologies, Red and Healthy Living magazines. She has also appeared on numerous national TV and radio programmes including This Morning, Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast, Sky News and BBC Radio 2.
As a former insomniac, Nerina combines her professional experience with academic and personal insights, and believes sleep problems are not simply about sleep, but rather about how we deal with life and its inevitable challenges.
Nerina enjoys yoga, meditation, running and cycling and has completed 7 marathons and several iron man triathlons. She has a fifteen-year-old daughter and lives in London.