The relationship between sleep and cognitive function (concentration, memory, learning, reasoning etc.) has been at the heart of much psychological research over the years. Google Scholar alone lists 3 million studies investigating the effects of sleep deprivation, conducted since the early 1800s. And the results are not pretty.
The negative impact of sleep deprivation on cognitive function is well-known. Even without reading the research, most people are aware of how poor sleep can affect their ability to perform even the simplest of tasks. I remember once, after 2 consecutive nights of virtually zero sleep, it wasn’t until I got into my car to go to work I realised I had forgotten to put my shoes on.
What is causing greater concern more recently is the evidence showing a direct link between sleep deprivation and major health issues. Studies have shown that chronic insufficient sleep not only increases your risk of heart attack, diabetes, depression and anxiety but also Alzheimer’s Disease.
The importance of getting enough sleep has never been clearer. So what can we do to ensure that we get those 7 to 8 hours of blissful zzz’s every night?
1) Reduce your stress levels
Chronic stress plays havoc with our cortisol levels – and our sleep. Stress leads to high cortisol levels which in turn prevent the production of the sleep hormone melatonin in the evenings – resulting in a poor night’s sleep. Managing your stress levels and removing potential sources of stress are key to restful sleep. Gentle exercise and meditation in the early evening have been shown to help lower cortisol levels. More intensive exercise has also been shown to help improve sleep – but must be conducted earlier in the day as it can temporarily increase cortisol levels. Other ways to reduce your stress levels can be found here. And if you’re really struggling to get your stress under control, seeking the help of a professional therapist or life coach can help.
2) Brain Dump
Many people can’t sleep because they seemingly can’t switch their brains off. They are physically tired but continuous thinking stops them from falling asleep. One exercise that can help is to literally dump all of the thoughts going on in your mind on a piece of paper before you go to sleep. Make notes of all the things you have to do or any ideas you have, or simply write down all of the thoughts that might be bothering you. Get it onto the piece of paper and out of your mind.
3) Throw it in the trash
If you still can’t sleep because of over-thinking, another exercise you can do is to imagine putting all of the thoughts going around your head in a box and closing down the lid. Then you simply take that box, crumple it up and throw it in the trash!
4) No screens an hour before bed
Research has shown that looking at phones, laptops, TVs – anything with a screen – stimulates brain activity. Not exactly what you want when you’re trying to get some shut-eye. The “glow” from the screen also impairs the production of melatonin and can reduce your ability to sleep even further. For better sleep, put all of your electronic devices away an hour before bed and don’t look at them again until morning.
5) No caffeine after 1pm
Caffeine can stay in our systems for up to 7 hours. So if you’re drinking it at 5pm or 6pm – it could be midnight or 1am before you start to get sleepy. Have your last caffeine fix (including tea, hot chocolate and energy drinks) at lunch time and notice how much more easily you fall asleep in the evening.
6) Dim the lights
The unnatural light we use in our homes in the evenings tricks our bodies into thinking it’s still daytime – meaning our cortisol levels might not come down as they should. Dimming the lights, using small lamps and setting your electrical devices to “night shift” can help reduce this effect significantly, aiding better sleep.
7) Read a book
Some people find reading before bed can help them “switch off” from the day’s events. Others have also found that if they can’t sleep within 15 minutes of being in bed, getting up and reading in another room for 10 - 30 minutes can help calm the mind down.
8) Recharge your batteries
Did you know we actually need energy to sleep? This is why some people who are really tired still find it hard to sleep. Our parents would probably say we were “overtired”. To keep your batteries recharged it’s important to find time for relaxation, as well as support your body with the right nutrients that will allow it store energy. Read here for more details.
9) Eat a light evening meal
Research has shown that people who eat a light meal at 7pm (or 3 hours before bed) sleep better than those who eat a big meal at 8pm or later. Choosing foods that contain an amino-acid called Tryptophan (which is believed to indirectly help the production of melatonin) might also be beneficial for a good night’s sleep. Foods high in Tryptophan are turkey, chicken, eggs and fish, as well as carbohydrate sources such as oats and brown rice. And if you get hungry towards bedtime, eating a small 30gm snack of carbohydrates has been shown to help curb the hunger and induce sleep at the same time!