It comes as no surprise to me that the events that have disrupted our global community for the past 18 months have caused the number of people experiencing insomnia to increase from one in six to one in four. Disrupted routines and ongoing uncertainty are causing a surge in poor quality sleep and in my own experience the summer of 2020 plagued me with sleepless nights and can be described as the worst period of sleep I have every experienced. My lack of sleep sustained itself for the rest of 2020 and only began to settle down at the beginning of 2021. Whilst this was happening, the guided meditations (or Yoga Nidra) for sleep recordings that I share on my YouTube channel began to garner traction and swiftly became my most popular videos, clearly indicating to me that I was far from alone with my experience of sleeplessness. Throughout my journey of sleeplessness, I have picked up a few tools along the way that have drastically improved my sleep and so I thought I would share my experience to perhaps help those of you who are struggling to sleep.
It feels like I am stating the obvious when I say that a lack of sleep is unhealthy. We all know the drained, drowsy and depressed feeling of getting up after a sleepless night and to have to drag ourselves through our daily routine running on an empty tank. In the short-term, lack of sleep reduces your ability to concentrate, makes you more likely to make mistakes, increases your reaction times and can affect your mood. In the long-term, lack of sleep can cause obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In this article, I will cover some sleep hygiene tips that could help you to fall asleep and improve the quality of your sleep. However, I cannot guarantee that these will work for everyone and I am not a medical professional. If you are experiencing a chronic and debilitating lack of sleep, then a trip to a medical professional might be beneficial. I can, however, say that I am yoga teacher and trained to help my students to practise relaxation techniques and to teach my students how to relax, which are key components for eliciting sleep. So, let's dive into the Sleep Hygiene tips.
Reduce your exposure to 'blue light'
The light emitted by television, laptop, tablet and phone screens is classified as blue light, which the eyes register as a daytime cue, undermining all the other environmental and physiological cues that help you to feel sleepy. In a perfect world, you would spend at least an hour before bed away from blue light emitting screens and technology would be exiled from the bedroom, however, sometimes this is not possible and that is okay! Phones, tablets and laptops now have the functionality that means you can switch from emitting blue light to emitting warmer coloured light. You can even set it on a timer, for example, my laptop screen emits yellow light from 5pm in the evening to 7am in the morning. At present, my mobile phone never emits blue light, which initially made the screen seem duller but my brain adjusted quickly. Changing the amount of blue light I am exposed to is one of the changes that I feel has drastically improved my sleep.
Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning
The body and the brain have a very powerful internal rhythm and so by harnessing and honouring our internal clock, we can help the brain and the body to elicit the required physiological responses for sleep at the correct time. Set an appropriate wake up time in the morning that suits your schedule and select a bedtime that allows you sufficient time to sleep, this should include time to unwind and fall asleep. If you get into bed at midnight and your alarm wakes you at 8am, you aren't actually getting 8 hours of sleep. This is because there will be time between getting in to bed and commencing sleep and therefore, the length of your sleep might be closer to 7 hours. With this in mind, select a wake up time and bedtime that allows for a full night's sleep. This length of time will be unique to you and in general, adults tend to need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.
Consider your caffeine consumption
Are you familiar with the afternoon slump? Do you remedy the feeling with caffeine? I certainly did, especially, when I worked in an office 9 to 5. That afternoon coffee might be affecting the quality of your sleep and your ability to get to sleep. It might feel like the initial buzz of a strong coffee only lasts for a couple of hours, however, caffeine can actually remain in your system for more than 12 hours. A useful rule of thumb is to stop drinking caffeine 10 hours before you go to sleep. For me, I usually turn my light off to go sleep at 11.30pm so I do not drink caffeine after 1pm. In the same vein as the other sleep hygiene tips, the effects of caffeine is a unique experience for you and there are some people who can have a shot of espresso after their evening meal and commence a deep and restful sleep several hours later. Reducing your caffeine consumption or changing how you consume caffeine might cause a powerful shift in your sleep so with this tip, as with all the other sleep hygiene tips, it is all about trying it, noticing the effects it has for you and adjusting accordingly.
The final sleep hygiene tip caused the most profound shift in my sleep. At the beginning of this year, I began to practise meditation regularly and consistently. In the past, my journey with yoga and as a yoga teacher has mostly included practising and sharing Vinyasa Flow Yoga (a very challenging, invigorating and dynamic style of yoga) with a peppering of Yoga Nidra (a form of guided meditation taken lying down) and Restorative Yoga. However, at the beginning of 2021 I noticed a subtle shift and I began gravitating towards a daily meditation and Yoga Nidra practice and I did not practise physical yoga asana for a couple of months. The events from the past 18 months had caused me to spend a lot of time ruminating on the state of the world, lost in thought and worrying about the future. A daily meditation practice allowed me to get out of my head and into my body. I practised first thing in the morning and sometimes before bed at night. It helped me to slow down the hyper mind that refused to shut down for sleep and helped me to relax my stubbornly tense body. The benefits of meditation are widely researched. Relaxation (including eliciting the relaxation response) is a key component of sleep and meditation offers you space for silence and stillness in your day so that you can practise relaxing the body and calming the mind. We spend so much of our time rushing from one task to another that we often are out of practise when we try to relax. Meditation can also help us to cope more effectively with stress, which can be a key reason for not sleeping well.
Beginning a meditation practice can be daunting but Yoga Nidra offers you a very accessible route. Yoga Nidra aims to guide you into a deep state of relaxation. This style of meditation is always guided by a teacher (either in-person or via an audio recording), it is passive and is usually practised lying down, which means it is much easier to stay for the entire duration of the practice. Yoga Nidra also includes a lot of body and breath awareness, which can help to elicit sleep. It can be practised at any time of the day, in a similar way to seated meditation, and has powerful potential if practised before bed. If you would like to try Yoga Nidra then I recommend checking out my How to Do Yoga Nidra video and my Yoga Nidra for Sleep recordings either on YouTube or Insight Timer.
Changing my habits and my environment profoundly shifted my experience of sleep and in this article I have listed the Sleep Hygiene tips that helped me. There are many more Sleep Hygiene tips out there and I can highlight them in a future article and video and it is important to note that how you sleep is a unique experience for you. It is normal to experience shifts in our sleeping patterns throughout our lifetime and sometimes life is stressful! I hope that this article can help you to improve your sleep and your overall well-being, especially for those times when life is getting in the way of your sleep.
Here are several books that I used to research this article:
Sleep Recovery by Lisa Sanfilippo
Yoga for Better Sleep by Mark Stephens
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
Illustration by Jun Cen (https://magazine.stregis.com/sweet-dreams/).