4 ways I’ve learned to sleep better

So, ironically, I’m beginning to draft this blog post at 6am after having been lying awake for a while unable to sleep.

But, as it turns out, that’s a good thing. This TED talk all about sleep explains why – at the end of it, the advice given to someone who is lying in bed and unable to sleep is to get up and do something, so that the mind creates an association with the bed that is to do with sleep, not wakefulness.

That video might be a good jumping-off point then for this blog. It’s a great, snappy presentation of the absolutely critical importance of getting enough sleep for your mental and physical health. If you watch it, you can be tempted somewhat to despair, much as was the presenter whose question prompted the above answer – so I get that sleep is important, but what happens when I can’t sleep??

I’ve historically had a lot of issues with sleep. Never enough to be called an insomniac, I’m sure, but enough to bug me and make me want to do something about it. I’ve had enough days of feeling exhausted, lacking energy or focus because the previous night was bad. And thankfully, I have found some things – some specific to my health, mostly generic which everyone can put into practice – that have helped my sleep improve – at least somewhat, for now.

1. Dealing with allergies

This may be the one most specific to me and my health, but for the longest time (I mean years and years!) I failed to realise that I had a serious intolerance to dairy that was affecting – apart from anything else – my sleep! It was during my teenage years and into my early twenties that I really felt the full force of this. As a growing young man I’d often down a quick bowl of cereal before bed, covered of course in milk. Then I’d wonder why for the next couple of hours I couldn’t get to sleep because I had a constantly streaming nose.

I honestly just thought I was a snotty kid. But as soon as someone suggested taking dairy out of my diet, it was a revelation – oh, I can breathe! I should have known – we’d diagnosed this allergy when I was a child, but some of the reactions had vanished for a little while so I’d assumed all was fine. For some reason I didn’t spot them when they came back in this form.

Dairy intolerance is extremely common – and I’ve heard figures that it could be up to half of the population is intolerant or allergic in some way! Human digestive systems aren’t designed to break down dairy fats intended for calves. I often think that more people are intolerant than realise – people whom I notice to always be sniffing, or to have a constant need to clear the chest. Their obvious intolerance is to the idea of trying to give up milk for a week or so to see what happens! We’re so used to it in our diet, but it is easier than ever to find alternatives. If you think this or another allergy might be an issue for you, why not try changing something and see if it improves your sleep?

2. Cognitive distribution – or, getting things off your mind

So if it’s not allergic reactions stopping you from sleeping, maybe it’s that troublesome mind of yours that never quite manages to switch off. Many of us have been here, I’m sure. We all know the feeling of tossing and turning in the middle of the night, because there’s something on our minds that is seriously stressing us out and we’re trying to work out how to deal with it. Again, if you’re awake in the middle of the night and know you’re probably not going to go to sleep for a while, get up and do something. And perhaps the thing you should do, is write it down.

Cognitive distribution is worth a whole blog-post in itself, and is a term that denotes the various ways we can use the environment around us to help us to think. Sound woo-woo? It’s not at all – because it’s already happening, all the time. As one example pertinent to this whole post, people often say that it’s good to make sure one’s sleeping environment is conducive to sleep – no more working in the bedroom! But it goes for all our environments – they need to stimulate the right cognitive processes. An office shouldn’t have a fridge, or shopping lists hanging around – those would be distractions. In the kitchen, a pile of paperwork would get in the way. You’d expect to find the fridge and shopping list in the kitchen, and the paperwork in the office. Each environment has the things in it that help us to think most clearly.

This becomes particularly important when it comes to writing things down. Just as we need to distribute our environment correctly to help ourselves think straight, so our more abstract thoughts need dealing with somehow – we should write them down. Again, it may be something as simple as a to-do list – if it’s jobs for home decorating, jot it down and pin it inside your tools cupboard, or wherever would be appropriate for you to see it. It may be a complex email that needs composing. Or it may be a journal entry as you try to process a loss or a relationship breakdown.

It doesn’t even always have to be something that’s bothering you. Sometimes for me, a creative idea has sparked and I have to get up and do something about it otherwise I know I’ll just keep lying there thinking about it anyway. Writing things down is a creative process and the practice of cognitive distribution is as important for creative professionals as it is for anyone just needing to remember what to buy at the store, or what to talk to their line manager about the next day.

I got many of these ideas from reading David Allen’s bestselling Getting Things Done, which is built almost entirely on this principle. Allen has discovered the power of offloading things from our minds into some kind of ‘trusted external system’ (the basic components of which would be a diary, a to do list or lists in general, and an organised archive of all other reference material) to allow our minds free space to think creatively. For me, it has just helped me sleep a little better! As I’ve adopted this kind of practice, I have definitely had fewer reasons to stay awake at night worrying. If I do wake up with something on my mind, I’ll make a note of it, but more often, I’ve already made a note somewhere during the day. Worrying in the middle of the night is a much rarer experience now, and I think in general, I’m sleeping better for it.

3. Exercise

Oh no! Not the E word!

You need to exercise. Your body needs it just as much as it needs food and water. You have muscles that need to work, fat to burn off, a brain and heart to take care of. Exercise is a beautiful way to take care of all these things (and more – I’ve often told my vocal students it’s good for the voice too, as it works the lungs and diaphragm which are so important in singing).

It’s also a great way to regulate the rhythm of your body to lead to a better night’s sleep. Not in all cases does it necessarily lead to more sleep, but it means the sleep you do get will be of a better quality. It goes hand-in-hand with going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, as advocated in that TED talk.

But finding the time to exercise can seem daunting. And where do I start? The good news is, the advice I have heard advocated numerous times seems true – just making sure you use your legs and walk around each day can be enough – at least a great start. If your commute can include 15 minutes of brisk walking at each end of the day, you’re already onto a good thing. And if it doesn’t (as mine for a long time hasn’t), taking a walk at lunchtime can help not just with the sleep, but with keeping your energy up for the afternoon!

I’m lucky to have an Apple Watch which tracks my activity and exercise. Something about having those little rings to close each day gives me the urge to persevere for that little dopamine hit when I close a ring – and another when it says I’ve closed all three. I still need a bit of encouragement – the last few days I’ve barely clocked anything on the exercise ring, despite closing ‘stand’ (stand and move around at some point during the hour for 12 hours of your day) and ‘move’ (my goal is set to burn 420 calories with active movement, a pretty meagre goal). Achieving the 30 minutes of exercise I have as my target (the recommended starting point from Apple) does need you to work up your heart-rate a bit for it to register as exercise. It isn’t always easy to find the time – when I’m off work and at home with the kids, there are more important things to be doing. And going at their pace doesn’t often register as exercise! Nevertheless sometimes I have checked with my wife and got the ‘ok’ to take a quick walk at an appropriate point during the day to make sure I close that ring. Maybe the fact that I haven’t done so the last few days is why I didn’t sleep so well last night!

4. Cutting back on caffeine

Ugh. First you told me I have to exercise; but this?!

Yup. I love coffee – and tea, actually. I can’t wake up properly in the morning without my first cup of tea. I used to have that, two coffees, and several more teas all in the stretch of a normal day, until I started getting some weird symptoms in my health last year. After years of bingeing on caffeine like this, I decided it was worth experimenting with change in this area too. I’m now down to one tea, one half-caffeinated coffee in the morning (sometimes two but I don’t usually need the second, and it may not be helping!), and decaffeinated tea for the rest of the day (afternoon). I think this has probably helped somewhat. They certainly say you should stay off coffee in the afternoon.

The challenges

My struggle with sleep is by no means over – and to a degree there are factors beyond my control; we have an 8 month-old in the same bedroom as us, so I’m sure you can imagine what the challenge is at the moment! But with everything else in place I’m doing everything I can to set myself up for sleep success – and when the time comes that our 8 month-old is sleeping through the night and can move into his own room, I’m looking forward to getting my sleep back, and enjoying the health and mental well-being that comes from that. Other than that, no one can entirely mitigate against the occasional bad night – noises inside or outside the house can be unavoidable, for one thing. But we can do what we can, and as I’m finding, there’s a lot that is within my control to change in order to improve my chances of a better night’s sleep – and a better day the next day because of it.

Sleep well, everybody.


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