The 8 Secrets to Falling Asleep
Increased workloads and 24-hour access to the internet have created a world that rarely sleeps. The statistics are staggering. One 2011 survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than 30% of Britons suffer from insomnia or another serious sleep problem. You might think that not getting a good night's sleep simply leaves you a bit grumpy; in reality, the effects can be far more damaging.
When you are sleep-deprived, you struggle to think straight. Research by University College London Medical School revealed that people who fail to get a full night's sleep score significantly lower on tests of logic and vocabulary. Those who are sleep-deprived (which has been pegged at less than six hours a night) have slower reaction times, and experience blackouts known as "micro-sleeps". At the wheel of a car, this can be dangerous: in the US, fatigue is believed to cause more than 1,500 deaths on the roads every year. Sleep deprivation can also affect your general health, by reducing levels of the hormone melatonin.
The good news is that researchers show a fair consensus about the best methods to combat sleeplessness. Here are eight of their top tips.
Avoid blue light
Although any type of light stops you feeling sleepy, light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially potent. Computer screens, tablets, smartphones, flat-screen televisions and LED lighting all emit blue light. If you must use your smartphone, tablet or computer late in the evening, turn down the brightness and ensure the device is at least 30cm from your eyes. If you want to use a night light, choose one with a dim red bulb, because red light tends not to suppress the production of melatonin.
Don't be tempted by a nightcap. Although even a small amount of alcohol puts you to sleep more quickly, it also gives you a more disturbed night, makes you more likely to snore and disrupts dreaming. Instead, increase your chances of getting a good night's sleep by eating a small portion of food rich in carbohydrates, such as a slice of toast or a banana.
In 2008, psychologist Chris Alford, from the University of the West of England in Bristol, sprinkled either lavender or odourless almond oil on the bedclothes of female insomniacs, and discovered that the lavender helped improve the quality of their sleep. Try a lavender diffuser or oil to ensure that your room smells of sleep.
To maximise your chances of nodding off, you need to do at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate aerobic activity (fast walking, for example), or at least an hour-and-a-quarter of more vigorous exercise (such as running), each week. Research also shows that working out around six hours before your bedtime allows your body to calm down enough to be ready for rest. If you don't enjoy pounding the pavement, recent research suggests yoga and tai chi will help you get a good night's sleep.
Medical researcher Niall Broomfield from the University of Glasgow investigated whether reverse psychology could be used to help people sleep. He assembled two groups of volunteers and monitored their sleep for two weeks. One group was asked to spend each night trying to stay awake for as long as possible, while the other group didn't receive any special instructions. Those trying to stay awake felt less anxious at bedtime and reported falling asleep quicker. This may be due to a lifting of anxiety about getting off to sleep. If you try this, remember that you have to rely on the power of your mind. You may keep your eyes open, but no reading, watching television or moving about allowed.
Ensure your bedroom is not too hot or too cold: most sleep scientists recommend just over 18C (65F). With a normal amount of bedclothes, your body remains thermally neutral at this temperature, so you don't have to create heat by shivering or cool down by sweating. But beware of cold feet. If you have bad circulation, your chilly extremities will keep you awake. If this is the case, wear a pair of socks to bed.
Tire your brain
Work by Stephen Haynes from Southern Illinois University suggests that making your brain tired will help you nod off. Haynes asked both insomniacs and good sleepers to carry out moderately difficult mental arithmetic tasks as they tried to fall asleep.
Those without any sleep-related problems took longer than usual to nod off, while the insomniacs did indeed get to sleep quicker. If you are not good with numbers, try a word game: think of a category (eg "countries" or "fruit and vegetables") and come up with an example of that category for each letter of the alphabet.
If you have suddenly woken up because you have remembered something that you need to do the next day, simply make a note of it and try to go back to sleep. However, if you wake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, most sleep scientists recommend getting out of bed and doing some form of non-stimulating activity. Whatever you decide to do, avoid bright lights and computer screens.