James Wilson, AKA The Sleep Geek, reveals the errors people make before bedtime, and what to do instead
Having a heavy meal in the three hours before bed
Trying to fit everything into our day; putting the kids to bed, work and things like going to the gym means many of us are having our main meal of the day late in the evening. This can impact on our sleep, as digesting a heavy dinner means our core temperature rises slightly. One of the important parts of the process that our body goes through to get to sleep is a drop in core temperature and digesting our evening meal makes it harder for our body to do this. A general rule would be to leave three hours from having a heavy meal to sleep time to minimise the impact of the food.
Going to bed when you’re not sleepy
For many of the people I work with who struggle to sleep, an obsession with numbers is a big part of the problem. They’ll say something like: “I need to be in bed by 10pm, because I get up for work at 6am, and I need eight hours”. Firstly, we need to consider our bedtime in terms of who we are as a sleeper. You may be a lark, an owl or somewhere in the middle and the time at which you will feel sleepy will be affected by this. If you always struggle to get to sleep, you may be going to bed too early for you. Even if your bedtime is generally right, you may have had a stressful day or got in late and on those nights, you should be making sure you are wound down properly and feeling sleepy before you go to bed.
Not being ready for bed before you start to wind down
This is a big one. The amount of people I meet who tell the same story, they’re sat on their sofa, feeling sleepy, and then they think “I’m going to bed”, but they then start doing things – they put the pets out, check the doors, fill the dishwasher, go upstairs, take their make-up off, brush their teeth and then get into bed. By this point, our body has woken up and we are not ready for sleep. The advice here is to get ready for bed before you start the routine. Put on your pyjamas, dressing gown, fluffy slippers and make sure your teeth are brushed so when you feel sleepy, you can go straight off to bed.
Exercising too close to bedtime
Exercise is brilliant for sleep. It helps us to feel physically tired and relieves the stresses and strains of the day. However, if we do it too close to bedtime, the cortisol and adrenaline from the physical exertion impacts our ability to fall asleep and particularly to stay asleep. If you have exercised late, make sure you are winding down properly. Most people will need about three hours from exercise to sleep for the effects of the activity to diminish.
Doing the wrong things on our devices
The first thing we’re told when we say we are struggling to sleep is that it’s because we are using our phone or tablet before bed. Some experts act as if sleep problems only occurred with the invention of the smartphone. Many experts tell people not to use their phone before bed and most people ignore them and continue to tap away at their devices. Rather than blaming the device, we need to look at what we’re doing with them. Think ‘is this thing I am doing before bed helping me to drop my heart rate? Do I feel relaxed after doing it?’ If you’re looking at work emails before bed, surfing social media getting angry at what people write, checking your bets, or watching a horror film, then it may impact on your ability to go to sleep and stay asleep. There are great things on your phone to help you to relax. Meditation apps, podcasts designed to be sleep inducing, watching something funny rather than scary – all these things will help you feel relaxed, and ultimately feel sleepy.