How to HEAL Your Sleep

The UK charity The Mental Health Foundation has published an in-depth guide to help people who suffer from lack of sleep. Called HEAL, the guide is based on what the charity consider to be the 'four pillars' of good sleep and it covers the four major factors that influence how well we sleep:

H ealth

E nvironment

A ttitude

L ifestyle.

 

According to the guide, good sleep doesn’t just mean getting loads of shut-eye: instead, it's all about the getting the right kind of sleep. Sleep has not only been proven to impact our immune system, but it also influences our attention levels, our ability to communicate through language, how well we comprehend what we read, and our capacity to mentally summarise the information we hear. When we compromise on sleep we compromise on:

 

1. Our performance

2. Our mood

3. Our interpersonal relationships

 

While the guide recognises that each person may require a different amount of sleep, it does recommend that a healthy adult should be getting between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. The emphasis, however, should be on good-quality sleep. The guide offers the following advice for anyone who needs to HEAL their sleep problems.

 

Health

If you've ever tried to sleep with a headache or a stuffy nose, you'll know that problems with our physical health can prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep. Often, a quick chat with our doctor about some form of medication will be all it takes to remedy our sleep problems. But it's important not to take over the counter medication without seeking medical advice first as the wrong medicine could exasperate the situation even more.

 

Another frequent cause of sleep problems can be mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. In such cases, the guide recommends a two-pronged approach to address both the lack of sleep and the mental health problem. Again, speaking to your GP or, if you have one, a mental health worker, can go a long way to getting back into a good, quality wake/sleep rhythm.

 

Environment

Our bedrooms should be tranquil havens that we associate with sleep, intimacy with a partner, and nothing else. You should try to remove as many distractions as possible from your bedroom and eat, play computer games, update your social media status and watch TV in another room. After a while, your brain will come to associate your bedroom as a place meant solely for relaxation and sleep.

 

In particular, be aware of the fact that the blue backlight of smartphone and tablet displays suppress our brain's production of melatonin, our primary sleep hormone, and can lead to sleep disruption. The guide recommends you avoid using these devices at least two hours before you go to bed, to minimise the impact they have on your sleep pattern.

 

We are all different, and each of us has their own personal preferences, but noise and temperature are two common factors that can impact everyone's quality of sleep. Trying to sleep in a room that is too loud or too light can prevent us from getting the rest we need. If you're vulnerable to light and noise from sources that are out of your control, the use of earplugs and a sleep mask can help you find the peace and quiet you need.

 

The temperature of your bedroom also plays an important role. If you regularly wake up feeling cold, then try adding more blankets, or a thicker duvet cover. Placing a small heater in the room can also help you sleep through until morning. Likewise, a thinner bed cover or opening a window can help if you’re too warm. If you are having issues sleeping but can't quite figure out why, then keeping a sleep diary can help you pinpoint the root of the problem. A diary will enable you to keep track of the conditions that helped you get a good night's sleep or those nights where you tossed and turned until sunrise.

 

Attitude

Speaking of tossing and turning, a lot of us experience sleepless nights before an important day. But worrying just makes it even harder for us to sleep. This is where relaxation techniques can help.

 

The Mental Health Foundation offers a free audio guide for learning progressive relaxation techniques which can be downloaded from their website. Or, rather than staying in bed and becoming more and more frustrated, the charity suggests you should get up and make yourself a warm drink, such as milk and honey, and return to bed when you are feeling sleepier.

 

If the sleep problems continue for longer than four weeks, the guide encourages sufferers to look into cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a possible solution. CBT is a standard treatment for a variety of mental health problems, but it also promotes a positive attitude which can help break the cycle of negative thoughts that might be causing your lack of sleep.

 

Alternatively, meditation practices like mindfulness can help by reducing anxiety and stress levels, and you don't need a prescription from your GP to practice them. More information about mindfulness can be found at the Mental Health Foundation’s dedicated website: bemindful.co.uk.

 

Lifestyle

We can all do a few things every day to improve the quality of our sleep. The guide urges us to add dairy products, oats and rice to our diets, as these trigger chemical reactions in our brains that make us feel sleepy.  But be aware that food and drink that contains high levels of sugar and caffeine can keep us awake.

 

The consumption of alcohol often makes us feel tired and in moderation can help us fall asleep. Yet alcohol often impairs the quality of sleep, and as its effects wear off, we are more likely to wake in the night to drink water or go to the toilet.

 

Regular exercise reduces stress and anxiety and so is considered to aid sleep. But the guide points out the importance of exercising at the appropriate time. Earlier in the day is better, as exercise increases the body’s adrenaline production, which can make it harder for us to sleep if done just before we turn in for the night.

 

You can read the complete guide online at: mentalhealth.org.uk

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