When it comes to making a big decision or dealing with conflict, thereâ€™s a reason some of the best advice is to â€œsleep on itâ€. Especially during the winter months, when the cold, dark days seem to drag on, getting a restful sleep each night is critical to resetting the brain and taking on the new day, whatever the weather throws at us.
Prof Russell Foster, director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, knows a thing or two about sleeping smarter. Here, he suggests some simple and surprising tips for getting to sleep quickly each night and making sure our internal body clocks are operating at their peak.
Get enough morning lightFoster says one of the most surprising findings in his research into sleep patterns is the effect of morning light on the body clock. â€œDusk light tends to delay the clock, making you get up later the next day, but morning light tends to advance the clock and make you get up earlier the next day,â€ he says. This push-pull of light timing can have a knock-on effect for sleep patterns. He recommends keeping to a regular sleep cycle during the week but, more importantly, sticking to it on weekends when thereâ€™s a tendency to sleep in and miss the crucial morning light, delaying your body clock for the working week ahead.
Make sure your room is the right temperatureIn winter, our first instinct is to crank up the heating and jump under the covers with a good book. But that may actually be counterproductive, explains Foster, whose advice is to keep the room comfortable but cool to help bring on sleep. â€œIt seems that part of sleep initiation is a drop in core temperature â€“ not a huge drop, but a slight cooling,â€ he says. â€œSo, people sleeping in overheated bedrooms find it more difficult to get to sleep because theyâ€™re not losing heat and thereâ€™s not enough differential between the body and the room.â€ So it seems winter is the perfect time to get some quality shuteye, and you can even do it without ramping up your bills. Find yourself a cheaper supplier too and you could spend even less on energy bills.
Exercise and eat healthily â€“ but not too close to bedtimeExercise is â€œbrilliantâ€, says Foster, particularly when itâ€™s done outside to get that all-important morning light. But, he says, if it must be done in the evening, try not to do it too close to bedtime. â€œIt can raise your core body temperature and therefore it can be more difficult to get to sleep,â€ he warns. The other disadvantage is that exercise makes you hungry. â€œThen, of course, youâ€™re taking in a big calorie load before you go to bed, which can disrupt sleep,â€ he says.
Keep devices out of reachFoster admits thereâ€™s a lot of controversy around whether or not the blue light from devices does any damage to our ability to sleep. For example, one study that looked at the blue light emitted from ebooks found the light only delayed sleep by about 10 minutes. â€œIt does make sense to minimise light exposure before you go to bed, because light will increase alertness and delay sleep onset, but that takes a lot of light â€“ more than these devices are spewing out,â€ he says. However, he still recommends keeping devices off or even out of the room, if possible, because the arousing effect of the content â€“ the emails, messages and social media â€“ is what is more likely to keep us awake at night.
Enjoy a coffee but donâ€™t rely on sleeping tabletsFoster says waking, for many people, often revolves around caffeine in coffee, which blocks the receptors in the brain that make us tired. But caffeine takes much longer to break down in the body than most people realise. â€œThe half-life, depending on how good your liver is, is five to nine hours, so coffee in the late afternoon could significantly delay sleep onset at night,â€ explains Foster. He adds that for people who do drink coffee in the afternoon, thereâ€™s the tendency to sedate themselves before bed with alcohol or sleeping tablets. But he warns that these donâ€™t actually mimic the kind of quality, deep sleep you need for the brain to process information, for instance, or consolidate memory. â€œSure, have your coffee,â€ says Foster, â€œbut try and stop at lunchtime.â€