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How to sleep better: the best and worst habits

Rob Hobson
Article written by Rob Hobson

Date published 11 January 2024

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We all know sleep is important, but we're not always doing everything we can to get the best possible rest. Rob Hobson, nutritionist and author of 'The Art of Sleeping', is here to help.

🕒 7 min read

Five good habits for sleep

These habits encompass some of the basic principles of good sleep hygiene. Use these principles to create your own sleep ritual that works for you.

1. Create a perfect sleep oasis

People who struggle with sleep tend to become hypersensitive to anything that poses a 'threat' to getting a good night's sleep. Whether it's a ticking clock, cluttered shelves, heaps of dirty laundry, piles of work files, or the standby lights on electrical equipment, it doesn't take much for any of these things to become the focus of attention – or even an obsession – when someone is trying to fall asleep.

To help you create the perfect sleep oasis, try to follow these key points:

  • Organise your room to provide clean and clear surfaces, smoothed bed linen and plumped pillows.
  • Keep nothing on your bedside table other than a reading lamp and possibly a book.
  • Keep your room cool and airy by opening windows slightly.
  • Keep your room dark with curtains or black-out blinds.
  • Try scenting your room with relaxing fragrances such as lavender, ylang-ylang, or bergamot.

2. Establish good sleep behaviours

What you do before bed can make a difference to how well you sleep. We are all creatures of habit, so try focusing on a few positive ones to help you get a good night's sleep.

  • Learn how to chill out by taking the time for a bit of self-care before bed. Get into the habit of taking a shower or bath and include essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, and ylang-ylang. They stimulate the olfactory nerve that gives you your sense of smell and sends signals to parts of the brain in charge of emotions and mood.
  • Get your thoughts out of your head. Keep a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed to jot down your thoughts before you go to sleep each night. As well as writing down your worries and stresses, include any unfinished tasks that need to be completed the following day, or make a to-do list.
  • Find the best position to promote sleep. If you suffer from back pain, then sleep on your back and place a pillow under your knees to support the natural curve of your lower spine. If you are a snorer or suffer from sleep apnoea, then sleep on your side to help open the airways. If you suffer from indigestion, then sleep on your left-hand side as gravity in this position helps to draw reflux back down to the stomach.

Beans and lentils in wooden bowls

Beans, pulses and lentils are some of the best foods for aiding sleep.

3. Focus on your diet

Some foods are beneficial to promoting sleep. Adapting your diet to include these foods is simple and a good habit to get into before bed. Certain supplements have also been shown to help with sleep.

  • Tryptophan, found in seeds, nuts, tofu, poultry, oily fish, oats, lentils, beans, and eggs. This essential amino acid is used to make melatonin in the brain, which is the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle. You need to team tryptophan with a carbohydrate such as rice or pasta to help with its uptake.
  • Magnesium, found in spinach, kale, seeds, beans, pulses, brown rice, avocado, cocoa powder. This mineral activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation in the body. This mineral also binds to receptors in the brain that help to quieten nerve activity and prepare your body for sleep.
  • Valerian is a traditional herbal remedy associated with the treatment of stress but may also help to aid sleep. The sedative effect of valerian is due to the inhibition of enzymes that break down an inhibitory brain chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). As GABA levels rise, it dampens down the over-stimulation that can cause anxiety-driven thoughts that stop you from sleeping.

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4. Try breathing

Adopting a little mindfulness can help overcome the stress and anxiety associated with sleep deprivation. There are many examples of breathing exercises, including:

The 4–7–8 technique
  1. Place the tip of your tongue against the gum behind your top front teeth, then exhale to make a whooshing sound. Keep your tongue in this position.
  2. Breathe quietly through the nose for 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  4. Exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound.
  5. Repeat four times.
Box breathing
  1. Breathe, counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
  2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel fully relaxed.

5. Set a sleep schedule

Routine is key to getting your sleep on track, but so many of us fail to get into the swing of things despite the fact this has been instilled in us from an early age. Parents put considerable effort into ensuring their children get into a healthy sleep routine.

The best thing you can do to support efficient sleep is to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. This routine helps to get you in perfect sync with your circadian rhythm.

Five bad habits for sleep

It's effortless to fall into bad habits, and many of them occur in response to our lifestyle. Behaviour change is not easy but will be worth it to help you sleep better.

1. Caffeine and alcohol

If you can't sleep, your caffeine and alcohol consumption might be the first things to look at. They are two of the biggest sleep disruptors.

Alcohol is the most common self-medicated sedative, but it can cause fragmented sleep even in small amounts. It can impair the restorative part of the sleep cycle, REM, and interfere with the flow of calcium into nerve cells, affecting the region of the brain that controls sleep function. It also causes dehydration and can make you visit the bathroom more often during the night, as well as contribute to heartburn.

Caffeine is a stimulant that blocks the chemicals in the brain that make you sleepy. It is not only found in coffee but also tea, soft drinks, and chocolate. Caffeine can remain in the body for 3–5 hours. However, the effects can still be seen twelve hours after consumption in some people, so try to avoid caffeinated drinks after midday.

2. Overuse of electrical equipment before bed

Any light can disrupt sleep as it suppresses the release of melatonin, which is the hormone that controls the sleep cycle. The most harmful blue light is emitted from electronic equipment, including phones, laptops, and televisions.

Establishing a time of night (a couple of hours before bed) to put all these bits of equipment aside is a good habit to help promote a good night's sleep. It's not just the blue light but the anxiety that comes with checking emails, messages, and social media that can keep you awake.

3. Multi-tasking your bedroom

Preserve the bedroom for sleep alone. It's tricky in some cases, such as for those working from home with limited space, but the more you do in the bedroom, the less it becomes associated with sleep.

4. Not changing your bedding regularly

Most of us would agree that we get the best night's sleep after washing our bedding, so make this at least a weekly thing. Also, choose the best bedding within your budget, opting for hypoallergenic cotton sheets to keep you cool and help those suffering from allergies.

5. Living amongst clutter

Mess causes stress, so try to quieten the effects of 'visual noise'. Knowing everything is in its place and organised can create a sense of calm and relieve anxiety. Organise your wardrobes, don't use space under the bed as a dumping ground, and keep furniture and knick-knacks to a minimum.

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Rob Hobson

About Rob Hobson

Rob Hobson MSc RNutr is an award-winning registered nutritionist (AFN) and sports nutritionist (SENR) with over 15 years of experience. He founded London-based consultancy RH Nutrition, and has degrees in nutrition, public health nutrition and sports nutrition.

robhobson.co.uk