We’ve all been there – sometimes sleep just won’t come, however tired you feel.
You are exhausted after a busy stressful day at work, and need to be up early for that important presentation. You’ve counted over a thousand sheep – but you stay wide awake. The more you worry about not sleeping, the harder it is to fall asleep and the more alert you feel. Every little sound seems to act like your personal alarm clock – even your own breathing.
This happens to everyone, even Professors of Sleep Medicine. But there are some great tips that really work, if you use them in the right way.
The Cause of the Problem
Insomnia – problems falling or staying asleep – is a tricky problem that creeps up slowly, but without realising it causes a vicious cycle that can be tough to break. It’s really common and it can be really serious, causing physical and mental illness.
Part of the problem is that we have been taught (incorrectly) that it’s all about the number of hours you sleep. This is wrong for three reasons:
- Everyone needs a different amount of sleep. Einstein said he needed 8 hours per night but 9 if he was going to do physics the next day. Margaret Thatcher only needed 5. Edison tried to do without sleep altogether. The ‘normal’ range is very wide and people focus too much on the ‘average’ which is misleading as you are more likely to be above, or below than exactly average.
- Focussing on the right number of hours sleep becomes part of the problem, not the solution. People have a tendency to then wake, see they have had two hours less sleep than their ‘ideal’ and then without realising it spend the next day trying to spot symptoms of tiredness. And the heightened awareness about number of hours of sleep, and effects of poor sleep has one effect – to make it harder to fall asleep the next night – and so on.
- It should be sleep quality, not sleep quantity that becomes our focus. Six hours of deep restorative sleep will beat ten hours lying in bed tossing and turning.
Improving Sleep Efficiency
Sleep efficiency is the phrase most commonly used to capture this concept around sleep quality. It’s a simple measure. If I go to bed at 11pm, fall asleep immediately, and wake at 7am with no interruptions I have a sleep efficiency of 100% (no-one ever does this by the way – anything above 85% is great). But again, it’s not about chasing averages, but improving your own personal sleep efficiency.
The human brain is amazingly adaptive, and when important tasks become automatic we call them good habits. But we are equally good at learning bad habits. It is very easy to learn the ‘bad habit’ that every night bed is the place where you lie awake and worry about sleep and not getting your ideal number of hours. You need to learn a new habit – that your bed is the place you can approach feeling nicely sleepy, perhaps read a short while and fall asleep within half and hour – a deep, restorative and refreshing sleep.
Don’t waste time tossing and turning – get out of bed
If you are focussing on sleep efficiency you need to get out of bed if you have not fallen asleep within 30 minutes. Plan this in advance. A different room, with a nice chair and a good book. Things like books, music, meditation we call ‘sleep aware’ activities. No smartphone, iPads or TV – they will all switch off your bodies natural sleep mechanisms.
After half an hour, when you feel nicely sleepy try going back to bed. Hopefully your head will hit the pillow and you’ll be asleep within 30 minutes. If not, don’t worry – bad habits take a while to break.
Another version of this is actually to shorten your time in bed and see what happens to your sleep efficiency. For example, I go to bed at 10pm, I get up at 8am but I estimate I have been awake 30% of the night. My sleep efficiency is 70%. So for a few days I stay up (doing calm non-bright screen stuff) until midnight instead. This time when I wake at 8am I have fallen asleep quicker and slept deeper – I estimate my sleep efficiency has improved to 80%. So I have achieved a real improvement, that I would not have captured by too much focus on time in bed. And this becomes a virtuous cycle, whereby every day gets a little better, and your amazing brain starts to learn that your bed is an inviting place and that falling asleep is easy.
I don’t believe that becoming hung up about the exact percentages of sleep efficiency is important – it’s the general trend that matters. There are paper diaries available, and of course all manner of body worn devices that promise to track and improve your sleep and your fitness. I think they are a mixed blessing and they don’t help everyone’s sleep (particularly if they encourage too much focus on sleep time, and not sleep efficiency). There are also online tools to help with insomnia that use these principles and something called cognitive behavioural therapy-one to check out is ‘Sleepio’.
Good luck and happy healthy sleeping!
Prof. Paul Gringras is a professor of sleep medicine and Leesa’s Scientific Advisor. He’s dedicated to supporting Leesa customers with the latest evidence-based information about sleep and its impact on wellbeing. Read more about Prof. Gringras, including his full biography.