6 ways to improve your sleep

We talked to sleep coach Nick Littlehales about how to improve the quality of our sleep

Pillows

Image: Xinhua/Sipa USA

Good quality sleep is as important for you as diet and exercise.

Writing for this website, Fiona Kennedy explained how important sleep is for mental well-being and the impact a lack of sleep can have on both the body and the mind.

Consistently missing sleep can impact on work, health and a person's mood.

But with the added pressures of work and the demands of home life, people can find it difficult to wind down in the evening and switch off.

"We don't have any idea that up until we invented the lightbulb, that we all slept in a polyphasic manner in shorter periods," says renowned sleep coach, Nick Littlehales.

Having worked with football teams like Manchester United and the England national team, Littlehales discusses sleeping patterns in his book Sleep:The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps... and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind.

While looking at the bodies circadian rhythm - the body's response to light over a 24-hour period - and the benefits of sleeping or resting multiple times during the day, Littlehales attempts to break some of the established myths around sleep.

With his advice, we look at some of the ways to improve sleep quality.

Read

It's not everybody's cup of tea and some people just prefer to watch TV in the evenings. That's not a crime after a day at work, helping out at home or looking after the kids.

But consider a book if you're finding it difficult to sleep and you find yourself channel hopping before bed. It doesn't have to be a gruelling 1,000 page read. Pick up a book, paper or eBook and set yourself a target of pages to read.

The activity will relax the body and the mind, making the transition to sleep easier. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it's also easier on the eyes for because the light emitted from eBooks is often softer than of tablets and smart phones.

Physical Activity

This seems like a more obvious one. This requires no gym memberships or equipment, just a good pair of runners. Exercise in the evenings is a great way to tire the body out, as well as the mind.

People often feel sluggish after a day's work, however it's important to distinguish the mentally draining work from physically tiring activity.

A walk boosts your cardiovascular fitness and gets you out in the fresh air which might be important for those who move between the car or bus straight into the office and then remains in the house for the evening.

Give yourself some time between a walk in the evening and winding down in the evening, you don't want to work the body right before bed.

"What you do throughout the day will affect the amount of recovery you get at night," Littlehales explains.

Ditch the phone

This is the most difficult on the list by some. A smartphone has become such a big part of people's daily life that going without a phone in the evening can leave people feeling detached.

Most people use their phones as alarm clocks to wake up every morning and because of this people are less likely to move away from the phone. But often when people wake in the middle of the night or can't sleep, they take out their phone and scroll.

It's worth investing in an old fashioned alarm clock (yes, you can still get them) and leave the phone in another room.

This eliminates the temptation to pick up the phone and scroll. The strain on your eyes is decreased as well, as your exposure from blue light late at night is eliminated.

This is the most difficult one, but making your bedroom a phone-free area could play a big role in helping you to establish a sleep routine.

Routine

Those who do shift work might find this one a little bit more difficult to follow. This involves sticking to a timetable of when you go to bed, when you wake up in the morning and the process of winding down for the evening.

This offers a certain amount of control over your body which people can feel they are missing when they can't get themselves to go to sleep.

Setting yourself a time to go to bed, a time to turn off screens and a set time to read or do some form of meditation can be beneficial.

It should be treated like any other routine in your life, like preparing for work, eating in the evening or something you'd do at lunch time.

Little changes to your current routine could have big benefits in the search for a good night's sleep.

Diet

Diet affects the way we feel in our day-to-day life. Getting the right balance or carbohydrates, protein and vitamins is what all dietitians will tell you to keep yourself healthy.

It's important not to take in too many stimulants like confectionery sugars and caffeine into your diet.

The Sleep Health Foundation recommends: "If you are having trouble sleeping, you should try to limit the amount of caffeine that you have. It is best to have no more than 200mg per day.

"You should not have any for at least 4 hours prior to bedtime."

Coffee can be a big cause of higher caffeine intake and can impact on sleep.

"We want to be conscious that as we manage our diet, you don't want to be introducing things without a little bit of thought," Littlehales says.

"Hydrating is key to the brain and the brain triggers the level of recovery you get during sleep."

He warns against over-hydrating, which could occur if you take high amounts of water in a diet already heavy in fruit and vegetables.

There is also recommendation of eating breakfast in the morning time to help set your body up for the day.

"You want to be feeding off the good stuff you put in your body, not the waste that is still in there."

Meditation

A lot of people overlook meditation and mindfulness. Both can serve their purpose when improving mental health and well-being, as well as helping to relax the body.

Taking time in the evening to wind down is important and meditation can also serve as part of a wind down routine.

One study showed that increased levels of meditation can improve sleep.

"Mindfulness meditation is just one of a smorgasbord of techniques that evoke the relaxation response," says Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

"Recovery breaks" are something Littlehales refers to when he discusses polyphasic sleep. These breaks, like meditation, allow the body to dip into deep stages of relaxation.

Mindfulness meditation triggers a "relaxation response" which can help ease many stress-related ailments, including depression, pain, and high blood pressure.