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Ever since my early to mid-20s, I’ve had an up-down relationship with sleep.
It’s not because I don’t know that sleep is important (I’ve taken it way more seriously than many of my peers over the years). I’ve also never had a medical sleep problem or even have a history of being a ‘light sleeper’.
Instead, disruptions to my sleeping pattern began in my early to mid-20s, when, like most people, adulthood gave way to a myriad of increased responsibilities, full time work, and the struggle of juggling several personal projects in the meantime. Within a relatively short space of time, it’s very easy for quality sleep to become less and less of a priority in our lives.
It’s ironic, really. During our teens and student years, we probably have more time to sleep than at any other time in our lives (apart from infancy), yet we resist it as much as possible. Then, once our 20s hit and we’re steadily marching towards our 30s, few things sound better than a great night’s sleep. However, it feels like there’s never quite enough time to fit it in.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been learning a lot about sleep and what does and doesn’t help us sleep better. I’ve made quite a few changes to my own sleep hygiene, including some simple mental shifts such as how I approach and relate to sleep (more on this shortly). I’m very much still learning and getting the perfect sleep-wake balance is a continuous work in progress for me. However, I feel like I’m at least on the right path, which is what matters.
I hope to be able to share some of these tips with you guys, in the hope of bringing you closer to those happy little ‘Z’s and finding a sleep-wake routine that works for you.
Skipping the boring stuff: sleep is important
I’m not going to start by lecturing you about the importance of sleep or warning what happens when we don’t get enough. I’m going to assume that, like me, you’re well aware of all that stuff and are simply chasing more of a balance in your life so that quality sleep can be achieved on a regular basis.
The problem with most ‘sleep advice’ articles out there on the internet is that they spend way too much time simply scaring us about the ‘dangers’ of not having enough sleep and not as much trying to offer an actual solution. Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty ironic that when most obstacles to getting good sleep are stress, physical or mental health-related, these articles seem to think the best option is to cause more stress to the reader and ‘shock’ them into getting more sleep. I don’t think I need to point out why this doesn’t work.
So let’s skip the basics and move straight to the good stuff.
1. Get into the right mindset for sleep
Dr Steve Orma, a cognitive behavioural psychologist and sleep specialist, explains that many of us hold unfounded negative beliefs about sleep that are actually preventing us from getting enough.
Due to wide-spread false perceptions, beauty mag myths and outdated advice (often perpetrated by those online sleep advice articles I mentioned earlier), many of us are approaching sleep with dread and uncertainty, rather than a relaxed and confident mindset.
Example: you might think that you need to try to go to sleep, and that if you’re struggling to fall asleep, then you just need to ‘try harder’. This is totally false. First of all, it’s important to know that our bodies are designed for sleep – it’s something that should be effortless and enjoyable. ‘Trying’ to go to sleep actually keeps you awake, as your brain is stimulated by trying to monitor whether or not you’re asleep.
Sleep comes when we’re not trying, so anything that helps us relax and let go of the intention will help us fall asleep quicker and easier. One trick I learned some time ago is to actually try staying awake instead, and tell yourself that you’re ‘just resting’. Surprisingly, this does work and has sent me off to sleep many times.
Another example is, you might often think: “I won’t be able to function if I don’t get enough sleep.” This is incredibly common and something I have personally experienced time and time again. But I’m slowly starting to let go of this thought, and here’s why.
Despite popular belief, you CAN function on little sleep. Research studies involving a range of people including students, physicians, transatlantic sailors, astronauts and medical residents have shown that as long as you get at least five hours sleep per night, your daytime performance is not significantly affected – even over many months of poor sleep. Any less than five hours means you can still function, perhaps just not as well, and your body will be under more pressure to sleep the following night. It’s important to not lie awake worrying about not being able to function the next day, as this only disrupts sleep further.
Another common myth is that everybody needs eight hours of sleep. Again, this is not true and a belief that I’m trying to let go of myself. We all require varying hours of sleep – some might be like Thomas Edison, who only required four hours; some people require 10, some seven and so on. What’s more important than the amount you sleep is maintaining a regular sleep-wake routine. Focus less on getting a set number of hours of sleep and instead on going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Over time, your body will let you know how much sleep it needs.
Finally, many people falsely believe that they are just “not a good sleeper”. Wrong – we ALL have the ability to sleep well. Our bodies were built to sleep. There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sleepers – just behaviours and environmental cues that can help or hinder sleep. Those that establish a regular sleep routine, think of sleep as a positive experience and practice good sleep hygiene are much more likely to easily fall asleep.
In short: your body can and will fall asleep, if you allow it. The key is to engage in behaviours that help you ‘get out of your body’s way’, and refrain from other behaviours that are inhibiting your body’s natural ability to fall asleep.
2. Make your bedroom an enjoyable place to be
Now that you’re hopefully feeling a little more positive about sleep, it’s time to check in with your sleep environment. Whether your bedroom is big or small; whether you share it with someone else or have it all to yourself; whether you live in a house or an apartment…all of this doesn’t have to affect how well your sleeping environment is set up for sleep (except maybe in extreme circumstances).
Making your sleep environment conducive to sleep means making your bedroom a place you WANNA be. It means making it cosy, warm and inviting, so that when it is time to hit the hay, you look forward to spending time in your own private li’l snooze cave. This is a huge factor in helping you feel more positively about bedtime, rather than approaching it with dread.
Below are a few things I recommend thinking about when creating your ideal sleep environment.
The right bed + bedding
I hate to kick off with the most expensive tip on my list, but having the right bed and mattress really is essential for a positive sleep environment.
Your mattress should feel good to lie on, without any bent springs or bumps, and it should support your entire spine, hips and shoulders evenly while still allowing a nice ‘S’ curve in your back. Mattresses should be changed every 6 to 8 years (depending on how worn they are), and although it can be quite a pricey upgrade, it really will make all the difference to your sleep, health and well-being.
There are lots of very affordable mattresses out there, and some made from sustainable materials too. But, in my Goldilocks-like experience with mattresses, I’d advise going to a proper bed store where you can test the mattresses before you lie on them. This is because everybody is so so different and those ‘one-size-fits-all’ mattresses you can order online to your house (like Eve and Simba) aren’t going to be for everyone. You’re better off trying before you buy as it really does save so much hassle.
It was only when Christian and I visited a bed store that we realised we both actually need a firm mattress, in order to alleviate various back issues we sometimes suffer with. Nowadays we struggle to get out of our current bed as it’s so damn comfy, and it’s a place we really look forward to climbing into at night.
If a new mattress is completely out of the question, then adding a topper to your current mattress can be a great temporary solution. I recommend this sustainable bamboo memory foam topper* from Panda UK.
Once you’ve got your ideal mattress, you’ll want to maintain it’s condition for as long as possible, so a mattress protector is a must. I highly recommend this Panda bamboo protector*, which is what we have on our bed right now. It’s got great depth for fitting snugly around your mattress and is even waterproof.
Needless to say, I’m an advocate for buying the most sustainable bedding you can afford, made from natural materials such as organic cotton, bamboo or flax linen. Sustainable bedding may cost a little more than what you’re used to, but see it as an investment and something you’ll have for years to come. Sleeping on natural materials not only reduces our negative impact on the environment, but also helps to regulate your body temperature, allows your skin to breath and will generally elevate your comfort levels, so it’s definitely worth considering.
We have the 10.5 tog ECO duvet* from Fine Bedding, which is so cool as the filling is made completely from recycled plastic bottles! The packaging is all 100% recyclable too. I also really love these eco-friendly Ocean Blue pillows from The Linen Cupboard, which I keep protected with these 100% sustainable cotton pillow undercases. (top tip: The Linen Cupboard is a great place in general for all your sustainable bedding needs!).
For duvet covers, sets and sheets, I really recommend Dip & Doze, which is a wonderful company with excellent quality bedding. All of their products are made with 100% sustainable cotton, including their beautiful bathing towels. We have their edged set in white, (I just can’t resist a good set of hotel-looking white bed sheets!). We went for the Cool & Crisp over Soft & Smooth, as I can be quite a sweaty sleeper and hate the feeling of moist bed sheets (sorry for the TMI!).
I probably don’t need to mention that technology in the bedroom is never a great idea. That said, I’m definitely not perfect and still have my phone in the room when I go to sleep, but if we can be selective about how and when we use technology at night, then we’ll be well on the way to improving our sleep environment.
We don’t have a TV in our room, and I don’t recommend getting one. We also never take our laptops to bed, or use them in bed in the mornings. It’s a really bad habit and will only make you start to associate your bed with work. (If your bedroom is also your work space, try to have a separate area of the room for computer use, and if possible hide it out of sight with a cool room separator).
I’ve also stopped using my phone as my alarm clock, as it meant it was the first thing I looked at in the morning. Now I use my second-hand Lumie clock* to wake up, which is super cool as it emits a warm soft daylight-simulating light that gradually gets brighter to signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up. This has been especially helpful during the winter, when those cold dark mornings play havoc with our natural circadian rhythm. These clocks have also been shown to help with symptoms of SAD.
I do use my phone at night to listen to guided meditations and sleep stories via the Calm app (more on this below). However, I use the dark mode on my iphone wherever possible and keep the screen brightness set to its lowest, so as to avoid confusing my brain with bright blue light.
If you must have your phone next to your bed at night, avoid keeping it at head level as this can cause headaches. I keep mine on the bottom shelf of my nightstand so it’s as far away from my head as possible. Keeping it on the other side of the room is even better.
It’s advised to keep your bedroom dimly lit before bedtime, to create a cosy, sleepy environment. You can create warm pools of light using bedside lamps, or even fairy lights strung around your windows or headboard. Candles are always welcome, or anything else that emits a warm glow.
My Lumie clock has a nightlight setting which gradually gets dimmer and dimmer over a set period of time. This has a lovely ‘sunset’ effect and is really great for getting you in the mood to sleep.
Too much light can also disrupt our sleep – even if it’s as small as a chink of light coming through the window a gap in the doorway. When your head hits the pillow, you want the room to be as dark as possible. If cancelling out all light is a challenge, then an eye mask is your best friend. I love my La Aquarelle eye mask*, made from sustainable organic cotton (or bamboo silk) and dyed with 100% natural plant extracts. This mask sits comfortably on my head without irritating my eyelids and does a great job of cancelling out all light distractions, helping me fall soundly to sleep.
You may not have thought about it, but scent actually has a big impact on our relaxation levels and therefore, our sleep. Go for a naturally scented candle or room spray over synthetic air fresheners, or use a few drops of your favourite essential oil in an electronic room diffuser* to create a really dreamy atmosphere.
I like to use a few spritzes of my favourite pillow spray on and around my pillow area before I go to sleep. I highly recommend the Evolve Beauty Tranquility Essence pillow mist*, Miaroma’s Relaxing Lavendar Sleep mist spray* or the This Works Deep Sleep pillow spray*.
A messy, cluttered area is probably the opposite of a soothing, calm environment. Take a few minutes tidying up your bedroom before bed – whether it’s hanging up clothes, returning bits and pieces to their rightful place or scooping dirty laundry into the laundry basket.
We can’t always control annoying noises that are outside of our immediate vicinity, but we can try and limit them as much as possible. If you live with others that aren’t on the same sleep schedule as you, you can politely speak to them about being mindful of noise and disruptions after a certain time in the evening.
Street noise is a little more tricky, but earplugs come in very handy. Alpine’s Sleepsoft earplugs are specially designed to filter out ambient noises from your environment, including snoring! (Note: I have used their MusicSafe Pro earplugs in the past when doing gigs with my band, and can definitely say these guys make great products).
Listening to something soothing before sleep can be a good way to block out unwanted background noise. I highly recommend the Calm app’s Sleep Stories feature, or their calming soundscapes that take you away to another world.
Yup, even the quality of the air in your room can affect sleep. Too dry and you may experience chest or sinus issues, so if this is the case, consider investing in a small humidifier to keep the air at a comfortable humidity.
If your room is prone to getting stuffy, boost ventilation by opening your window just a crack. Keeping your bedroom clean and free of dust is also important, so don’t put it off – grab a duster and give your room a regular once-over.
It’s recommended that the optimum temperature for sleep is around 18 degrees Celsius – give or take, depending on the person. This means your bedroom should be a little on the cooler side, so consider switching off the heating (or at least, turn down the bedroom radiator) about half an hour before bedtime.
It’s tempting in winter to bundle up on the layers, but this can lead to us feeling too hot in bed later on and unable to fall asleep. Consider getting your room to the right temperature first and holding back on the layers a little. Fewer layers allows your skin to breath and also increases contact with your skin on the bed sheets, which can enable us to feel relaxed and drowsy. Ideally, sleeping naked is best, but if that’s not for you, keep sleepwear light, loose and breathable.
3. Create an hour-long bedtime routine
Before actually heading to bed, having an evening routine to prepare us for sleep is incredibly beneficial. Ideally this should be about an hour, and – you guessed it – should not involve any technology if you can help it.
An hour-long bedtime routine might sound indulgent, and believe me, I’m really bad at getting this one down. But having a set routine of tasks you do every night before heading to bed signals to our brains that it’s time for sleep, and over time will contribute to a more consistent sleep-wake cycle.
Try to keep your bedtime routine consistent, even when travelling or taking time off from work (the only exception would be when you’re sick).
Some things you can include in your bedtime routine are:
Nothing too exciting! Self-help and non-fiction are great for helping us to feel sleepy; fiction is perfect for when you want to switch off from your everyday life.
You guys know I’m a fan of this one. Journaling before bed can involve writing down things we’re grateful for, recording happy moments we experienced that day, or even writing down things we’re worried or frustrated about.
Meditation can be a great way to wind down and calm the mind before sleep. You can either sit quietly by yourself in a dim room and simply observe your thoughts, or you can focus on an object or listen to relaxing music.
I love to do a guided meditation via the Calm app, which has a bunch of meditations spanning lots of different themes and topics, including ones specifically meant for sleep. I also love their Sleep Stories, which are soothing bedtime stories for adults narrated by different authors, actors and celebrities. There are piles to choose from, and nine times out of 10, they’ll send me to sleep within minutes.
Although most advice will tell you not to eat too close to bedtime, this is only partly true. Yes, having a big main meal right before bed may disrupt your sleep, but it’s important to eat enough to feel satisfied throughout the day, otherwise you’ll struggle to fall asleep and could wake up with a growling stomach.
I like to enjoy a small snack or sweet treat before bed, such as some fruit, a smoothie or one of my vegan microwave mug cakes. If it’s been a few hours since my last main meal, I’ll have some granola or sourdough toast.
Of course, caffeine anytime after 4pm is usually a no-go – this includes cacao and if you’re super sensitive, maybe dark chocolate too. However, most people will be okay with a milky hot chocolate using some plain cocoa powder and frothy plant-based milk. Other great bedtime drinks include turmeric tea, moon milk, and non-caffeinated herbal teas like chamomile and peppermint.
Hot bath or shower
Bathing before bed aids sleep as it raises your body temperature temporarily, before causing it to drop. This drop in body temperature leads you to feel relaxed and drowsy and can be just the recipe for a peaceful night’s sleep. Bonus if you combine it with freshly laundered sheets!
Putting on your favourite set of cosy pyjamas or comfy loungewear can be a really enjoyable part of your bedtime routine. Since we’ve been spending so much time at home during the last 12 months, I’m pretty sure many of you have become as loungewear-obsessed as I am.
For us gals, a consistent evening skincare regimen can definitely be part of a relaxing bedtime routine. Cleansing, using nourishing serums or treating yourself to a face mask can all be great ways to wind down for the night. I love to use my gua sha stone* to give myself a wonderful facial massage, which is great for relieving tension.
4. Only get into bed when you are fully sleepy
Many people choose their bedtime based on what they think will bring them eight hours of sleep (I’m often guilty of this). But how many times has your head hit the pillow, only for you to still be wide awake, an hour later?
In order to fall asleep quickly after going to bed, we need to allow our bodies to feel genuinely sleepy. This does not mean just feeling worn out or tired. ‘Sleepy’ must mean either nodding off, or having trouble staying awake. Anything less than that, and you’ll be more likely to spend longer lying awake, which can prevent your brain from associating your bed with sleep.
Now, you might worry: “It’s getting late. I should probably go to bed, or I’ll be exhausted tomorrow.” This again is a common thought, but going to bed earlier doesn’t necessarily mean better sleep. If you only get into bed when you’re truly ready for sleep – no matter how late it gets – then that sleep will likely be of better quality and you’ll wake up feeling more rested the following day. It will also put more pressure on your body to fall asleep earlier the next night.
If after 30 minutes you haven’t fallen asleep, get out of bed and go to another room. Do a calming activity such as reading, meditating, or listening to a soothing soundscape, piece of music or Calm sleep story. Try not to turn on any bright lights – keep the room dim and avoid technology, including the TV or your computer.
If a busy monkey mind is keeping you awake, take a pen and your journal/paper and write down everything that’s on your mind – from the big to the small. The chances are the next morning many of those things won’t seem so important anymore and you can simply discard them. For the other things on the list, you can work your way through the following day and see what can be done to tackle them.
If after returning to bed you’re still struggling to fall asleep, get out of bed and repeat the steps above. This might seem pretty tedious and unnecessary, but it’s super important not to allow your brain to associate bed with being awake. You only want to associate it with sleep (and intimacy). Usually after a few times of repeating this process, your brain will begin to fall asleep quicker and easier.
5. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
Another important aspect of achieving quality sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Unfortunately this even includes weekends, and vacations. The only exception would be if you’re sick.
The reason having a regular routine is important is because your brain will learn when to fall asleep, thus making falling asleep a much easier process. Even just one or two days of sleeping in can upset your regular sleep-wake routine.
I personally really struggle with this, as I’m guilty of using weekends to ‘catch up’ on sleep I’ve lost throughout the week (working on it!). I’ve read that you can minimise disruption to your sleep pattern by not waking up more than two hours later than your usual wake-up time. So who knows – maybe there is still room for a lie-in after all… 😉 Nevertheless, if you’re trying to build a consistent sleep schedule from the ground up, my advice would be to ditch the lie-ins, even if temporarily.
6. Maintain a regular exercise routine
You’ve probably heard it already, but a regular exercise routine plays a key part in maintaining a healthy sleep schedule.
This is because exercise releases endorphins and tires you out, leaving you more ready to sleep the following night. Exercise places deliberate stress on the body, making us stronger and fitter, and the brain compensates for this extra stress by encouraging the body to sleep longer and more deeply, leading to a better quality sleep.
Exercise can also expose you to more daylight if you do it outside, which helps with maintaining our natural circadian rhythm.
Exercise at least 3-6 hours before bed to enable your body to take advantage of the drop in temperature that occurs after exercise. This allows us to feel more sleepy and relaxed, leading to a good night’s sleep.
7. Expose yourself to natural light throughout the day
As touched on in my previous point, exposure to natural light throughout the day helps to regulate our natural circadian rhythm, thus reducing any disruptions to sleep.
This can be particularly hard in the winter when daylight hours are limited, and especially in this current era when most of us are working from home. But there are still some things you can do.
Getting outside for a walk during the daytime really helps you to recharge and feel more energised. As mentioned earlier, a daylight-simulating device like the Lumie clock or a SAD lamp (which Lumie also sells) will help massively with those dark mornings. If possible, sitting next to a window whilst working will also help to maintain a proper sleep-wake cycle.
8. Keep stress to a minimum
Lastly, taking active steps to regulate stress in your life will go a long way towards regulating your sleep. If we allow stressful situations, thoughts or experiences to build up, they’ll be more likely keep us awake at night.
Regular stress maintenance can look like yoga, meditation, journaling, or talking to a friend, loved one or even a professional about any issues you may be struggling with.
Taking regular time off work (at least two days a week) is also important for regular stress maintenance. However, it’s important to have longer periods off too, ideally where you can enjoy a change of scenery and even better if it’s away from your tech devices.
Spending time with family and friends (only the ones you like!) is also crucial for our general well-being. You could even consider treating yourself to a massage, spa day, or anything else you find indulgent and a source of enjoyment.
I hope these tips on sleep were useful for you, and have inspired you to start taking control of your sleep routine. Remember that your body WANTS to sleep. The only thing we need to do is stay out of its way!
I’m currently working to change a few of my sleep behaviours, including: becoming stressed when I can’t sleep; going to bed before I’m fully sleepy; sleeping in later on weekends and also failing to engage in an hour-long bedtime routine. Clearly it’s a lot, but I’ll be sure to check back in here and let you all know how I’m getting on. In the meantime, comment below telling me which of these habits you want to work on, and which ones you’re doing pretty well!
Big thanks to Dr Steve Orma for (unknowingly) providing me with a lot of this information about sleep, and helping me to view sleep with a much more relaxed mindset in general. I couldn’t have made this post without his awesome knowledge.