As someone who has struggled to sleep from time to time, it’s been a pursuit of mine to understand how to get better quality sleep.
I suffer from panic attack disorder – a type of anxiety disorder – and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in sheer panic. There have been times when I’ve launched out of bed with my heart racing in pure “fight or flight mode” and it takes me a while to calm down enough to get back into bed. Sometimes I have a little hamster on high alert, racing on his little wheel in my head from 2am to 4am. A metaphor for my thoughts.
Thankfully there are ways to help set you up for sleep success.
At Women’s Health, we hosted an event with sleep expert Dr Dale Rae whose current research focuses on the study of sleep and circadian rhythms as they relate to both general health and sports performance. Dr Rae is also the Director of Sleep Science at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
7 Hacks To Sleep Better
Below I’ve created a list of hacks and tips I’ve learnt from Dr Rae as well we further research into the field.
1. Set up your sleep environment for success
Take a look at your bedroom. Does it ooze comfort? What about safety? And is it a place you feel like you can really relax in? Making small adjustments to your bedroom can help set you up for better quality sleep. Take note of any noises that can be fixed: that creaky door, the window shutters, a ticking clock. Think of scents as well. Perhaps light a candle or get a diffuser that creates calming scents for the room. We all know that lavender is a win!
2. Check your lighting
Are your curtains dark enough? Are there any flashing or distracting lights in the room? Make sure you minimise artificial light. Another great idea is to invest in a dawn simulator light that works for bedtime and morning, adjusting levels of light in your room over time to help you unwind and wake up.
3. What is your temperature like?
Contrary to what you might think, we actually struggle to sleep well when we’re too warm. I know – you’re thinking “but it’s so easy to snooze on the couch in the sun”. That said, it’s also hard to drop off if you’re too cold! Your body heat peaks in the evening and then drops to its lowest levels when you’re asleep, so a cool 16-18°C is thought to be an ideal temperature in a bedroom. Temperatures over 24°C are likely to cause restlessness, while a cold room of about 12°C will make it difficult to fall asleep.
My solution is to have a lighter duvet in summer and a heavier duvet and blanket in winter. Also, I like placing a hot water bottle in my bed in winter just to warm up the sheets. I also use a portable air conditioner in summer for those scorching evenings.
4. Set your phone aside
A great way to help the mind calm down is to switch off the sensory overload. Many of us take our laptops and phones into bed with us to play games, reply to texts and scroll through TikTok. But beeps, buzzes and even the tiniest lights can wreak havoc with the body’s circadian rhythm. So try set aside your phone or laptop as you wind down. And avoid the sensory overload!
I have started placing my phone in my bedside drawer. Plus, I keep a few books on my bedside table, so I try tuck into one of these instead, while I wind down.
5. Avoid stimulants
Having caffeine too late in the day or alcohol or sugar can all mess with your sleep. I make a rule with myself that I don’t have caffeine after midday. If I’m feeling tired, I have more water (often we’re dehydrated and this makes us feel lethargic). While a few glasses of wine may help you fall asleep, it often causes disruption a few hours into your sleep. Hello hamster!
6. Set up a bedtime routine
I have set up a routine to help “tell my body” that it’s bedtime. I make a cup of plain black rooibos or chamomile tea every night. Yes, I travel with teabags. And this forms part of my bed-time routine.
If I have had a stressful day or if I’m going through a period where my anxiety is high, I practise 10 to 20 minutes of yoga and meditation before going to bed. Gentle, easy stretches and mindful breathing can help you physically and mentally wind down. As a qualified yoga teacher, I can advise on some postures to try to help ease the body and mind.
Here is a quick, beginner-friendly yoga sequence I created:
7. Examine your bed
The biggest investment you can make in your sleep hygiene is to invest in a good mattress. We’re all different and have different likes and dislikes when it comes to what feels comfortable. But it’s not always easy to know what actually works for you, unless you spend some time sleeping “on it” – am I right?
There is a local South African company called SLOOM, who have invested an adjustable mattress. How it works: inside each Sloom mattress is two interchangeable foam layers, of which each have two sides with different comforts. So that means four different comfort options. Place the clearly marked layer of your comfort choice facing upwards on top.
I tested the Sloom mattress and love it! I have a queen-sized bed and the advantage of this size is that the mattress can be split for independent comforts. So, you don’t have to argue with your bed partner if you have different sleep desires. Simply adjust each side to suit you!
They also offer a 100-night sleep trial. Click here for more info.
I actually sleep with the Sloom Pillow now too, which has breathable tech so it does not get too hot. Bonus!
How To get Back To Sleep
It’s important to note that sometimes, in periods of high stress, that the above methods may not entirely prevent a bad night’s sleep, but they will certainly make them less frequent. So, if you find yourself in a state of anxiety or with a little hamster in your brain at 3am, here are some ways to calm yourself down in the moment:
- Do a breathing exercise. Focusing on your breath and taking longer inhales and exhales helps to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. A pranayama I try is: breathing in through the nose for a count of four; holding the breath for a count of four; and exhaling through the nose for a count of four. The focus on the breath helps to calm your thoughts and body.
- Listen to a meditation. I know its not always easy if you have a partner. What I do is place one of my little earbuds in, roll on to my opposite side and listen to a meditation or sleep story from the Calm app.
- Journal. If the above two methods don’t seem to be helping in anyway, sometimes I get up and write down my thoughts and stressors. This helps me to feel more in control and like I’ve “sorted through” the issues in my head.