Sleep smart guide

Your essential guide to getting enough sleep

Woman in deep sleep

Getting a great night’s sleep is essential to your wellbeing, so we partnered with sleep expert Professor Richard Wiseman and The School of Life to bring you this guide to enjoying more Zs.

Missing out on those all-important hours of shut-eye can have a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health, beyond just feeling tired the next day. Here, we share why sleep really matters, and how you can make sure you’re getting enough.

Why is sleep so important?

We still don’t fully understand why humans need to sleep, but according to Ana Noia,Senior Clinical Physiologist in Neurophysiology and Sleep at Bupa Cromwell Hospital, we know that sleep plays a vital role in:

  • Improving our ability to learn
  • Regulating the way our body breaks down food into energy, known as metabolism
  • Reducing mental fatigue

Sleeping might also give our bodies the chance to organise all the memories of the hundreds of events we experience every day.

We know much more about the effects of getting insufficient sleep, like reduced concentration, tiredness and irritability. And, in the long term, Ana says sleep deprivation can have a big impact on health, leading to an increase in the hormones that are linked to stress, and boosting your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, weight abnormalities, and even impacting your immune system.

Dream solution

What happens when you go to sleep?

When you go to sleep, you pass through two main phases of sleep in regular cycles: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep.

Each full cycle takes about one to two hours, and it is during the REM phase that we dream – something Professor Richard Wiseman says you can turn to your advantage.

“Your dreams can play a surprisingly important role in your psychological wellbeing,” says Richard, who cites one benefit as giving your brain the ability to solve problems while you sleep.

He recommends making a note of a difficult life issue before you go to bed – it might be whether you should change jobs, or sell your house – and see if you can find a solution in your dreams. Our video shows more on how to use dreams as a source of creativity and advice.

Avoiding the blue light

Are you out of sleep sync?

Richard believes that many of us are suffering a major epidemic of sleeplessness, which could be corrected by paying more attention to our sleep cycles, also known as circadian rhythms.

Regular flights and crossing time zones can disrupt these rhythms, as can the blue light emitted by the screen of your laptop, phone or tablet.

However, our video shows several things you can do to reduce the impact of travel and technology on your rest time.

Paradox of sleep

There are many simple fixes you can use to get a better night’s sleep: Installing blackout blinds at home or wearing an eye mask to block out light, using ear plugs to filter out unwanted noise, whether it’s someone snoring or traffic – and switching on a fan during hotter months to keep your bedroom cool can all help.

You can also use a white noise machine at any time of the year and search your app store to find dedicated apps to help filter out unwanted noise.

Also, monitor what you drink before bedtime. Caffeine from tea, coffee, many soft drinks and chocolate, can act as a stimulant, preventing you from falling asleep, so consider substituting that 4pm latte for a herbal infusion instead. And steer clear of too much alcohol right before bed as it can cause you to wake up during the night.

How to fall asleep

Let’s pretend you’ve made these changes and are sticking to a good routine; you’ve even banned mobile devices from the bedroom. But what if you’re still struggling to fall asleep? Richard suggests we embrace reverse psychology. “Trying not to think about certain things causes you to think the thoughts you are trying to avoid. So, while this might sound strange, if you are struggling to go to sleep then try to stay awake.” On this video, Richard shares some simple tips for nodding off that you may not have heard before.

You might also find it easier to maintain a balanced sleeping pattern by following these simple routine-boosting steps:

  • Go to bed and get up at around the same time each day and night
  • Try to avoid sleeping late, as this can reset your sleep cycle and make it harder to get up early when you need to
  • Only nap if you feel you need to catch up on sleep, and if you do, keep it under an hour
  • Take time out to relax and wind down before going to bed. Enjoy a bath, take a quiet 10 minutes to reflect on the day and plan for tomorrow, or read on a non-digital device

When nothing works

When you find it difficult to get to sleep, or to stay asleep long enough to feel refreshed when you wake up, you have insomnia. It can be either short term or long term, and generally falls into two categories:

  • Primary insomnia, which has no obvious cause
  • Secondary insomnia, which is usually caused by another health condition

If you find disrupted sleep patterns are a regular occurrence and it’s affecting your quality of life, see your GP.

Most sleep disorders can be treated, so discussing your sleeping habits with a medical expert will help them give you advice and support – they might even refer you to a sleep specialist.

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