5 mins read

How To Improve Your Sleep

June 5, 2024

General wellbeing

Woman asleep in bed
In this article:

I’ve struggled to get a good night’s sleep for as long as I can remember. Whether it’s not being able to fall asleep, not feeling tired or waking up during the night, there has always been something stopping me from catching my zzz’s.

Over the last 6 months, I’ve tried new things to remedy my lack of sleep. And they’ve worked!

So here are my tips for a better night’s sleep, along with some research Forth conducted on sleep problems in the UK and information on sleep zones.

How Many People Have Sleep Problems in the UK?

In April 2024, we asked 2,001 people in the UK ‘How often, if at all, do you experience sleep problems?’.

Participants were asked to tick one of 5 answers;

  • Always
  • Often
  • Rarely
  • Never
  • Not sure

Half of all people (49.7%) answered ‘Always’ or ‘Often’, while only 15% answered ‘Never’.

Women seem to suffer from poor sleep more than men, with 55% of women answering ‘Always’ or ‘Often’, compared to 44% of men.

Only 10% of men said they never suffer from sleep problems, compared to 20% of women.

Fortunately, there are many ways you can improve your sleep quality, from understanding the science behind sleep to embracing healthy lifestyle habits. In this article, we’ll explore proven strategies to help you achieve better sleep.

A graphic showing how many men and women in the UK have sleep problems

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

Our bodies use sleep as a time to recover from the day’s activities, repair tissues, and rejuvenate both physically and mentally. Let’s delve into the specifics of how much sleep we require for optimal recovery from exercise and illness, and how much is needed for the body to perform its essential repair functions.

Sleep and Recovery

From Exercise: Regular exercise is vital for health, but it also places stress on the body. During sleep, especially during the deep sleep stages, the body releases growth hormone, which plays a critical role in tissue growth and muscle repair. Athletes or individuals who engage in strenuous physical activities often need more sleep to facilitate adequate recovery. While the average adult may need about 7-9 hours of sleep, those engaged in intense training might require up to 10 hours.

From Illness: When we’re sick, the body’s need for sleep increases as the immune system ramps up its efforts to fight infections. Cytokines, a protein that targets infection and inflammation, are produced and released during sleep. This means that getting more rest when you’re ill can help you recover faster. During periods of illness, it’s not uncommon for adults to need 10-12 hours of sleep to help bolster the immune response.

The Body’s Repair Mechanisms

Sleep is the time when the body undertakes significant repair and maintenance work. This includes:

Cellular Repair: During sleep, cells produce proteins that repair damage caused by stress and UV exposure.
Muscle Growth and Repair: The deep sleep stages are crucial for muscle growth and repair, which is why sufficient sleep is essential for those who exercise regularly.
Brain Function: Sleep also plays an important role in brain health, aiding in memory consolidation, toxin removal, and the regulation of mood.

Sleep Zones

Sleep isn’t a uniform state; it’s made up of multiple stages, each serving distinct functions:

  • NREM Stage 1: This is the lightest stage of sleep, where you transition from wakefulness to sleep. It’s a short phase, typically lasting several minutes.
  • NREM Stage 2: A deeper stage of light sleep where heart rate and body temperature drop. This stage accounts for about 50% of our sleep time.
  • NREM Stage 3 (Deep Sleep): This is the most restorative stage, crucial for physical repair and growth. It’s harder to awaken someone from deep sleep, and it typically makes up about 20-25% of total sleep in younger people but less as we age.
  • REM Sleep: Characterised by rapid eye movements, this stage is vital for cognitive functions like memory and learning. It typically makes up about 20-25% of our sleep cycle.

To get enough of each of these sleep stages, most adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. This allows for multiple complete sleep cycles, each lasting about 90 minutes, ensuring that we get sufficient time in both deep and REM sleep.

Individual Sleep Needs

Sleep needs can vary widely based on age, lifestyle, and individual health conditions. Here’s a general guideline:

  • Infants: 14-17 hours
  • Toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • School-age children: 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • Adults: 7-9 hours
  • Older adults: 7-8 hours

It’s important to listen to your body. If you wake up feeling refreshed and function well during the day, you’re likely getting enough sleep. But, if you often feel tired, irritable, or have difficulty concentrating, you may need to prioritise more sleep.

8 Tips for Improving Your Sleep

  1. Choosing the Right Mattress and Pillows

    Did you know that the average person spends about one-third of their life sleeping? So we should invest in a comfortable mattress, pillows, duvet and bedding! A good mattress might seem expensive, but it will last for years and you can’t put a price on a good night's sleep.

    When choosing a mattress, consider factors like firmness, materials, and size. A good mattress should be firm enough to support your body while also providing enough cushioning to relieve pressure points. Your pillows should be comfortable and supportive. I prefer a down pillow that makes me feel like I’m resting my head on a cloud, but my partner prefers a firm pillow. Take the time to try out different pillows before you buy.

  2. Bedroom Temperature and Lighting

    The ideal sleep environment is cool, dark, and quiet. I’ve recently invested in some blackout blinds that plunge my bedroom into total darkness and it was an instant win. Even when cars drive by, no light gets into the bedroom, which has reduced the number of times I wake up during the night.

    The only downside of blackout blinds is I’ve found it harder to wake up in the mornings, as the natural light doesn’t get through! I’m consciously getting up and opening them a few inches when my alarm goes off, which has helped. If you struggle to wake up when it’s too dark, too, you might want to get a sun rise lamp.

    Eye masks can be helpful if you prefer not to change your blinds or curtains. The temperature of your bedroom can also affect the quality of your sleep. According to sleep experts, the ideal temperature for sleep is between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius (60-68 Fahrenheit). This temperature range helps your body to cool down, which is helpful for falling and staying asleep. This is why, like many others, I struggle to sleep during the summer.

  3. Noise and Distractions

    Creating a quiet environment to sleep in is an easy and effective way of getting better sleep. Earplugs can help block out noisy neighbours or busy roads. I struggle to sleep with earplugs in, so I use an app that plays rain and thunderstorm sounds. It has a timer so after 30 minutes it slowly turns itself off, so it helps me fall asleep but doesn’t wake me up once I’m sleeping. Some people also like to fall asleep listening to audiobooks or podcasts, but these can have the opposite effect and keep you up if you get too engrossed in the story.

    I also make sure my phone is face down, on silent and out of reach so there are no sudden light or noise distractions throughout the night.

  4. Set a Regular Sleep Schedule

    One of the most important things you can do to get quality sleep is to set a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps your body establish a healthy sleeping pattern - strengthening your internal body clock.

    Although it may not seem very fun, try to stick to the schedule on weekends and holidays, too, to maintain your regular sleep schedule to avoid disrupting your body’s natural rhythm.

    This is definitely one area I struggle with, as I’m more of a night owl. I’m forcing myself to turn off all devices at 10pm to create a routine. This way I’m more likely to get ready for bed and start to wind down before I sleep. Try to avoid the ‘one more episode’ or ‘one more page’ mindset before bed, as your sleep schedule can get pushed later and later the more you do it, and it’s harder to get back on track.

  5. Creating a Relaxing Bedtime Ritual

    Developing a calming and relaxing bedtime routine can help you wind down before sleep. This can include reading a book, taking a warm bath, or doing some gentle stretches. Avoiding stimulating activities such as watching TV or using your phone before bedtime can also help you relax and fall asleep more easily.

    Alcohol and caffeine can disrupt sleep, so it’s best to avoid these before bedtime.

  6. Naps and Sleep Debt

    I’ve never been able to sleep during the day, but everyone should avoid long daytime naps. Long naps can disrupt your night-time sleep schedule, which can end up making you more tired - increasing your ‘sleep debt’.

    The 30/90 sleep rule is good to follow if you need to take a nap. It means you should nap for up to 30 minutes or at least 90 minutes. This helps you to hit the right sleep cycles to avoid feeling groggy and doesn’t impact your natural nighttime sleep quality.

    Gradually decreasing your sleep debt is also important for developing a consistent sleep routine. Getting enough sleep every day and not relying on the weekends to catch up on lost sleep can help ensure that you maintain a healthy sleep schedule.

  7. Diet and Nutrition

    What you eat and drink can influence your sleep quality.

    I’m guilty of using copious amounts of coffee to keep me going throughout the day after a bad night’s sleep. But this often means I’m still wired when it comes to bedtime. One of my New Year resolutions for 2024 was to not drink any caffeine after midday.

    It’s better to drink lots of water and stay hydrated, as this will help with bodily functions such as digestion, which can disrupt sleep. Just avoid drinking lots right before bed, otherwise you might need to get up during the night.

    You should also avoid eating large meals (especially those high in carbs) close to bedtime.

  8. Exercise

    Exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and can have a big impact on your sleep quality. Regular physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety, which are common causes of sleep problems. It can also help regulate your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

    However, exercising too close to bedtime can have the opposite effect and make it more difficult to fall asleep. It’s best to find what works for you.

    As a night owl, I prefer to go to the gym or run in the evening, and never really have any difficulties relaxing and winding down after. If you’re more of a morning person, you may prefer to get up early and exercise before you start work. Just make sure you’re getting the 7-9 hours of quality sleep you need.

What is the 10 3 2 1 0 rule?

There are many “sleep rules” that people use to get the best sleep they can. These ‘rules’ are more like good advice or guidelines, and as with all the tips above, you should find what works for you.
However, the 10 3 2 1 0 sleep rule is a simple way to start improving your sleep. It means you should:

  • Stop drinking caffeine 10 hours before sleep
  • Don’t drink alcohol or eat 3 hours before sleep
  • Stop working 2 hours before sleep
  • Avoid screens 1 hour before sleep
  • And don’t hit the ‘snooze’ button on your alarm in the morning

What is Sleep Hygiene?

Sleep Hygiene is the term used to describe several science-backed practices that are carried out during the day and just before bed that help to create the exact conditions needed to sleep well – like the 8 tips I’ve shared above.

Our bodies have an inbuilt clock called the circadian rhythm which regulates our sleep and wake cycles across 24 hours. The circadian rhythm coordinates both physical and mental processes throughout the body and plays a role in:

  • Sleep-wake cycle
  • Endocrine system which regulates hormone release
  • Digestive system
  • Regulation of blood sugar levels
  • Regulation of cholesterol levels
  • Cognitive function and mental health
  • Immune system

When our circadian rhythm becomes unbalanced it has a wide-ranging impact on our physical and mental state, resulting in disturbed sleep.

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This information has been medically written by Dr Thom Phillips

Thom works in NHS general practice and has a decade of experience working in both male and female elite sport. He has a background in exercise physiology and has published research into fatigue biomarkers.

Dr Thom Phillips

Dr Thom Phillips

Head of Clinical Services