There is never a time when sleep isn’t important. But with the shorter, vitamin D-deprived days, gloomy weather – and the dread that it’s going to drag on for months – at this time of year, solid slumber is more vital than ever.
Winter, like all the seasons, has its joys (little beats a stroll on a perfect, crisp winter’s morning; stark blue sky, robins and the last of the leaves glistening with dew). But the reality for many is it can be quite hard work, too, whether it’s loneliness, worrying about the cost of Christmas or suffering the mood-zapping effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), not to mention those winter bugs doing the rounds.
And so we’d do well to give ourselves – and our immune systems – a helping hand, which in so many ways, starts and ends with decent dozing.
Here are five things to think about if you want to win at winter sleep.
Hot and cold
Nobody wants to lie shivering in bed with feet like ice blocks. But overheating can actually be more detrimental to sleep, so it’s important to get the temperature just right. “Ideally, the brain temperature needs to be fractionally lower than the body’s core temperature, so ideally your bedroom needs to be cool, around 19C,” says physiologist and sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake: Discover The Secrets Of Restorative Sleep And Vibrant Energy. “So you’ll walk in and find it a bit chilly, but you can put a hot water bottle into the bed which you then discard as you get cosy. It’s important not to overheat as this will make sleep fretful and restless. I find it helpful to keep a fan in my room, even in winter, carefully positioned so I don’t get too cold if I use it. Also, a eucalyptus stick on your bedside table’s a good idea. Eucaplytus is cooling, so if you wake during the night – 2 to 4am is the most likely time for overheating – you rub the menthol stick between your eyebrows and temples and it has a cooling effect on the brain and, surprisingly, the mind.” Go for layers of bedding, rather than one thick duvet, “so you can discard some as you journey through the night”.
Comfort is key
A comfortable bed, that’s just right for you, makes a big difference – but often it’s only when you actually experience it, that you realise just HOW much (investing in memory foam pillows actually changed my life). A calm environment can equal a calm mind, but when it comes to designing your bedroom, “quality of sleep should be the top priority”, notes James Cox, co-founder and CEO of British brand Simba Sleep, whose unique 2,000 spring/Visco memory foam mattresses can be delivered to your door in a box. “So ditch the lumpy, uncomfortable mattress.” The best mattresses aren’t likely to be the cheapest, but if you are looking to make investments, few things are more rewarding than years of good sleep. A good mattress can also play a role in helping manage and reduce aches and pains. Cox notes that innovations have come a long way, so it’s worth considering designs that combine experience and technological developments.
Tech it or leave it
We bang on about the importance of stepping away from those screens before bedtime, but the message just isn’t getting through for many of us (according to a recent survey by Simba Sleep, almost one in six people spend at least two hours a day on social media in bed). Bottom line: if you want to nail a solid sleeping routine, you need to switch off those devices. Dr Ramlakhan recommends an “electronic sundown” of around an hour before getting into bed, in order to calm those dopamine hits from constantly looking at a screen, and cut down on the blue light exposure that suppresses melatonin – “the sleep hormone” – production. “We might associate the device with being mentally engaged and in work-mode too, especially if we also have access to email on the device,” she adds. Try old-school bedtime reading – with actual books – instead. “Neuroscience shows that the reading brain responds differently to reading on paper than it does to reading on a screen. With the latter, the reading rate tends to be faster, less mindful and more skimming – sort of multi-task reading – as if looking at a social media feed. Reading on paper tends to be more mindful, and we slow down and read in more detail (neuroscientists call this deep reading).”
What’s on the menu?
Just as we think about fuelling up in the morning, with energy-boosting breakfasts and those all-important caffeine kicks, if you’re aiming to improve your sleep, the same theory applies at the end of the day – in reverse. So tailor what you eat and drink in the evening, with winding-down in mind. Keeping stimulating and sugary substances to the first half of the day is one thing, but it can go beyond that. “To sleep well, we need to eat foods that help the brain produce melatonin: a small amount of carbohydrates with a small amount of protein rich in tryptophan,” suggests Dr Craig Hudson, founder of Zenbev.com. “A cheese sandwich will help sleep, but a big steak dinner will make your sleep worse. Food for sleep is like everything else; a little in moderation works well.” A late heavy dinner may make you feel sleepy, but setting your digestive system up for a night of overdrive isn’t going to amount to the best quality slumber. The same goes for alcohol – yes it may seem to help you drift off, but booze actually hinders quality sleep. Making a soothing tea part of your pre-bedtime routine is a great idea – not only can this be a natural way to aid sleep, but the simple act of making yourself a cuppa, and then sitting quietly to sip it, nurtures a sense of calm and mindfulness.
Embrace bathing rituals
Running yourself a bath is a fantastic way to embrace self-care, treat yourself to a little luxury, and really switch from manic ‘day mode’ to relaxed and sleep-ready (and it’ll help with dragging yourself away from those screens, too). Even once a week, a bath is worthwhile, and alchemist, aromatherapist and intuitive body worker Michelle Roques-O’Neil, founder of the ‘balancing and emotionally healing’ THERAPIE product range, says even a 10-minute bath will make a difference when you don’t have time for a half-hour soak. Make the ritual even richer by incorporating some aromatherapy based products, such as THERAPIE Himalayan Detox Salts, which combine pink Himalayan salts, geranium, juniper berry and powdered amethyst. “This is one of our most popular products,” says Roques-O’Neil. “It’s great for when you’re really overextended, especially with digital overload. If you’re very anxious, suffering from insomnia, you’ve just overdone it. This will help pull you down to Earth.” Applying a soothing body oil, or lavender-based moisturiser, can be another effective step in your snooze-ready self-care ritual, finishing off with a spritz of lavender pillow spray.
85% of over-75s say listening to music sparks special memories
It’s often said that scent is incredibly powerful at triggering memories and, according to a new survey by the Royal Voluntary Service, hearing music transports many of us back in time too. Nearly three-quarters of the 500 over-75s quizzed as part of the charity’s Sing Your Heart Out campaign, admit they’ve forgotten lots of things – but can still remember the words of their favourite songs. Many say music has the power to help them remember pivotal events from their past, such as the day they met their partner (14%), a special day (12%) or their wedding day (8%). Furthermore, 92% agree that singing along to music lifts their mood, 81% think it helps keep their mind active, while 63% say it helps them forget health worries. Presenter Phillip Schofield, said: “My song is Make Me Smile by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. That’s my childhood in a song. What seemed like endless summer days, growing up in Newquay. Playing on the beach, being late for tea having lost track of time.”