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3 science-backed ways to dramatically improve your sleep

A lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your health and wellbeing, but there are simple ways to rectify such issues, writes Dr Amantha Imber.

I have been obsessed with sleep hygiene – which is a fancy way of saying having great sleep habits – for a long time. I suffered from insomnia throughout my 20s. I had trouble getting to sleep and then I also had trouble staying asleep. I would wake up many times during the night. And come morning, I never woke up feeling refreshed.

Once I realised that this feeling was not actually normal, I booked myself in to a sleep lab at a local hospital. If you have never been to a sleep lab, it’s a place where you get hooked up to about 30 different cords and are then asked to try to get a good night’s sleep. The term sleep lab is basically an oxymoron – I’m still unsure of how anyone manages to get even a few hours’ sleep while hooked up to a bunch of machines.

It turned out there wasn't anything wrong with me, per se – it was simply poor sleep hygiene that was causing my insomnia. As a result of the sleep lab and getting help from a sleep specialist, I learned a lot about how to actually have a good night’s sleep. And now, I’m a great sleeper. I get to sleep within a few minutes of my head hitting the pillow and stay asleep for most of the night.

While much has been written about sleep hygiene, here are three lesser spoken about tips that radically improved my ability to sleep well.

Limit your time in bed

I clearly remember the first piece of advice my sleep doctor gave me because it was so counterintuitive. He asked me to limit my time in bed. I thought he was joking. Surely, as an insomniac I needed to spend more time in bed to maximise my chance of at least getting some sleep?

Apparently not. I used to spend up to 10 hours per night in bed, even though I would be asleep for only six or seven hours. So rather than spend more time in bed, which is basically training your brain to think about bed as a place where you may or may not be asleep, instead, you need to limit the time that you spend in bed.

Known as bedtime restriction therapy, if, like most people, you need about eight hours a night, you might actually start by limiting your time in bed to only seven hours or 6.5 hours. Because you will be so exhausted by the time you are actually allowed to go to bed (as I was when I tried this in my own life) you are training your brain to associate bed time with sleep time and because you will have built up so much adenosine, which is what gradually builds up inside of us the longer we go without sleep, you will start to fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep.

After you have found that you are sleeping through the night or youre getting to sleep more easily, you can start to slowly extend the time that you spend in bed. For me, this strategy was critical in retraining my brain how to get to sleep, stay asleep and have a good quality of sleep.

Wake up at the same time every day

While this might sound like logical advice, most people don’t do this. The average worker wakes up early on weekdays because of their schedule and sleeps in, even if its just an hour or two, on weekends.

Sleep experts refer to this as “social jet lag”, where your wake time is different on weekdays versus weekends because of the demands of your job. Research from the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona found that social jet lag leads to poorer health, a worse mood and, not surprisingly, increased sleepiness. Every hour of social jet lag is associated with an 11 percent increase in your likelihood of heart disease.

For me, I now set my alarm for 5.30am every single morning. Even on Saturdays and Sundays, I am up with the birds (or actually a bit before the birds when it’s winter). And while it does feel odd rising too early on weekends, my brain and body feel so much better for it.

Track your sleep

Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed”. And psychologists have known for a long time that “self-monitoring” is not only great for increasing awareness of behaviour but is key to changing behaviour.

For me, I find that tracking my sleep keeps it front of mind because Im getting feedback through way of data every single morning on my sleep. And I’m motivated to stick to good sleep hygiene habits to optimise my “sleep score”.

There are many sleep trackers on the market, and I personally use the Oura ring. I wear it on my finger and it takes a stack of physiological measurements such as body temperature, respiratory rate and heart rate. These markers indicate whether I’m in a certain stage of sleep or indeed whether I am actually asleep.

Once you start tracking your sleep, you become aware of what you are actually doing in the eight hours that you are (hopefully) in bed. And because of the feedback mechanism of a sleep tracker, the self-monitoring strategy leads to changing your behaviour for the better.

So if you are serious about getting a great night’s sleep, keep your alarm clock locked at the same wake time, avoid getting into bed until you are well and truly exhausted, and consider investing in a way to track your sleep. Sweet dreams!

Dr Amantha Imber (pictured) is the founder of innovation consultancy firm Inventium.

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