When it comes to making a big decision or dealing with conflict, there’s a reason some of the best advice is to “sleep on it”. Especially during the winter months, when the cold, dark days seem to drag on, getting a restful sleep each night is critical to resetting the brain and taking on the new day, whatever the weather throws at us.
Prof Russell Foster, director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, knows a thing or two about sleeping smarter. Here, he suggests some simple and surprising tips for getting to sleep quickly each night and making sure our internal body clocks are operating at their peak.
Get enough morning light
Foster says one of the most surprising findings in his research into sleep patterns is the effect of morning light on the body clock. “Dusk light tends to delay the clock, making you get up later the next day, but morning light tends to advance the clock and make you get up earlier the next day,” he says. This push-pull of light timing can have a knock-on effect for sleep patterns. He recommends keeping to a regular sleep cycle during the week but, more importantly, sticking to it on weekends when there’s a tendency to sleep in and miss the crucial morning light, delaying your body clock for the working week ahead.
Make sure your room is the right temperature
In winter, our first instinct is to crank up the heating and jump under the covers with a good book. But that may actually be counterproductive, explains Foster, whose advice is to keep the room comfortable but cool to help bring on sleep. “It seems that part of sleep initiation is a drop in core temperature – not a huge drop, but a slight cooling,” he says. “So, people sleeping in overheated bedrooms find it more difficult to get to sleep because they’re not losing heat and there’s not enough differential between the body and the room.” So it seems winter is the perfect time to get some quality shuteye, and you can even do it without ramping up your bills. Find yourself a cheaper supplier too and you could spend even less on energy bills.
Exercise and eat healthily – but not too close to bedtime
Exercise is “brilliant”, says Foster, particularly when it’s done outside to get that all-important morning light. But, he says, if it must be done in the evening, try not to do it too close to bedtime. “It can raise your core body temperature and therefore it can be more difficult to get to sleep,” he warns. The other disadvantage is that exercise makes you hungry. “Then, of course, you’re taking in a big calorie load before you go to bed, which can disrupt sleep,” he says.