If you struggle with your sleep, you are not alone. Many of us struggle to get the recommended 8 hours, and research suggests this is harming our health.
If a patient of mine struggles with their sleep, I teach them about all the little things that influence our sleep through the day, and then I challenge them to try and achieve one perfect day to get the perfect night’s sleep.
There is a problem with this, of course. The first problem is that it’s really hard to achieve a perfect day, so it’s not sustainable. The second problem is that one perfect day probably won’t do much for a chronically poor sleeper anyway because being consistent has been shown to be highly correlated to good sleep. One good day probably won’t cut it.
With this exercise, though, that’s okay. I’m not expecting anyone to sustain the perfect habits every day, nor am I expecting this one day to lead to perfect sleep (although it might!). What I hope is that this one day teaches the person that it is possible to drip in a few simple tactics into the day, and many of them are easy to do. Although they won’t all happen every day, you will see what’s needed and then you can think of it as a checklist and tick off as many as you can.
The day isn’t easy, and it may mean you are more tired initially, but it will teach you good lessons, and, over time, the more of these lessons you integrate, the better your sleep will be.
To have the perfect day, we need to start at the beginning; get up when you wake up. No hitting snooze and no laying in bed tossing and turning hoping for a little more shut-eye. For some of my patients who struggle with their sleep, this might mean getting up at 4:30 am, which is the first time they stir. Although this isn’t optimal, on this day, it’s what has to happen.
When you are up, have a few moments where you gently move and connect with your body. This could be a basic yoga routine, some focused breathwork, or some simple bends and twists to wake up the spine. We’re not looking to exercise here (this will come later), but waking up the body is a nourishing way to start the day.
Have a glass of water and start replenishing those cells.
If you have tea or coffee in the morning, that’s okay. We need to be more mindful about caffeine later, but we’re not going to take all the fun out of the day! Having a mindful ritual of making the perfect cup of tea or coffee isn’t a bad thing.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In the first ninety minutes of the sun being up, make sure you get at least thirty minutes of sunlight. Ideally, there should be no glass between you and the sun. Be outside so the unfiltered rays bathe your eyes and skin. This stimulates the hormone cortisol, which creates a cascade of events around your body.
Cortisol is in a dance with the hormone melatonin. In the morning, cortisol is elevated by the sunlight. As the day goes on, it slowly drops until cortisol gets low enough, allowing melatonin to rise. Melatonin is responsible for the feeling of sleepiness later in the day, but for melatonin production to be maximised, you need a big spike of cortisol at the beginning of the day. Get out in that sun for thirty minutes as early as possible.
I like to kill two birds with one stone here and exercise outside. Depending on where you are with your fitness, this could be a brisk walk, a run, yoga, or swinging a kettlebell in the garden. Exercise is an essential part of your day if you are aiming for a good night’s sleep. This can be counterintuitive if you are chronically sleep-deprived. You might feel too tired to exercise, and your mind plays tricks with you. Remember, this day isn’t supposed to be easy, and if this bout of exercise makes you more tired, it’s only one day. The goal here is that your habits lead to a great night’s sleep so that you feel amazing the next day!
Once you have been outside and done some exercise, you can go about your day as usual. We need to bring a few little things in, though; stay hydrated, eat well (no sugary treats!), and move often.
Avoid caffeine after 11 am. Yep, you heard me, 11 am. The half-life of caffeine is about 6 hours, but there can be small amounts in the blood for up to ten hours. Even a small amount is too much for this perfect day, so no caffeine after 11 am.
As the day progresses to late afternoon, avoid media that might upset you. Social media and the news have ways of getting under your skin, and you don’t want anything on your mind as you go to bed later.
Eat your dinner at least three hours before bed. Eating too late requires metabolic energy to digest, and it keeps your heart rate elevated, which reduces sleep efficiency. I can’t always achieve this myself because of work, but when I do, my sleep-tracking Oura Ring says my sleep metrics are so much better than when I eat later.
And lastly, avoid blue light from phones and laptops in the last hour before bed. If you want extra brownie points, even avoid the telly. Reading a book in dim light is best. I use the brand ‘Lumie’ for my bedside light, and they have special bulbs that have the correct frequencies of light for the beginning and end of the day (it’s a light alarm clock, which wakes you up with light. It’s wonderful!).
While you are reading and winding down, make sure you don’t have any microsleeps! You might be tired after getting up when you wake up and doing some exercise in the day, so if you feel yourself drifting off, take yourself up for an early night.
So, there’s a lot to take on there. I certainly wouldn’t expect this to happen every day, but in trying to achieve it once a week, you will learn lessons from it. You may find that some of it is easier and more enjoyable to integrate than you think.