March 19th marks the 14th annual World Sleep Day, a global call to action about the importance of healthy sleep. Created by the World Sleep Society (WSS), it’s a day for researchers, health professionals, and people to come together in recognition of the important impact that sleep has on our health, and the many ways that sleep problems can affect our health and happiness.
This year, the focus of World Sleep Day is “Regular Sleep, Healthy Future”.
Sleep has an affect on many of our bodies’ physiological systems, such as memory consolidation, control of inflammation, regulation of hormones, our cardiovascular system, and many other important functions. So, it should come as no surprise that insufficient or irregular sleep and poor sleep quality can lead to overall health problems. Reduced sleep duration has been shown to cause impairments in cognitive and executive function, while poor sleep quality has been associated with poor mental health.
In helping to spread the message on World Health Day, we hope to help more and more people get regular, quality sleep every night, leading to a better, healthy future, all around the world.
Your brain is extremely sophisticated, working hard to regulate all your internal bodily systems and keep you alive and healthy.
So how does it regulate sleep? There are two processes that regulate the timing and length of sleep: process C (circadian regulation) and process S (homeostatic control).
Process C — Circadian regulation
You may know it as your internal clock, the circadian process regulates and controls the 24 hour sleep-wake cycle through the influence of light and melatonin. Melatonin, often called the sleep hormone, is a hormone released in the absence of light. As the sun goes down and the lights go off, you’re surrounded by darkness, which signals to your brain that daytime is over and it’s time to sleep. Your brain releases melatonin, which promotes sleep.
As the lights come on or the sun comes up in the morning, the light signals to your brain that it is daytime. Melatonin production stops, and we wake up.
Thanks to bright lights and computer, phone, and TV screens, our environment and behaviour can override the natural signals and cycles of circadian regulation and melatonin production.
Process S — Homeostatic control
Homeostatic control refers to a process based on the amount of time that we’ve spent awake before going to sleep again. During the hours that we’re awake, our brains gradually produce and accumulate substances that promote sleep. When you actually go to sleep, these substances are depleted, allowing you to feel alert again after a sufficient amount of sleep.
This process can be disrupted when you take a nap during the day. A nap can deplete the homeostatic substances and reduce the amount of time your brain is able to build those substances up again before you go to bed in the evening, making it much harder for you to get to sleep.
For optimal sleep, we need to synchronise our sleep and wake times with our internal clock and our sleep propensity, finding the perfect balance between process S and process C.
Many people understand the benefits that good, regular sleep can have on their health, yet struggle to consistently get the quality sleep they need each night. There are plenty of things you can try to help yourself develop better sleep habits and sleep hygiene.
We’ve expanded below on the 10 tips that the World Sleep Society recommends to get healthy, regular sleep.
Set bedtimes are your best friend
Establish a fixed bedtime and awakening time and stick to it. Rising at the same time each day is essential to good sleep. That means waking up early on weekends too. We know that sounds tough, but trust the process!
If you must nap, make it quick!
If you nap during the day, don’t exceed 45 minutes. Ideally, you’d avoid napping during the day, but if you must, set a timer for 45 minutes or less and force yourself to get up. Napping too long during the day depletes your brain of the sleep-promoting substances that build up while you’re awake, making it harder to fall asleep again at night time.
Ditch the nightcap (and the cigarettes)
Avoid excessive alcohol, and stop drinking at least 4 hours before bedtime. If you’re a smoker, try to cut back and do not smoke before bed. Nicotine is a stimulant that may seem relaxing in the moment, but actually sends your brain the message to be alert. Technically a depressant, alcohol can sometimes help you fall asleep, but alcohol consumption too close to bedtime can make it much harder for you to stay asleep and get the good quality sleep.
Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime. This includes coffee, tea, and many soft drinks, but make sure to watch out for food as well. Chocolate contains caffeine, so if you’re going to indulge, make sure to do it earlier rather than later.
Avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods
Eating any foods that sit in your stomach or upset your gut too close to bedtime are going to make it much harder for you to get regular, healthy sleep. Stop eating any spicy, sugary, and heavy foods at least 4 hours before bedtime to give yourself a better chance at a restful sleep.
Sweat it out early
Regular exercise is fantastic for regular sleep. Get that heart rate up each day, just make sure not to do it right before bed, or you’ll send your body and your brain the wrong message.
Make your bed cosy and comfy
When it comes time to hit the hay, you want to really look forward to it, so make it your perfect place. Choose good quality bedding, including a supportive mattress and cosy duvet. Getting the right pillow for your individual sleeping style is also crucial. There are pillows available not just for side sleepers, back sleepers, but also for people who prefer that cool, fresh flipped-pillow feeling. Treat yourself to a lovely duvet cover and sheet set too, and make sure to regularly wash your covers as well, and make your bed in the morning so that it’s much more inviting when the evening rolls around.
Get the right temperature and airflow
Make sure your bedding provides the right balance of warmth and breathability. Some people run hotter or cooler than others, preferring different levels of warmth for the perfect sleep. If you find yourself tossing and turning and hanging one leg out of the bed to cool down, it could be time to turn the heating down or get a new, cooler duvet. Adequate room ventilation is also key; opening the windows for a few minutes before bed can make a world of difference.
Block out distractions
Do what you can to block distracting noises and light. A sleep mask and earplugs can be difficult to get used to at first, but can make all the difference when it comes to shutting out any distractions.
Bed is for sleep (and sex) only!
Don’t bring your phone or laptop to bed. You need to train your brain to associate bed with relaxing, so if you start doing work or playing phone games in bed, you’re working against yourself.
Each year, World Sleep Day events take place all around the world, with sleep experts and sleep lovers alike taking part in workshops, educational talks, webinars, and other special events.
What makes 2021 particularly special is that many of the World Sleep Day events are being held online, making them much more accessible to a wider audience. In fact, there may not be any need to get out of bed to attend one—just kidding, you know we don’t condone screen time in bed!
If you’re interested in participating in a World Sleep Day event, check out the list of global and national events here.
You can also use the hashtag #WorldSleepDay on social media to share what you’re doing or something you’ve learnt on World Sleep Day. You might like to share a photo of your new, cosy, comfy bedding, or let people know what exercise you’re doing that day to help improve your sleep at night.
If you’re someone who struggles with getting regular sleep, World Sleep Day is a fantastic opportunity for you to get started with some of the tips and tricks listed above. You never know, maybe World Sleep Day will bring you the best sleep you’ve ever had!