Analysis: we know how important sleep is for our health and well-being so here are some simple ways to improve the quality of that sleep

In mental health research, the literature on sleep is vast. Studies have found that quality and quantity of sleep can impact our mood, anxiety, our physical feelings and, of course, our health. With mood, this works both ways. Low mood can impair sleep, but lack of sleep can also influence mood problems. Everything seems worse when we don't get enough sleep.

So how much sleep do we need? Research shows that 7 to 9 hours are optimal, but everyone is different. Most people usually feel that they need around 8 hours, whereas others can cope with less, or need more. As we get older, we can often need less sleep. This is why those teenagers are hard to get out of bed, as their brains are still developing, and more sleep is needed.

We go through different stages of sleep, and you can even track this on a smart watch if you are interested. We need different types of sleep for different reasons. Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM), usually occurs later at night and is important for storing memories, for our mood, and we also dream vividly during this stage.

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The RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on sleep: from body clocks and shift work to mental health and teenagers sleeping all day, just how can we have proper downtime in an always on world? With Samantha Dockery from UCC, and Giles Warrington from UL

We don’t actually stay in a state of deep sleep for long at night. Deep sleep is key for physical recovery, memory and learning. When we get enough deep sleep, we often feel refreshed. Lighter sleep is also very important, as it promotes mental and physical repair. You can see how each stage of sleep has a benefit, so if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you aren’t going through these stages and giving your body time to strengthen, rest and recover from a busy day.

So what can you do if you find sleeping difficult? Simple things can make a huge difference.

The hour before

The hour before is the most important, and has the biggest impact on your night’s sleep. Keeping a diary of this and monitoring your sleep quality each night for a week can help you work this out, and what works best for you.

In that hour before bed, are you staring at your phone? Watching TV or on your laptop or iPad? Unfortunately, these things do not help us sleep as the light wakes us up and stimulates our brain. Instead, before bed have a hot bath. Read a book.

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From RTÉ Lifestyle, The Skin Nerd on the importance of sleep

Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol

Ensure you avoid caffeine and nicotine after 6pm, as it can stay in your blood system for many hours and impact your sleep. Avoid alcohol: it can help you sleep, but it is not a good quality sleep, and you are not going through the stages mentioned above. Warm milk and herbal teas can be used as an alternative. Exercise is also good for sleep, but it can keep your body awake if done four hours before bed. If you do exercise, try doing it a bit earlier in the day, if possible. Of course, some people can do these things and still sleep well, but if your sleep is poor, some of these things could be impacting it.

Sleeping environment

Your sleeping environment is so important. Your bed should be for sleeping. It should be a nice, dark, comfortable space that you feel relaxed in. Avoid doing work in bed, or things that are not associated with enjoyment and relaxation. Also, try not to nap for more than 20 minutes during the day, as any more than this can disrupt your sleep.

During the night, if you are awake for more than 20 minutes, you should get up. Go to a different room, so that your bed is not associated with "tossing and turning". Sit in the dark and try to relax. You can read, have a warm hot drink (no caffeine!) or do something that you find relaxing. Do not go to bed until you feel tired. Bed should not be a symbol of worry, so find a worry chair and go there instead.


It is also important to try to go to bed and get up at the same time everyday. Even if you have not slept well all night, get up and try to force your body into a routine. Using the same technique, if you are awake during the night, get up and go back to bed when tired, but still stick to the same bedtime and morning times in between.

This is called "sleep restriction", which is a way of resetting your body clock and getting back into a good routine of sleep. For example, start with six hours, such as midnight to 6am. Keep this routine. Get up at 6am even if you are tired, try not to nap during the day, and eventually your body will get used to it. When things improve, increase it by 30mins, and keep doing this until you get the 7 to 9 hours sleep you need

Don't clock watch!

When we think too much about getting to sleep, or how long we have to sleep, this often makes it harder.  It is also important to try not to clock watch and overthink. Effective techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be used to improve this, by challenging negative expectations and managing worry. Meditation and alternative treatments like reflexology can also benefit your sleep. Of course, sleep medication is another option if sleep has really become a problem, but this is something that should be spoken about carefully with your GP, to weigh up the pros and cons. Perhaps from this article, you will learn something simple to try first, that you may not have thought of doing before!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ