You’ve probably heard that you’re meant to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night… and that most people get much less. If you’re one of the many people who isn’t getting enough sleep, you’ve probably noticed the side effects: you’re tired, you can’t concentrate, and you just can’t break the cycle of bad sleep patterns. But there are invisible side effects to poor sleep, too. It has been linked in studies to increased chances of developing heart problems, diabetes, and other serious medical conditions. It turns out they recommend all that sleep for a reason!
If you’re panicking now - don’t. You can totally reset your sleep patterns. This guide will offer some tips on how to get better and more regular sleep.
Practise sleep hygiene
Despite the name, sleep hygiene isn’t about being clean when you go to sleep. It’s actually all about the atmosphere and routine that surrounds your bedtime.
When you’re a student, you’ll often study, eat, relax, and sleep all in the same place. Understandably, this means the line between bed and desk and dining table can blur a bit (haven’t we all had a little snack in bed?) - but strange as it may seem, this can actually have a negative impact on your sleep.
Practicing sleep hygiene helps redraw those lines, even when you don’t have enough space to keep your sleeping and studying physically separate. You want your bed or bedroom to be a place you associate with sleeping, so even if you can’t go somewhere else to study, try to avoid studying or eating in your actual bed.
When it is time to sleep, make sure you have cosy bedding that feels good. And finally, do your best to block out outside noise and lights as you’re going to sleep.
Useful tip: Dark and quiet can be hard to come by in student halls or a flatshare - so try a sleep mask or earplugs if your neighbours just won’t stop partying.
Make time to wind down
Instead of thinking of bedtime as the moment you dive under the covers, imagine it as a whole process. There are steps you can take in the hours before bedtime to make sure your sleep comes easily. For example:
- Avoid caffeine from the afternoon onwards, and don’t use alcohol as a tool to help yourself sleep. A few drinks might help you fall asleep initially, but it can disrupt your sleep later in the night.
- Don’t have a big meal late in the evening, though a light nighttime snack is okay.
- Dim the lights in your room an hour before you go to bed.
- Turn off your computer and put away your phone an hour - okay, or half an hour - before you go to bed. The blue-toned light that screens emit messes with your body’s natural sleep rhythms and makes it harder to fall asleep. Lots of devices now have filters or ‘nighttime mode’ to help with this, but it’s not yet clear how well they work.
- Give yourself half an hour of ‘wind down’ time right before bed. This might mean listening to calming music, doing some exercises or stretches, or reading a book.
Useful tip: If you can’t sleep, get up! Lying sleeplessly in bed breaks your mind’s connection between bed and sleep - so if you’ve been lying awake for 20 minutes, try getting up, doing some relaxation exercises, and then getting back in bed to try again.
Life isn’t always the same every day - especially when you’re a student. However, a totally unpredictable evening schedule can really mess up your sleep patterns.
Your ‘circadian rhythm’ (essentially your internal clock) needs a regular sleep and wake time to keep you functioning at your best. Try and set consistent times for going to bed and waking up. It’ll feel hard at first, but soon your body will readjust, and you may even find yourself waking up without your alarm clock.
If your schedule is really off, try adjusting gradually, shifting your bedtimes and wake-up alarms by just an hour every few days until they get to where they need to be.
Useful tip: There’s a reason that doctors recommend a range of sleep hours rather than a set number: everybody needs a different amount of sleep. It might take some experimenting to figure out how much you need so you can set your routine - but be patient. If you’re sleep deprived, at first, your body will want to sleep for even ten or eleven hours a night before it readjusts to its natural sleep needs.
A good nap is a truly beautiful thing. If you use them wisely, they offer several benefits, including helping you feel more alert, relaxed, and in an overall better mood. However, napping for too long during the day can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
A perfect nap should be really short: one study found the ideal nap length was actually just ten to fifteen minutes! A super quick nap like that gives you a burst of energy while keeping you from entering a deeper phase of sleep, which will leave you waking up groggy and sometimes even more tired than before. You also don’t want to nap later than around 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
If you find yourself longing for longer, later, or more frequent naps, you’re probably still just not getting enough sleep at night.
Useful tip: You might want to try meditating instead of napping; it actually has many of the same great benefits and is less disruptive for your night-time sleep cycle! Check out our guide An introduction to Mindfulness to learn more.
One of the best ways to fall asleep is to be truly tired when you go to bed. Even if you’ve worked hard all day, studies have found that regular exercise improves sleep for most people. So aside from all the other health benefits of working out, it’ll also help you when you go to bed!
Studies have found benefits from as little as a single ten-minute walk during the day. If you’re planning more intense aerobic exercise that really gets your heart pumping, try and do it at least three hours before bed - that kind of workout actually gives you more energy, so it won’t help you sleep. If you’re planning a nighttime workout, go for yoga or other stretching-based exercise routines.
Useful tip: Check out our guide An introduction to yoga and pilates to learn how to get started with some stretching-based exercise. Lots of online yoga instructors offer free videos on YouTube specifically designed to help you get ready to go to bed!
Good stuff from elsewhere
The SleepCycle app
Why lack of sleep is bad for your health
Sleep hygiene tips from the Sleep Foundation