An insomniac friend unwittingly hijacked my sleep recently. I’d never had trouble staying asleep before, but my friend started texting at 2 a.m. to pass the time. I keep my mobile phone on my nightstand, so his texts disturbed me, even with the phone on vibrate–the buzz, accompanied by a lit screen, jolted me awake. Eventually, I activated a do-not-disturb setting: My phone remained blissfully silent and dark when I received unwanted texts between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., and my sleep returned to normal.
Mobile phone alerts, bathroom trips or other interruptions spoil many people’s nightly rest. International guidelines suggest that adults should sleep between seven and nine hours every night, but a 2016 University of Mumbai study found that 61 per cent of Indians sleep for less than seven hours.
Chronic sleep deprivation isn’t just making us groggy; it can harm our health: Research shows that adults who don’t sleep enough are more likely to be sedentary and obese, and are at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression and common illnesses like cold.
“Sleep is so important to physical and mental health,” says Neil Stanley, a sleep researcher in Farnborough, England. “Anything that causes poor sleep on an every-night basis can have associations with risk factors for diabetes, obesity, depression and other problems. You have to look at things that you potentially can do to improve the situation.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to swear off coffee, rely on sleeping pills or buy a fancy mattress to get a good night’s rest. These offbeat tips may help improve the quality of your slumber:
Ditch your smartphone
Studies show that mobile phone use before bedtime impacts sleep and is associated with insomnia. You’re more likely to stay up too late texting, emailing or using social media, then feel drowsy the next day. A study by the Pew Research Centre, Washington DC, found that 90 per cent of 18 to 29 year olds sleep with their phone in or right next to the bed.
“We know from research that using one app leads to another, so you are likely to spend more time on your mobile phone than you have intended to,” says Liese Exelmans, a researcher at the School for Mass Communication Research at the University of Leuven, Belgium. “People over 60 who use their mobile phones at night have a shorter sleep duration.” With age it is especially difficult to fall and stay asleep. “This is because a certain percentage of delta sleep (associated with deep sleep) drops as we age,” says Dr P. P. Bose, senior consultant, department of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, National Heart Institute, New Delhi.
Children should be extra cautious. An Indian study in Sleep Science monitoring sleep patterns among kids aged 9-14 noted that urban children showed greater signs of sleep deprivation, suffered from disturbed sleep and slept fewer hours. They also viewed television before bedtime. Rural children (where co-sleeping with parents was more common) slept longer and better.
Sleep experts recommend against bringing phones into the bedroom, but this is unrealistic for people who use their phones as alarm clocks and who want to feel connected to friends through their devices. “Many people have a feeling that they are disconnected from the real world if their phone is not in the bedroom,” Exelmans says. “It triggers hyper vigilance. You are not completely at rest, because you expect to be contacted sometime during the night. It’s the fear of missing out.”
Donny Soh, 38, of Singapore, experienced this first-hand. When his company launched a new product last year, he’d wake up at all hours to see if anyone had placed online orders. “I would wake up perhaps three to four times per night,” says Soh, who admits that an attitude change helped him reclaim his slumber. “Regardless of how awake I am or how often I check my phone, it doesn’t really affect the sales, and since this realization, sleep got much better.”
Smartphones, laptops and televisions emit blue light that can negatively impact sleep. “It stimulates the brain into thinking that the sun is out–making it tougher to fall asleep,” explains Bose. This discourages the body from producing sleep-inducing melatonin at bedtime. Adding an app with a blue-light filter can help.
You could also minimize interruptions by activating night-time blackout periods, so that no calls, texts, emails or notifications go through. “Keep it on flight mode, dim your screen or place it on silent mode,” Exelmans says. Or remove some apps like Facebook and even work email (create a VIP list if you must). And if you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t turn to a screen. Says Exelmans, “Read a book, not a tablet.”
Put your feet up
Is your nightly slumber interrupted by urgent bathroom visits? You may have a little-known condition called nocturia, which awakens people from a sound sleep two or more times per night with the strong urge to urinate.
“Even in people who fell asleep easily again,” says Dr Philip E. V. Van Kerrebroeck, professor of urology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, “the interruption of sleep disrupts the normal sleep patterns and can have general health consequences: high blood pressure or diabetes. And it can have an impact on the cognitive function.”
Nocturia isn’t a disease; rather, it’s a symptom of conditions like sleep apnea, male prostate problems and lower oestrogen levels in women.
When you put your feet up before bedtime, it pushes the fluids that have accumulated around your ankles back into the bloodstream, allowing you to urinate out the excess fluid while you’re awake. If you don’t elevate your legs until you slip into bed, the excess fluid becomes urine while you sleep, leading to night-time awakenings. How long you’ll need to sit with your feet up depends upon your personal health.
“With varicose veins or oedema, it may take longer for the fluids to return,” Van Kerrebroeck says. “There’s no problem to do it for two hours. For many people, half an hour might be too limited.”
Many people regardless of age can improve nocturia with lifestyle changes, but those who cannot should consult a physician immediately.
Do the downward dog
A recent study from the University of Washington found that older women who did yoga for two months reported considerably less insomnia. “These days, minds are extremely restless and practising yoga (or tai chi) helps calm the nervous system and balance the endocrine system,” says Mumbai-based yoga expert Abhishek Sharma. The gentle motions and poses along with deep breathing reduce stress levels, improve blood flow and keep the body in balance making it easier to sleep.
“Menopausal women who wake up at night could benefit from anulom vilom pranayam (alternate nostril breathing) or the chandra-bhedan pranayam (breathing in through the left nostril and out through the right repeatedly). Increasing the breath flow from the left nostril with such breathing techniques induces relaxation and sleep,” Sharma says.
When New Delhi resident Kalpana S. turned 50 last year, she started waking up in the middle of the night. “I have been practising yoga for the last three years, so when I wake up I do the shavasana, which helps calm my breathing,” she says.
Sharma says sleep-deprived new mums should practise yoga for 5 to 10 minutes during different times of the day to get some rest. Try breathing techniques like ujjayi prayanama and tadasana, manjari asana, and shashank asana, which help stretch the spine and relax the body, he adds. “Diaphragmatic breathing (breathing in all the way until your belly and your diaphragm expand and then exhaling slowly) will help you unwind,” Sharma says.
Meditation techniques like yoga nidra also have a positive impact on those who suffer from chronic insomia, according to a 2017 study in Sleep Science and Practice. “By doing yoga nidra you’re relaxing every part of your body that’s tight,” says Sharma. It’s the tightness that prevents people from relaxing.
Grab dinner with friends
Whether you have an emotionally fulfilling day may influence the soundness of your sleep. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that many people who are unable to sleep through the night feel isolated from family and friends. They take longer to fall asleep, sleep for fewer hours, experience daytime grogginess and are more likely to toss and turn.
Working professionals with little time to socialize and even young mothers tend to feel cut off from the world.
Older adults are particularly susceptible to emotional loneliness. “Later life contains events such as retirement, children leaving home and potential bereavement and widow-hood,” says psychologist and researcher Joanna McHugh of Trinity College Dublin.
Interacting with people meaningfully during the day may help improve sleep quality, although there are no cookie-cutter guidelines. “The link between loneliness and sleep quality is still relatively new and under-researched, so it is hard to make recommendations,” McHugh says.
If you’re not able to socialize often, research suggests that chatting with friends on the phone can provide ample emotional support, but texting and social media won’t cut it. Counselling may be necessary for some. “One can feel lonely despite being highly socially connected,” McHugh says. “It cannot be resolved purely by social contact.”
Is your partner keeping you up at night?
Falling asleep next to a snoring partner can be frustrating and tiring. Research shows that half of night-time sleep disturbances are caused by disruptive bedmates. This can translate to chronic sleep deprivation, depression, heart disease and relationship problems. “People who have poor sleep actually have a higher rate of divorce,” Stanley says. “The next day, you’ll have more arguments, be less likely to make up and have a lack of empathy towards that person.” If you snore, Sharma recommends, kapalbhati, a breathing exercise that helps clear the cranial sinus.
Researchers have confirmed that people get better-quality rest alone, which can positively impact your health and your relationship. “Sleep is the most selfish thing that you can do,” Stanley says. If there’s a late night or an early morning live telecast on TV that cannot be missed, consider sleeping in different rooms, so that your partner is not disturbed.
Want to try separate rooms for a while longer? Broach the subject in a loving, non-judgemental way when it isn’t bedtime. “It really is about saying that sleeping separately isn’t a withdrawal of the self, that you’ll kiss and cuddle and when you say goodnight, rather than turning to the other side of the bed, you’ll go to the other room,” Stanley says. If you do it in a loving way and you remain intimate, it works.
Watch what you ingest
What you eat and drink in the evening can affect your sleep quality. A heavy meal right before bedtime can cause stomach acid to rise into your oesophagus, which we know as heartburn, especially if you consume spicy foods, tomato-based products or chocolate.
“For sound sleep, choose proteins rich in tryptophan (helps in relaxation), such as chicken or milk and yogurt (which also contain melatonin) and combine with carbohydrates like potatoes or rice for better functioning of tryptophan,” says Lovneet Batra, Delhi-based clinical nutritionist. Be wary of your salt intake, she warns, as it delays sleep and reduces deep sleep.
The 2011 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed that people with normal sleep patterns (between seven to eight hours) have greater variety of food in their diets than those who slept less than six hours.
“A varied diet tends to be a marker of good health, as it includes multiple sources of nutrients,” adds Bose. People, he says, who consumed fewer healthy carbohydrates, vitamin C, water, selenium (found in nuts and meat) and lycopene (found in red- and orange-coloured fruits and vegetables), slept less. So load up on nutrients for a good night’s rest.
Alcohol can also cause reflux, but avoid drinking late in the evening. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that you’ll have to pee soon after imbibing. And some drinks are worse than others. “Beer has an effect of stimulating the urine production,” VanKerrebroeck says.
Still hungry during bedtime? Keep a box of dry fruits on your nightstand. “Almonds and walnuts are excellent as they are rich in sleep-promoting nutrients like calcium and magnesium,” says Batra. Another powerful aid is a glass of milk with nutmeg (which has sedating properties).
“Changes in core body temperature are closely related to initiation and maintenance of sleep, and are influenced by various factors such as air temperature,” says Bose. We sleep best when the bedroom is between 18 to 20 degrees Celcius, says global research. Your temperature drops as bedtime approaches, so keep your bedroom cool to help your body adjust.
A bath one hour before bedtime improves quality of sleep. “Studies have noted fewer body movements during the first three hours of sleep after bathing, in both young and elderly subjects,” says Bose.
Other factors like hormonal changes and work habits impact sleep patterns, such as perimenoupausal patients and new mothers who nurse their babies at odd hours. A 2015 study on call centre employees showed stress and anxiety are predictors of abnormal sleep quality because of lack of relaxation facilities. Regular exercise and correct breathing techniques will go a long way and help you catch some Zs.
–with inputs by Ayushi Thapliyal