12 Ways to get better sleep, and why it matters

Sleep is underrated.

As a teenager and young adult, you may have thought the exact opposite. Most of us have pulled all-nighters before an exam or deadline, or gone through phases of partying all night then going in to a morning lecture or weekend job after just a few hours of sleep.

But, I wish I’d known all the facts about sleep science then that I’ve recently picked up from Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep. I might have done things differently

Sleep and learning

It seems our circadian rhythms are different as adolescents, so it was normal that we wanted to go to bed a bit later and then wake up later too (much to our parents’ irritation). Professor Walker – a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science – emphasises how very early school times affect the learning capabilities of our kids.

Memories are stored during deep sleep, or specifically during NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. So, having a short night just before an exam or after a day of studying will mean you remember less of what you’ve learnt.

Drinking alcohol has a similar effect, as it also reduces deep sleep. Yet many of us think it does the opposite. If you think back to a night when you’d been drinking, you’ll probably remember waking up more regularly through the night and having more vivid dreams. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it won’t help you sleep more soundly.

Sleep and anxiety

Our dreaming state, REM sleep (rapid eye movement – literally what our eyes are doing in this state), is when our brain refines memories and works through emotions. Not having enough of it can therefore influence things like anxiety.

Sleep and inflammation

You’ve probably noticed that when you’ve had a few days of reduced sleep, you’re more likely to feel bloated or have more aches and pains. When we sleep, the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our autonomous nervous system related to resting and digesting) is more active. This supports our body in restoring and repairing itself, aiding with things such as food digestion and cell recovery.

Having disturbed sleep or too little sleep stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for all the processes relating to ‘fight or flight’) instead. This could explain how (chronic) inflammatory problems can be made worse by a (chronic) lack of sleep.

We all know that sleep is important, but many people aren’t aware of the detrimental effects a chronic lack of sleep can have, and how easy it is to build up that chronic deficiency. This is especially true in a big city like London where many hold corporate jobs. Based on my own experience, many people working in these high-stress jobs need our services as physiotherapists, and I think poor sleep has a big role to play in this.

Of course, there are other factors influencing the need to see a physio. High stress levels and poor posture are just two of them. But I’m starting to appreciate the importance of the question: ‘How is the quality and quantity of your sleep?’ in my initial assessment of any patient. Quite often either one or the other, or both, is suboptimal. And often patients aren’t aware that their sleep is poor.

If everyone could eat healthily, not work too hard (stress), exercise and sleep well. I’m sure the number of patients with lower back pain, or neck and shoulder pain would dramatically decrease. And people would recovery more quickly from traumatic injuries. Unfortunately, that would mean that we (the physios) might run out of work!

So, how much sleep should you have?

The recommended daily dosage of sleep is 7-9 hours, and the quality of that sleep refers to the amount of NREM vs REM sleep you have within cycles, and whether or not these cycles have been disturbed.

How can you improve the quality of your sleep?

In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker suggests the following ways to improve your quality of sleep:

  1. Stick to a sleep schedule and have a regular bedtime
  2. Don’t exercise too late in the day
  3. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine – especially if you’re a slow processor of caffeine
  4. Avoid alcohol before bed
  5. Avoid big meals or drinking too much late at night
  6. Avoid medicine that may affect sleep (if possible)
  7. Don’t take naps after 3pm
  8. Do something relaxing to wind down before bed
  9. Have a hot bath before bed
  10. Create a good sleep environment. It should be dark, cool (our body temperate reduces when we sleep, so sleeping in a cool room will help you fall asleep faster) and gadget free
  11. Get out in the sun during the day and turn down lighting in the evening (Exposure to sunlight helps regulate your circadian rhythm)
  12. If you’re worried about something and can’t fall asleep, get up and do something until you feel sleepy. (Anxiety can make it harder to fall asleep.)

I recommend reading the book, but you can also watch the podcast in which the author discusses the main points.


    Walker M. Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018

    Mullington J, Simpson N, Meier-Ewert H, Haack M. Sleep loss and inflammation. Best practice & research: clinical endocrinology & metabolism. 2010 Oct; 24(5): 775-784. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.beem. 2010.08.014

    Irwin M, Olmstead R, Carroll J. Sleep disturbance, sleep duration, and inflammation: A systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies and experimental sleep deprivation. Biological Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 1; 80(1): 40-52. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych. 2015.05.014.