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Ultimate sleep hack: I spent a month trying every type of advice

No coffee after 2pm, no lie-ins and no phones in the bedroom. One woman followed all the rules to find out what really works

Kate Leaver

Hands up if you’re getting good sleep? Deep, restorative rest where you’re punching out seven to nine hours of uninterrupted zzz’s each night. Anyone?

Nope, me neither.

In 2017, the Sleep Council's The Great British Bedtime Report discovered that 30% of us "get a poor sleep most nights" and 74% of Brits get less than seven hours of shut-eye a night, with 12% getting less than five hours. It's no wonder that leading sleep scientist Matthew Walker says we're struggling with a “global sleep loss epidemic".

If we’re getting six hours or less a night, we’re technically “under-slept”, says Walker, who believes that sleep deprivation is shortening our lives.

I’ve had trouble sleeping for 17 years. I'm a diagnosed insomniac. Staring at ceilings and out of windows for hours on end is my nightly norm, and being tired for nearly two decades affects everything from how I work to what I eat. I’ve seen countless GPs and sleep doctors, taken sleeping pills and invested in a high-quality mattress. I've tried white noise, relaxation apps and binge-read what feels like every book about sleep. I’m also forever Googling sleep hacks: those little tweaks to our lifestyles that promise better snoozing – but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never really committed to any of them.

And that is apparently where the solution could lie. Walker tells me that making certain changes to our night-time lives can make us more productive, creative and emotionally resilient. I set myself a challenge: find the most consistently recommended sleep hacks and trial them simultaneously for one month.

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As well as Matthew Walker, I spoke to Dr Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who calls himself 'The Sleep Doctor', and Christine Hansen, a holistic sleep expert. I cross-referenced their advice and these were the five changes they thought could make the biggest difference to my sleep – if I stuck to them: 

1. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day (farewell sweet Sunday lie-in)

2. No caffeine after 2pm (Is that even possible?)

3. No electronic devices in the bedroom (I imagine this must be what it's like if you have a baby and move him/her to a separate room for the first time)

4. No food within two hours of bedtime (note to self: larger portions needed at dinner)

5. If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep, go to another room and do an activity 

Here's how it all went down… 

WEEK ONE

I set an alarm for 8.30am, have my coffee almost before my eyes are fully open, eat my boiled eggs and toast, do Pilates and get to my desk for 10am. I pledge to forgo my usual 3pm coffee.

I’ve decided 10.30pm will be my bedtime. "Of all the sleep tips to stick to, the most important one is a sleep schedule,” Dr Breus had told me. “When sleep has a regular rhythm, your biological clock will be in sync, and all your other bodily functions will go smoother, including sleep.” I set a reminder on my phone so it chimes half an hour before, so I know when to hit ‘stop’ on an episode of The Good Place and get my PJs on.

I usually eat around 7.30pm, so giving myself two food-free hours before bed should be easy. Hansen says: "Everyone is going to be different, but if you're having trouble sleeping, I'd suggest having dinner by 7.30pm". 

My boyfriend and I leave our phones on the landing outside our bedroom, like they’ve been punished. At first, I actually have separation anxiety. But Walker and Dr Breus explain that the light in our phones discourages melatonin production, which is the hormone that helps you sleep.

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I am also unreasonably upset to kiss my weekend lie-in goodbye. But the most difficult tip to get used to is moving to another room when I can’t sleep - which is every night this week. It’s cold and I’m so used to just lying there, it’s a real effort to drag myself out of bed. It does break up the monotony of insomnia, though. I follow Walker's advice: "If you've been awake 20 minutes, get up and go to another room and in dim light, read a book or meditate, don't open laptops or emails, and only when you feel sleepy again should you return to bed. It’s about helping the brain to relearn the association that bed is somewhere to sleep rather than be awake."

I do everything I’m told, but my sleep does not improve. Apparently these changes take time to work. Yawn.

WEEK TWO

At the start of this week I stay out late with a friend, missing my bedtime curfew. I have two and a half glasses of wine but no dinner. I sleep fitfully, as you do when the room is spinning. Walker crushes my fun with some science: "Alcohol is probably the most misunderstood of all chemicals we use for sleep. People often say you can have a night cap and fall asleep more quickly – but alcohol is a sedative, and sedation doesn't give you the benefits of natural sleep.” I feel he is right on this one: I never sleep well on nights I drink alcohol.

For the rest of the week, I stick to my bedtime and wake time, eat dinner early, slay my pre-2pm coffee rule, banish my phone from the room and get up if I’m lying awake. On day 12, I have a memorably good night’s sleep, dreaming that I am cast in a musical directed by Harry Styles, and wake up feeling chirpy and even, shockingly, in the mood for some exercise (usually I have to blackmail myself into it). In a fit of optimistic cheer, I declare this whole challenge a triumph. And then almost immediately feel an impulse to rebel against it and give the whole thing up.

WEEK THREE

The ‘good’ sleep lasts three nights. Three nights banish without creeping out of the bedroom in the middle of the night. I wake feeling energised and calm. But then, the insomnia creeps back inexplicably, as it often does. My sleep issues are related to on-going bouts of depression and my mood is a bit down, which is probably affecting my ability to nod off. 

Insomnia is lonely. Listening to my boyfriend sleep (and sometimes sleep-talk about cheese) can make it feel like I’m the only person awake on the planet. It’s also boring, but forcing myself out of bed to do something partially solves that. I am getting through books faster than usual and distracting myself until I feel like I could sleep again feels like it works.

Rebecca hendin bbc3 kate leaver sleep hacks article illustration 3BBCThree

Skipping the afternoon coffee means there’s zero caffeine in my body by nightfall – sometimes I feel like I could nap at 6pm. I have three more nights this week where I don't have to get out of bed. I wake momentarily in the night but fall asleep again easily. By day, I genuinely feel more present, like I've lifted a fog, and I feel physically energised. I celebrate with an accidentally-on-purpose lie-in on the Saturday. It was lovely and I don't think it affected my overall capacity to sleep, though I know sleep expert Matthew Walker would scold me for it; "We actually call sleeping in social jetlag," he says. "And you’re dragging your body-clock, your 24-hour 'circadian rhythm', back and forwards in time on a weekly basis. That’s harmful to your health."

WEEK FOUR

I go to bed at midnight one night after a great all-women comedy night, but, on the whole, I am being so compliant with my challenge that I develop a smugness as bedtime approaches this week, even though I haven’t fully solved my insomnia. And I have to confess, my phone creeps in to the bedroom a couple of times. I’ve got a big work deadline and am struggling to tear my focus away from it. But I notice the difference when it’s there: when I wake up in the night, I feel Twitter, Instagram and the Polygon puzzle calling me from the corner of the room, which hasn’t happened these past three weeks. It takes extreme self-restraint not to pick it up. Instead, I exile myself to the living room and read my paperback book until my eyes get dry.

I notice that I’m feeling less scared of bedtime. When you're an insomniac, you dread the fall of night and the struggle to get enough sleep to function the next day. For the first time in a long time, I remember what ‘good’ sleep actually feels like.

THE VERDICT

Here’s the thing: you can’t solve insomnia in a month. I didn’t carry out the challenge flawlessly (I’m human), but I will say this: having a routine that’s as consistent as possible does help.

Setting a bedtime and a wake time encourages you to prioritise your sleep and make sensible decisions to support it. That’s what it comes down to: proactively and conscientiously making sleep an integral part of your routine, just like cleaning your teeth, taking a shower and getting three meals a day.  

Eating early was easy for me because I am a pensioner at heart and love an early mealtime. Having my phone outside the bedroom was not because I am frighteningly attached to it. But I’m going to stick with it. I’m also going to stick with getting up in the night when I can’t sleep – even though it’s difficult (especially on these freezing nights).

One thing I might get less strict about? I don’t think I can resist the occasional lie in.

This article was originally published on 12 March 2018

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