Battling insomnia? Well, for starters, drink coffee and booze
The best way to fall asleep is to ditch all the rules you've been told you must follow, says clinical expert
When I was doing my PhD in sleep disorders at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London I had to work through the night studying sleep subjects: basically people lying asleep hooked up to various monitors. I would arrive at the hospital around 5pm and leave the next day at 7am. This pattern destroyed my sleep and I developed my first bout of insomnia, an irony which wasn’t lost on me.
I tried very hard to “fix” my broken sleep and did all the things that exhausted, frustrated insomniacs tend to do: I began exercising more, I cut out coffee and so on. But the harder I chased sleep, the faster it ran away, which taught me the first rule of insomnia: don’t get into a tug of war with sleep. My own insomnia formed the basis of what I now teach at my Sleep School. Such as:
You can still drink coffee
As the world becomes more obsessed with getting enough sleep, we’ve created a lot of rules surrounding it. Yet I’ve discovered this creates a fear around not being able to get to sleep. Insomniacs have a natural tendency to take sleep hygiene rules – in other words, clean sleeping – very seriously and impose rigid restrictions upon themselves about how much caffeine they can have and when the cutoff point is. But I believe imposing rules or abstaining completely from caffeine is as bad for sleep as drinking too much. If you love coffee but cut it out, your resentment towards insomnia will build as you create this controlled life that is all about the pursuit of sleep. Which, ironically, stops you sleeping. So forget your rules around caffeine and enjoy a few coffees, if you enjoy it, right up until about 3pm. And if you have one later? Don't worry about it. You can also drink alcohol
The same goes for alcohol. A lot of people come to see me and say they’ve given up their evening wine or G&T since experiencing insomnia. But again, fewer restrictions and a relaxed attitude to sleep are more conducive to good sleep than a rule book. And anyway, it takes the body an hour to metabolise alcohol so as long as you’re not drinking right up until bedtime, a few glasses of wine in the evening aren’t going to make any difference to how you sleep. Sleep inflexibility, however, is. A flexible sleeper is somebody who adheres to a few commonsense rules but doesn’t give them too much thought. An inflexible sleeper is the type of person who cuts out coffee and alcohol, sprays their pillow with lavender, and then wonders what’s wrong with them as they toss and turn in bed with a churning mind.
Don’t rely on sleep tech
There’s been a huge rise in sleep tracking in recent years and even Prince Harry has been photographed wearing a sleep tracker ring. If you don’t have a sleep problem, these trackers can be a great way to increase awareness of sleeping habits and some lighthearted tracking is no bad thing. Although it’s worth noting the accuracy of some of them isn’t brilliant. But if you do have a sleep problem, steer clear of sleep trackers. When they started coming out, I’d see people in our clinic tearing themselves to shreds because they weren’t getting enough sleep, or the right amount of deep sleep. You can see where I’m going with this ... if you’re already prone to obsessing over your sleep, the micro-analysis these trackers provide will whip you into a state of anxiety that will fuel sleeplessness. Let go of your sleep crutches
A lot of people unwittingly have sleep crutches: they like a nice bath around 10pm, they have a favourite pillow, and read a few pages of their book before bed. In theory this is fine, but if you have too many sleep crutches or you’re too attached to them, problems will occur if you go away for work, forget your book and don’t have your favourite pillow. That’s not to say reading in bed is a bad thing because it’s absolutely not: it’s great and it can really help you nod off. However, if somebody tells me they must have a bath every night, or read a book, that’s tipping into being an unhelpful sleep aid. It comes down to balance.
Lastly, accept wakefulness
Another insomnia rule that has been doing the rounds for years is that if you find yourself awake at 3am, wait for 15 minutes and if you’re still awake, get up and potter around or read a book until you’re tired, and then go back to bed. But I believe this encourages clock watching and sleep chasing. Sleep is a natural process that unfolds and at Sleep School we encourage acceptance of wakefulness. Letting go of sleep is about being willing to be awake in bed. If you’re awake and worrying, observe those worries and then let them pass. If you can’t fall back to sleep, just accept you’re lying in a big, comfortable, warm bed. You don’t need to go anywhere, or rush around, and you can just lie there and be awake.
When people are finally OK about being awake, they often find they fall asleep ... Guy Meadows is clinical director of the Sleep School.