The theme for this year’s World Sleep Day is ‘quality sleep, sound mind, happy world’. Now, more so than ever, it might feel like fatigue is weighing you down. Good quality sleep is a key building block in maintaining and improving our physical, mental, and emotional state. It is foundational to human health.
So, what can you do to improve your quality of sleep, boost your mood, and enhance interactions with those around you? Firstly, ask yourself the obvious question:
Am I getting enough sleep?
We have all probably asked ourselves this whilst reaching for a coffee on a difficult Monday morning. The answer could well be no! Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, but research suggests that many of us are not getting the sleep we need. A survey of more than 400,000 adults in the US found that more than one-third of Americans between 18-60 years sleep less than 7 hours per night1.
There are many reasons you might be obtaining less sleep than you need. However, if you can increase the amount of sleep that you get, there is the potential to reap the benefits for our health, our safety at work and whilst driving, and our performance.
What is good quality sleep and how can I make sure I’m getting it?
As well as getting enough sleep, we need to think about the quality of that sleep. Good quality sleep provides the opportunity for us to benefit from all the stages of sleep, providing both mental and physical restoration. Following a good night’s rest, we can feel more energised, positive and, ready for the day’s challenges. Adults with good sleep quality spend at least 85% of the time they are in bed, sleeping. In other words, if you spend 8.5h in bed each night, ideally at least 7.25h of that would be spent asleep, with the time taken to fall asleep and any awakenings during the night lasting less than 1.25h in total.
Are there other factors that show I am getting good sleep?
Whilst sleep duration and sleep quality are two key factors, and the ones that we often focus on, we can think about our ‘sleep health’ more holistically. The RU SATED2 model of sleep health outlines 6 key areas to focus on, both to identify how good our overall sleep health is, and where potential improvements good be made.
The 6 areas of sleep health are:
- Regularity: Are you waking up and falling asleep at the same time every day?
- Satisfaction: Are you satisfied with your sleep?
- Alertness: Can you stay awake all day without dozing?
- Timing: Is your sleep in-sync with the day and night cycle?
- Efficiency: Can you fall asleep quickly and easily, and stay asleep?
- Duration: Are you getting as much sleep as you need each day?
So, what specific strategies can we use to improve our sleep quality and overall sleep health? There is no quick fix unfortunately, but simple lifestyle and habit changes can lead to improved sleep.
Get in a routine
Keep to a consistent wake-up time and get up when your alarm goes off; the snooze button is not your friend! Keep to a regular bedtime; set your bedtime to ensure you can obtain your sleep need – if you know you need seven hours of sleep a night, aim for at least seven hours and 30 minutes in bed to minimise the chances of sleep loss. We find it more difficult to sleep in a single block as we get older and having a set routine may help minimise this issue. Your regular routine should be on both working and non-working days – a weekend lie-in can be tempting but will not help your sleep in the long run. If you are relying on a lie-in at the weekend to catch up on sleep, this is a sign you are not getting enough sleep during the week, addressing this will be more effective in the long-run.
Organs, such as the liver and the gut, are influenced by the body clock in the brain and they also have their own peripheral clocks. While the body clock responds to light and dark, the peripheral clocks respond to mealtimes. Darkness and fasting tell the body it’s time to sleep, and light and eating tell the body it is time to be active.
After the period of fasting that occurs at night when we are asleep, the timing of both the first ray of sunlight and the first bite are just as important in setting the timing of the peripheral clocks. To keep all of your clocks in sync, try to keep your mealtimes regular and limit your eating window to 12 hours. If you have your first cup of tea or breakfast at 7 am, try not to eat after 7 pm.
For your final meal of the day, try to include protein and complex carbohydrates to help you to feel full and promote sleep. Try to leave 3 to 4 hours between your last bite and going to bed for better digestion and sleep.
Be more active
Outdoor exercise has the dual benefit of giving you your daily ‘dose’ of bright light outdoors and the benefits of physical activity. Exercise helps people fall asleep more quickly, improves sleep quality and reduces levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms. In a study of 2,600 men and women, ages 18-85, it was found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week, which is the national guideline (USA), provided a 65% improvement in sleep quality. Moreover, the participants reported feeling less sleepy during the day, compared to those with less physical activity3. However, exercising at the wrong time can have the opposite effect, so you should not exercise vigorously two hours before bedtime, it may mean you stay awake for longer. Gentle exercise, such as light yoga or stretching done before bed can have benefit though.
Hopefully this article has helped you think about the quantity and quality of sleep you regularly obtain and how this compares to the recommended duration and quality of sleep to support good health. If you aren’t happy with your sleep, try not to get anxious or make sudden large changes, as this can inadvertently cause sleep disruption. Instead, try some of the tips above, or see if you can identify why you are not happy with your sleep, the causes of any poor sleep, and try to address them one at a time.
If you want more information on habits we can follow to support good sleep, the following information sheets from Baines Simmons may be useful:
‘How to adjust my daily routines to improve sleep’
‘How to adjust my beliefs and thoughts about sleep’
Baines Simmons Fatigue Risk Management specialises in providing innovative and effective fatigue risk management solutions, helping organisations across various sectors of the aviation industry, as well as other safety-critical operating environments, such as the Oil & Gas and Mining sectors.
- Liu Y, Wheaton AG, Chapman DP, Cunningham TJ, Lu, H, Croft, J (2014). Prevalence of healthy sleep duration among adults — United States, 2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report; 65:137-141
- Buysse, D. J. (2014). Sleep health: Can we define it? Does it matter? Sleep, 37(1), 9-17
- Loprinzi, P. D., & Cardinal, B. J. (2011). Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep, NHANES 2005–2006. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 4(2), 65-69.
About the author
Dr Cristina Ruscitto is a Senior Researcher at Baines Simmons. She specialises in the psycho-behavioural predictors of jet lag and fatigue in the aviation sector. Her role involves fatigue management training, the development of fatigue surveys and survey analysis, the scientific study of roster patterns to quantify fatigue risk as well as writing evidence-based recommendations to improve sleep in different operational settings. Cristina is a Chartered member of the British Psychological Society and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.