Better Sleep – Part 3

?????nBetter Sleep – Part 3

Over the last two weeks we’ve investigated the importance of small changes to our lifestyles and environments to improve our sleep. This week, we will consider the importance of timing.

Have you ever wondered how people coped before the alarm clock was invented? Did they just get up when they felt like it? Was there no such thing as a nine to five? Or if there was, did ‘night owls’ consistently lose their jobs because the where always late? If these questions have ever kept you awake at night, then prepare yourself for a good night sleep…

The need to wake at a certain time is not a new thing. Native American tribes would drink large volumes of water the night before they went into battle, thus using the bladder as a natural alarm clock. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato would use a water clock (a device that uses the flow of liquid to measure the passing of time) to wake himself, ready for his lecturing sessions. The chimes of a church bell have used as a communal alarm clock throughout Europe and the world. Not forgetting of course, the humble cockerel whose call has drawn many from slumber, ready to work the farms and fields on which they dwell.

The alarm clock then is an invention on necessity. We must wake by a certain time in order to start the tasks of our day (work, social engagements, beating the bank holiday traffic, etc.) and as we are incapable of waking when we would like, we must then force wakefulness into our mornings with mechanical intervention… Or do we?

The key to understanding timing, for the purpose of sleep improvement, lies is what is called ‘circadian rhythms’ (our internal body clock). By our nature we are designed to wake and sleep according to the rising and setting of the sun. Despite how inappropriate this method is for our modern lifestyles, we are still at the whim of this evolutionary legacy. As such, we must take control of our sleep cycles to maximise the quality of our sleep. And we do this with routine and light control.


We have spoken, albeit briefly, about the effects of light on our sleep cycles in Part 1 and Part 2. To summarise with the inclusion of circadian rhythms then – How awake we feel in the morning and tired at night is governed by, in part, by our internal body clock (circadian rhythms) which is in turn influenced by how much sun light we are exposed to and when. Put simply, if we are exposed to too much sunlight (or particular artificial lights) at night, then or body clock is ‘thrown out whack’ (a technical term – I’m sure) and begins to believe that it’s still daytime.

The reverse problem is also true, inasmuch as artificial lighting may trick us into thinking we should stay up later, it’s not quite strong enough to convince us we need to be awake in the morning.

So what’s to be done with the lighting problem?

Firstly, as mentioned in previous articles, remove all electronic screens from your bedtime routine. The particular light frequency they emit cause the suppression of the sleep hormone melatonin thus interfering with our natural “Gosh I feel sleepy” mechanism.

*Note. Following last weeks article about electronic devices, a former client emailed and suggested to use of f.lux, which alters the colouration of electronic screens to combat such negative affect. I haven’t used it, but I will. It’s available on PC and I-phone/I-pad. There’s also an android equivalent called Twilight.

Secondly, the use of light therapy systems can aid in waking you up. In the same way electronic screens can keep you awake, a SAD light box (for aiding seasonal affective disorder) can trigger the “My word, I’m so awake” feelings. Used for 15 minutes in the morning just after you rise, it can be a great replacement for coffee. Models vary in price and quality, so do you research.


Taking control of how much artificial light you encounter, or more appropriately when you encounter it will help you body’s natural timing mechanism to realign your sleep cycles to your life. For a stronger change, we must return to our old friend, the alarm clock.

To begin with an alarm clock is a valuable ally in improving your sleep, as it can help with the first step of a healthy morning routine; waking up at the same time every day (I know, no more lie ins but its worth it). Waking at the same time every always you to develop a sleep/wake routine that will eventually lead to you not needing an alarm clock at all. This idea also extends to the time you go to sleep.

Secondly, no more snooze (I know… trust me though, it’s worth it). Every time you wake, you begin a cycle in your body that helps you become alert to the day. If you pop back to sleep, you are simply interrupting this cycle and replacing it with a “I’m going to sleep” cycle, which in turn will be interrupted by the alarm again. Interrupting these cycles can cause you to feel worse than just waking up. Those extra 5 minutes may feel good at the time but are, in the long run, just not worth it.

Sleep debt

As an aside, there is furious a debate, amongst sleep experts surrounding the idea of sleep debt. The idea is question is this. If you have a bad night sleep one night, can you make up the sleep you lost the following night? In my experience, the answer is no… but there is mounting evidence that an afternoon nap (always a multiple of 90 minutes) is hugely beneficial and doesn’t interfere with your natural sleep cycle (once you’ve developed it).

So there you have it. Good luck in your sleep adventures and look out next week for my article on why we dream.

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