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Six ways to improve your sleep

SLEEPLESS NIGHTS: Studies indicate that people of African descent are less likely to get a good night's sleep

WE ALL know that sleep is important to our wellbeing, but many of us still don’t get as much as we need. In fact, about 30% of the British population suffers from insomnia or another type of sleep problem.

This may be particularly important for black people, as studies have found that black people sleep for shorter periods than their white counterparts and have a poorer overall quality of sleep. While we’re asleep, we go through different stages of it and research has also shown that black people spend less time in the restorative ‘slow wave’ sleep stage.

These differences have been called ‘black-white sleep gap’ and academics have put forward a number of possible explanations. ‘Stress’ factors appear to be important, linked to the experience of racism and discrimination, and the fact that we’re more likely to live in tougher economic situations, and in areas that are less safe and secure. These factors may lead to increased levels of stress for black people, and a reduction in the length and quality of sleep.

We’ve all experienced poor sleep at times of stress or worry, so if people are stressed throughout the day, live in difficult and insecure situations and spend their days ruminating on their problems, then it makes sense that it would be more difficult to relax and turn off at night and get a good night’s sleep.

This might not explain the whole picture though – academics have also argued that cultural and genetic differences may explain part of the sleep gap.

Much of the research evidence has focused on the United States and data from African-Americans, so we’re not sure whether the sleep gap also occurs in the UK or other countries. But, if racism, discrimination and economic insecurity can have a negative impact on sleep in African-Americans, it may well be the same for black Britons.

Below I’ve outlined six ways that you can go about improving your sleep. If you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night, or wake up not feeling refreshed, try some or all of these. Come on – let’s close that sleep gap!

1. Easy on the caffeine

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, and it takes about four hours for the amount of caffeine in your bloodstream to reduce by half. This means that if you’re consuming a lot of caffeine, perhaps via tea and coffee throughout the day and especially in the afternoon and evening, a significant amount may still be present in your body when you go to sleep. If you’re having problems falling asleep at night, try significantly reducing your caffeine intake and not consuming any after about 1pm.

2. Just relax

Stress and tension are the enemies of a good night’s sleep. Feeling stressed at bedtime can result in sleep problems, but so can the cumulative build-up of stress during the day. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of improving your awareness of how you’re feeling physically and emotionally. Perhaps try becoming more aware of any stress or tension you’re feeling, and use this as a signal to take action.

There are deep breathing exercises you can do to help calm yourself, and many people find that even a five-minute bout of meditation, or mindfulness helps to significantly reduce feelings of stress and tension. In bed at night, muscle relaxation techniques can be really helpful useful in helping you to sleep.

3. HITT it early in the day

I’ve you’ve ever done intense exercise late at night you’ve probably noticed that you’re still ‘buzzing’ for a while afterwards. Although it might tire you out, it can take a few hours for your nervous system to calm down, your body temperature to return to normal and stress hormones to return to a level that’s conducive to sleep. If you’re having problems sleeping, try doing your intense workouts earlier in the day.

4. Try the tub

A warm bath an hour or two before bed can be effective in helping you fall asleep more quickly. Our body temperature natural drops a little before we fall asleep. Taking a bath raises our body temperature a little and this will then drop off again once we get out of the bath. This drop in temperature mimics the drop that occurs naturally when we’re about to fall asleep and according to research we interpret this as a signal that we’re ready to sleep, meaning that we fall asleep more quickly.

5. Just the one - or maybe none...

Cutting down on alcohol can be important in helping you sleep better, especially if you have a problem staying asleep. Many of us have experienced waking up in the middle of the night after a few drinks and not being unable to get back to sleep. While a few drinks might help to send us off, alcohol can be hugely disruptive to our sleep patterns and the quality of our sleep and can increase the chance of us waking up in the middle of the night. If you do drink in the evening, it’s best to allow enough time before you go to bed for your body to process the alcohol in your system.

6. Slow it down

Try to avoid doing anything stressful or mentally stimulating immediately before bed. Instead, try to give your body and mind the chance to slow down before bedtime. Electronic devices can add to our levels of stimulation, just at the point when our bodies and brains need to be slowing down in preparation for sleep. Television is a good example and if getting to sleep is an issue for you, it’s a good idea to stop watching TV an hour or so before you go to bed. Electronic devices like tablets and mobile phones also emit light that appears to interfere with our natural body clock, so it’s also best to avoid using them in the hour or so before sleep.

In general, take a look at your bedtime routine, and see what changes you can make to encourage a state of calmness and relaxation in your mind and body just before bed.

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