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How to sleep better, with Dr Hilary Jones

Dr Hilary Jones
Article written by Dr Hilary Jones

Date published 08 February 2024

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Consistently good sleep is essential for our physical and psychological health. Here Dr Hilary Jones shares his expert advice on what to do if you're struggling with rest.

🕒 7 min read

Never underestimate the importance of a refreshing and revitalising night's sleep. Adequate duration and quality of sleep is vital for concentration and memory, enhanced mood, appetite control, energy and immunity.

During sleep our body physically and psychologically repairs itself, and hundreds of essential biological functions restore a healthy balance to our metabolism. We spend about a third of our life asleep, but it's far from time wasted.

Why is sleep important?

Without adequate sleep we experience daytime drowsiness and yawning. We are more likely to feel irritable, depressed, anxious, stressed and paranoid. We are more liable to abuse alcohol or other substances and suffer from accidents and injuries, whether behind the wheel of a car, at work, or at home.

Sleep deprivation may lead to mental health issues and a decreased libido. It can affect social interaction and relationships. Physically, it can lead to increased blood pressure, obesity and a greater risk of diabetes.

Obtaining sufficient high-quality sleep is one of the most important of all human behaviours, and it's increasingly recognised that our appearance is adversely affected by poor sleep. It's not called beauty sleep for nothing.

Lack of sleep symptoms

Obvious signs of insomnia include hanging eyelids, red eyes and swollen lids, dark circles and bags under the eyes, drooping of the corners of the mouth, wrinkle lines on the face and less smiling.

Increased stress from insomnia leads to higher levels of the hormone cortisol. This breaks down collagen, the supporting tissue under the skin, increasing the visible effects of tiredness.

In the stressful modern world, most of us have about an hour less sleep each day than our ancestors, and there are consequences for our health. Luckily, from lifestyle tweaks to supplements, there are many things we can do to help us get a really good night's sleep.

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Dr Hilary's top 10 medicine-free sleeping tips

1. Stick to a strict and regular bedtime routine

Your body's circadian rhythm dictates multiple biological processes, including alertness or sleepiness, body temperature and appetite. A regular bedtime routine enhances these biological rhythms that, if constantly interrupted, have a detrimental effect on the sleep-wake cycle.

Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including weekends or days off, even if you are tired in the morning or during the day.

2. Sleep only when you're sleepy

If you have a busy mind and are tossing and turning after 20 minutes, get up and do something calming such as reading a book or playing some relaxing music.

3. Avoid all stimulants

This includes caffeinated drinks, chocolate and cola, nicotine from cigarettes, and alcohol. The latter is actually a nervous system depressant and may help you get off to sleep, but it has a rebound effect that wakes you up soon after, and a diuretic effect that will increase the need to get up to go to the toilet.

4. Limit activities in the bedroom to just sleep or sex

Keep your bedroom free of electronic devices including televisions, and free your mind from tomorrow's to-do list by writing priority jobs down on a piece of paper and leaving it on your bedside table.

5. Avoid daytime naps

These may be tempting, especially after lunch, but they will seriously detract from a proper night's sleep later on.

If you're desperately tired just have a power nap. This involves a cup of caffeinated coffee just before the nap, and setting your alarm for 20 minutes.

This will make you wake up as the caffeine kicks in, and before the deep phase of sleep that would leave you groggy and irritable when you wake.

Woman napping and setting alarm on phone

Setting a short alarm for your nap will keep you out of deep sleep and lead to a better night later on (and you'll feel better when you wake up!)

6. Enjoy pre-bedtime rituals

Some calming music or an aromatherapy bath with essential oils 1-2 hours before sleep reinforces the bedtime routine.

7. Ensure a conducive environment

A blacked-out, quiet room at the right temperature and a comfortable bed are important.

8. Exercise during the day

This enhances healthy physical and psychological fatigue, as well as boosting sleep hormones such as growth hormone and melatonin.

9. Eat timely and healthily

Enjoy a modest dinner at least three hours before bedtime to avoid indigestion and reflux. Sleep-promoting foods containing tryptophan, a precursor to the sleep neurotransmitter serotonin, include milk, tuna, turkey and chicken, oats, cheese and seeds.

10. Don't clock-watch

Looking at the clock halfway through the night is stressful because it increases pressure to get to sleep, which is counterproductive. Ask a sound sleeper what they do to get to sleep at night, and they'll tell you: nothing! Sound sleep comes from just letting it happen.

The strong stuff: sleep medication

Prescription sleep aids from your doctor or remedies from the pharmacy can be effective, but can have significant side effects. Use with care.

Prescription hypnotics and sedatives

These should be a last resort in extreme circumstances, as they can lead to immediate side-effects the morning after and tolerance and dependence when taken for more than a few days.

Over-the-counter sleeping aids

Antihistamines such as chlorphenamine or promethazine (Piriton, Night Nurse) do not require a prescription but can also cause problems with concentration, coordination, dizziness and fatigue the following day, as well as dependence.

Sleep vitamins and supplements

Even with good sleep hygiene and a healthy lifestyle, sometimes life stress gets in the way of a good night's sleep. Fortunately, there are supplements and other remedies that can help. Here's your essential guide to vitamins and supplements for sleep.

Magnesium

This mineral is important for normal psychological and nervous system function, and for allaying anxiety and depression – both of which may contribute to insomnia.

Because magnesium releases the sleep hormones serotonin and melatonin, it helps calm the mind and diminish stress. It also helps to lessen the likelihood of muscle cramps. Deficiency is common, and supplements can help.

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Bladder Support with Go-Less

Getting up in the night to go to the toilet is a common sleep interrupter; it even has a name: nocturia. The botanicals and micronutrients in this formulation, including pumpkin speed and soy germ extracts, can help.

Saffron

Nature's 'red gold' contains bioactive compounds crocin, crocetin and safranal, which can help with emotional balance and a positive mood.

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Melatonin

This naturally occurring compound can be taken as a synthetic supplement to help people fall asleep more quickly and keep them asleep. The science is sufficiently strong that it is sometimes prescribed on the NHS.

Tart cherry juice

Tart cherry juice is rich in tryptophan and melatonin, so a glass of sugar-free juice from sour Montmorency cherries before bed is worth trying.

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Vitamins

Many vitamins such as A B C D E and K are important for sleep. Vitamins D and B, for example, are involved in areas of the brain that control the sleep-wake cycle and the production of melatonin.

Vitamin B6 is thought to be particularly beneficial for restless legs syndrome, which can be a serious impediment to sleep.

Browse all Healthspan's vitamins and supplements for sleep.

Psychological help

This includes talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling. Sometimes life events such as bereavement, illness, redundancy and relationship problems can seriously disrupt sleep, no matter how hard we try to deal with them. Identifying such causes of insomnia and resolving them is vital.

And finally…

No matter how severe or chronic the insomnia, there are always ways to help, including proven supplements and vitamins. Sleep is worth the investment; in the words of William Shakespeare, sleep is "Balm of hurt minds… Chief nourisher in life's feast." Make sure you put plenty of sleep on your plate.

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Dr Hilary Jones

About Dr Hilary Jones

Dr Hilary Jones is a GP, media doctor and author, and patron of several medical charities, including the Meningitis Research Foundation and London's Air Ambulance. He is currently the Health Editor for Good Morning Britain. Dr. Hilary received an MBE in 2020 for "services to broadcasting, public health information and charity."

drhilaryjones.com