Are you getting enough zzz? Tips for getting back to sleep better

It feels like everyone could do with more sleep. To mark National Sleep Day, Pat Fitzpatrick outlines what works for him and looks at ways for getting back to sleep after his nightly trip to the toilet at 3am.

My wife admired a 4-month-old in the Park yesterday. The child’s mother smiled back a thin smile, suggesting we could have the child if we liked. My wife said, “Not sleeping?” Another thin smile and a shake of the head. We grimaced sympathetically and retreated around the corner to give each other a high-five, now we’re out the other side of baby-led sleep deprivation.

I don’t miss those nights. The high I get after a week of good sleep feels so good, it should be illegal, so I’m always on the lookout for anything that will secure my eight hours a night. Here is what I think I know.

I can’t take caffeine of any sort after 2pm. Nothing good happens if I eat a whole pizza. I can’t eat chocolate after 6pm. I have to be in bed by 10pm, unless it’s after my Wednesday night game of squash, when I wait until 11pm because I’m too goofed up on endorphins to get to sleep. Reading on my Kindle until I fall asleep works well until I pick up my Kindle the next night and haven’t a clue what’s going on because I must have read the previous chapter the night before in my sleep. A friend of mine tells me that sex isn’t a guaranteed way to get to sleep. Finally, I’m over 50, unless I die in my sleep I’m getting up at 3am for a pee, so that middle of the night trip to the jacks is better than the alternative.

These nuggets are still nowhere near enough to guarantee a decent kip. There are still way too many nights when I struggle to get to sleep at 10pm, or more likely, back to sleep after my trip to the jacks. This isn’t just bad for my mood. According to the NHS website in th UK, poor sleep puts you at risk for heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Worse again, it shortens your life expectancy, which is just the sort of thing I need rambling around my head at 3am.

Time to talk to a professional. Dr Liam Doherty is a Consultant Respiratory Physician in the Bon Secours in Cork, specialising in sleep and sleep medicine. I ask him if we’re actually sleeping less now, or is getting a good night’s kip just a media creation.

“There was a sleep survey in the early 1900s,” he said, “showing we slept on average 9 hours a night. Now, it’s an average of 6 hours 40 minutes a night. It’s because we’re a 24/7 society with electricity, people are staying up later to watch TV and getting up earlier to beat the rush hour. So without doubt, we’re burning the candle at both ends.”

What about getting to sleep?

“Anyone with kids knows the most important thing about getting someone to sleep is routine,” he says. “It’s about going to bed at the same time, having the same triggers for sleep.”

He adds it’s important these triggers are external, not something you conjure up in your mind.

“The minute your start thinking about sleep, you stop yourself from sleeping.”

When I ask about mobile phones in the bedroom, he referenced a recent German study where a sample group of people were brought to the wilderness and deprived of their phones, to see how they would sleep in a more natural environment – each of them slept 1.5 hours longer a night, on average. So, if you’re looking for more kip, throw your phone out of the bedroom, bring in blackout blinds and let the darkness trigger a more natural sleep.

I tell Dr Doherty I reckon a Kindle is better than a smartphone when it comes to reading in bed, but he says it’s a mistake to simply focus on the technology.

“Sometimes it’s more about the content than the light from a device. If you’re reading a page-turner, chances are you’re not going to fall asleep. It’s better to just read for 10 minutes, as a trigger, and go to sleep then.”

Dr Liam Doherty
Dr Liam Doherty

Apparently, my stint of ceiling-staring at 3am isn’t that unusual. Dr Doherty mentions evidence from medieval literature, referring to a time when people had what is known as biphasic sleep, where they woke in the middle of their night’s sleep, to discuss their dreams and maybe have a bit of sex. Sounds like a plan, but I can see that joining the List of Things My Wife Said No To.

What about diet – should everyone stay off chocolate before they hit the sack?

“Chocolate’s ok, people drink hot chocolate before they go to bed,” according to the doctor. “But it might just be that you’re susceptible to it. The evidence suggests that a banana might be good, while cheese might be bad because it brings on dreams. And while you don’t want to eat too late, likewise if you go to bed hungry, you can’t sleep.”

Before signing off I asked him for a tip to help me out at 3am.

“The bed is for two things,” he replied, “and one of them is for sleep. So, don’t lie awake. If you do, you are losing the pattern for sleep. If you are lying awake in bed, get out of bed and move around for a while.”

Even if you are lying there at 3am?

Exactly. You are improving your sleep efficiency. Get out of bed, rather than lying there, you’ll break the cycle and be wrecked the next night which will help you sleep.

Having talked to an actual, qualified doctor, I head for everyone’s favourite fall-back, Dr Google, to see what she would advise.

Lavender, apparently. It’s the key to a good night’s sleep, there are sprays everywhere and you can get a pillow now for anything up to 50 dollars on Amazon.com. Alternatively, we have a lavender plant outside our front door, so I roll up some of that and stuff it in my pillowcase. The only upshot there is I might need to throw out my pillow – the over-whelming stench of lavender reminds me of falling asleep in a magic-tree taxi, and I did enough of that in my twenties.

A lot of results tell me I need to reduce stress to get to sleep, so if I ever get around to taking supplements, I might go for something like Zenflore from Precision Biotics.

Another thing the internet really likes are smartphone apps, designed to help you sleep. Sleep Sounds, from Relaxio, has almost 73,000 downloads on the Google Play Store, with close to a 5 star rating. I install it and choose a sound called ‘Quiet Cave’, which is kind of like a dripping tap, which is kind of like guaranteed to make me want to pee. I change to ‘Desert’, that seems more suitable for a middle-aged man. It’s a low wind, like traffic sounds from a distant highway. It’s irritating, nothing happens, just this whooshing sound over and over, until I wake the next morning with my earphones in, feeling nice and rested.

Who knows if Sleep Sounds put me to sleep? But then, as Dr Doherty said, sleep is about triggers as much as anything else. So, the next time I find I can’t get back to sleep, I’m going to head for the desert.

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