How to get a good night’s sleep

Sleep is perhaps the closest thing we have to a cure-all for the body. But how do you get that good night's sleep? We share our tips for proper sleep hygiene. This is the English version of our article on sleep.

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We now live in an age where gurus promote protein shakes and naps - in a fast-paced world where we work around the clock and squeeze in more work wherever we can. Is it any wonder that many find sleep a nuisance? Or perhaps they see the lack of sleep as a problem they don't have the time or energy to fix. As you reach for your coffee, you may wonder if there are any real solutions to the sleep problems that have become all too normal.

After all, who among us doesn't know the feeling: you're completely exhausted and tired after a long and tiring day, and you can finally put yourself to bed. But as soon as you get horizontal, your thoughts start circling: Did I close all the windows? What do I still have to do tomorrow? I wish I had said something else to my colleague at work today! Sometimes you turn back and forth in bed a hundred times, an hour or two has passed, and you're still not asleep. Yet sufficient restful sleep would be so important for our physical and mental health. Sleep is perhaps the closest thing we have to a cure-all for the body. 

Sleep provides us with the opportunity for rest for body and mind. During sleep, our body temperature drops and our body is able to conserve energy. During sleep, the body produces so-called cytokines, proteins that the immune system needs to cope with infections, diseases or stress. Sleep is also essential for our brain: it finally gets a rest from the many sensory impressions and information that assail us while awake. During sleep, we can now process what we have experienced and store it in our memory; without sleep, long-term memory, and thus learning, would be almost impossible. 

So, how much sleep do we need? 

In fact, how much sleep you need varies from person to person, and the quality of sleep is especially important. In general, we need between 7 and 8 hours of quality sleep per night.

However, this is far from being all there is to it, because sleep is a complex process. While we sleep, our body goes through several so-called sleep cycles. A single sleep cycle typically lasts between 90 and 110 minutes and consists of 4 phases. The individual sleep phases have different functions and are characterized by different brain activity, called brain waves. 

The first phase is a transitional phase of only 1 to 5 minutes and is the lightest sleep phase. In the second phase, the temperature drops, everything becomes slower and more relaxed, the eyes stop moving, and the brain waves change. This stage lasts between 10 and 25 minutes in the first cycle, but can get longer the longer you sleep, and accounts for about half of the total sleep time. Stage 3 is often called "delta sleep" because delta brain waves predominate during this deepest stage of sleep. This stage, deep sleep, is critical for restful sleep that allows for physical recovery and growth. In the first sleep cycles of the night, this deep sleep phase usually lasts 20 to 40 minutes, but becomes shorter as the night progresses, and we spend more time in the fourth and final sleep stage. Most of us have heard of this last stage: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, in which brain activity is more like being awake, and you have more vivid dreams, but your muscles are turned off - except for eye movement, which is very active (and breathing). Normally, you don't enter REM sleep until you've already been asleep for about 90 minutes, and this stage accounts for only about a quarter of sleep time, but is essential for cognitive function and mental health.

For most of us, proper sleep hygiene is a good place to start for restful sleep. However, if you find that you suffer from a chronic sleep disorder, it's best to talk to your health care provider about it. 

Tip 1: Physically separate activities

If you do focus-work or other alert activities in bed, your brain will form an association between that brain-state and the environment (your bed). Then, when you try to go to sleep, you will have to fight your own brain, which thinks it’s time to be alert. Try to create different spaces for different activities. This will make it easier to transition between task-appropriate brain-states.

Tip 2: Warm & dim lighting.

Your brain also picks up less obvious cues from the environment to determine which state to activate. Even something like the type of lighting (e.g., direct light overhead, ambient light, strings of lights, etc.) can be associated with a particular activity, signaling to the brain that it's time to move on to that activity. The more light, the less the body thinks about sleeping. After all, we want to be awake during the day. Light from electronic devices, such as a cell phone or laptop, can also signal the brain to stay awake. Dimmed light, on the other hand, helps prepare the body for the fact that it's time to rest. So it's worth making sure you have warmer, dimmer lighting some time before you go to bed.

Tip 3: Your bedtime story

Bedtime stories are not just for kids! If your thoughts are constantly spinning in circles when you really wanted to relax, you can try doing a calming meditation before bed, or listening to a soothing bedtime story to help you fall asleep. The idea is to help your mind let go of the worries of the day. Breathing or relaxation exercises can also be helpful for this.

Our final advice is: you can do it; it will get better. Maybe you've been frustrated with your poor sleep for some time, but didn't know where to start. Now you have some first practical tips. 

If these tips don't help you, try keeping a sleep diary. Here you can record every day everything that could influence your sleep: Stress, diet, caffeine, exercise, etc. The next morning, you can record how you slept during the night: How many hours total? Approximately how long did it take you to fall asleep? Did you wake up during the night? From what? Over time, you may see patterns or factors that have an impact on your sleep. You may also see progress as you work on your sleep hygiene.

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