If I were to ask you about your sleep habits, what would you tell me? That you go to bed at a reasonable time, but it takes you a good while to actually get to sleep? Or maybe that you fall asleep on the sofa by 9pm every night, waking up dazed and confused at 1am with a cold cuppa beside you and half a crisp dangling from your lip?

I mean, you do get some sleep every night, so what’s the big deal?

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. Healthy sleep habits are just as important as your diet and exercise habits. In fact, without sufficient sleep, your diet and exercise efforts are affected too. And if that wasn’t enough, a lack of decent sleep can have a serious effect on your overall mental and physical wellbeing.

Makes you want to crawl into bed and curl up under the duvet right now, doesn’t it?

So, what can you do to get a better night’s kip? What habits can you introduce to make sure that you’re slumbering your way into better health?

Well that’s where this blog post comes in. Swinging through the jungle of sleep advice like Tarzan with a sleep habits guide in his loin cloth.

Just call me Jane…

Why is Sleep Important?

Imagine, if you will, that you take a holistic approach to your wellbeing and self-care habits. As a teacher, you know that there’s more to a child than just their maths and English abilities. You consider their creative side, their family background, their health and wellbeing etc…

The same applies to you.

Wellbeing is more than just bubble baths and lunchtime wellbeing walks. It’s about looking at your whole self and working to improve habits in the areas of nutrition, exercise and sleep – the three pillars of self-care. You can’t have efficient self-care strategies without considering all three.

Research by Professor Matthew Walker, from UC Berkeley (California), has changed the way we understand the power of sleep. In his best-selling book, Why We Sleep, Matthew talks about how lack of sleep affects our physical health, from a weakened immune system to a lack of deep sleep due to caffeine intake.

He also talks about how sleep deficiency can affect our mental health too. In fact, his research has shown that a lack of sleep affects our cortisol levels (the stress hormone) which means we are more prone to stress and anxiety if we’ve not had sufficient sleep. Sleep deprivation has a link to all mental health conditions too, including depression, anxiety and PTSD. It’s not the only factor, but research has shown it’s a critical one.

Sleep Habits and Our Bodies

Lack of sleep affects our immune system because, when we fail to enter our deep sleep cycles, we fail to re-build our ‘immune army’ – the part of our immune system that fights common coughs and colds, among other things. As teachers, you’re prone to these sorts of infections due to the nature of the job. Without sufficient sleep, you’re unable to strengthen your immune system to fight them off. If you’re getting recurring colds, looking at your sleep habits could provide some answers.

After all, when we’re ill, our bodies make us feel sleepy. It’s our natural response to sleep, to enable our immune army to do its job.

In a busy job like teaching, caffeine is often the drink of choice for staff. It might be the first drink you have each morning and the one you turn to at the end of a long day in the classroom. However, caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant – a drug that has a half-life of 6-7 hours. If you have a cup of coffee at lunch time, you’ve still got a quarter of that cup going through your system 12 hours later.

Not only that, caffeine affects the quality of our sleep. Even if you can drink an espresso after dinner and still get to sleep like a newborn baby, your deep sleep is affected. You therefore wake up feeling unrefreshed and so what do you do? You pour yourself another coffee.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Sleep Habits and Our Minds

When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more emotionally reactive to things that happen during the day. You’re unable to control reactions, even to the small things, because your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for strong emotions) is 60% more reactive. 60%!

So that email from a parent or that child who just won’t put their hand up even though you’ve reminded them a thousand times, will get short shrift from you because you’re sleep deprived. Think about toddlers who tantrum. If you talk to their parents, they will often say things like, “Oh they didn’t sleep well last night” or “He didn’t have his nap today!”

It’s no different for adults. Overtiredness doesn’t stop just because we’re grownups. With all the other stresses going on in our lives, it’s no wonder we can feel emotionally depleted.

If you like to unwind and destress with a glass of wine, you might find that this affects your sleep habits too. Alcohol fragments your sleep, depriving you of your critical REM (dream) sleep and therefore stopping the critical emotional first aid from your brain, giving you overnight therapy.

Building Healthy Sleep Habits

So now I’ve really got you onside by telling you to cut down on alcohol and caffeine (!), it’s time to explore what healthy sleep habits actually look like and how you can implement them into your daily routine.

These top tips are taken from an interview Professor Matthew Walker did, where he gave his advice to those wanting to improve their sleep habits.

1. Regularity

Develop a healthy sleep routine by going to bed at the same time each night and waking at the same time each morning. Don’t be tempted to sleep too much on the weekend, as this can break the regular cycle you’ve developed during the week and can then make Sunday night to Monday morning feel really difficult.

Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Give yourself the opportunity to fall asleep too – don’t calculate your hours from the time you get into bed. If you want to take your hours as 11pm to 6am, get into bed at about 10.30, to give your body a chance to relax and to signal to it that sleep is coming.

2. Temperature

Keep the temperature in the bedroom as cool as possible – ideally 18 degrees. It helps your body to get into the core temperature needed to sleep and means that you can wake the next morning feeling as refreshed as possible.

3. Darkness

A dark room is needed for your body to begin producing Melatonin, the sleep hormone. Limit blue light from your screens/devices approximately one hour before going to bed. Turn off lights around your house so that you’re bathed in a half-light as you approach bed time.

4. Avoid Caffeine After Midday

One that may not be popular, but a sleep habit that Matthew Walker says has had the biggest impact on his own life. Once lunch time has been and gone, why not try a decaf option or herbal teas? Be mindful of Green Tea as that has caffeine in it, but most other herbal options are caffeine free. You might even treat yourself to a delicious hot chocolate.

5. Avoid alcohol Before Bed

If you’ve got into the habit of having a glass of something every night, try to limit it to a couple of nights a week. Remember, alcohol fragments sleep and stops you getting that critical REM sleep to enable overnight emotional therapy.

6. Build a Nightly Routine

It’s a well-known piece of advice for new mothers to get their baby into a night-time routine as soon as possible, to help babies/toddlers to get as much sleep as possible. But it’s just as important for us too! Many people swear by a morning routine to help them get ready for the day ahead, but how about developing a night-time routine to prepare you for sleep and relaxation?

Why not try some of these ideas on for size?

Image: @theself_carekit

Making Your Own Sleep Habits

As with any new habits in life, you’re more likely to stick to them if you make them your own. Doing something just because somebody told you to or because someone else does it, won’t necessarily float your sleeping boat.

What will work is reflection. Trying out some of the sleep habits above and keeping track of whether they’re working or not. If you cut out caffeine after midday, keep a log in your journal or planner. After a week, reflect on how your sleep may or may not have improved.

Try to get 7 hours of sleep, but if you’re still feeling sluggish in the morning, try 8 hours instead. Keep reflecting and tweaking your habits until they work for you. If you’re finding it all too daunting, remember my motto – shrink the change! If you want to start going to bed earlier, start by moving your bedtime to 15 minutes earlier. Once you’ve got that habit sorted, try putting another 15 minutes on that, so you’re now going to bed 30 minutes earlier than you were.

Small habits lead to big changes. Be kind to yourself and try small things first. Don’t vow to change everything all in one go as you’re likely to feel despondent and perhaps even lose sleep.

Just take it in your stride and soon, you’ll be slumbering your way into better mental and physical health.

Further Resources

If you need help with your wellbeing or work/life balance, check out my Coaching page and let’s work together to get your balance back!