Health & Wellness

Hack Your Sleep: 5 New Tricks to Beat Insomnia

Sleep is ultra important: the health benefits of getting a good night’s rest are well researched. Sleep improves your memory, spurs creativity, lessens the chance of a heart attack and helps with depression.

Getting a good night’s sleep can be a dramatic experience for insomniacs. Dr Kirstie Anderson, a Consultant Neurologist says: “people who have chronic insomnia dread climbing the stairs and going to bed. Insomnia a life-altering condition that has a massive health and wellbeing impact.”

So it’s worth trying to get a good night’s sleep. But if it were that easy to get a good night’s sleep, we’d all be doing it. Unfortunately insomnia is rife, and most of us have suffered from sleep deprivation at some point.

But all is not lost. With these tricks you’ll be sleeping again in no time.

1. Read up on sleep hygiene

There’s a lot of buzz around sleep hygiene for insomniacs. Sleep hygiene isn’t having a bath before bedtime; it’s an umbrella term for all the tips people have found aid sleep.

There is plenty of advice from the National Sleep Foundation and the NHS regarding sleep hygiene. Here are the best sleep hygiene tricks:

  • Maintain a regular sleep pattern seven days a week. Try going to bed, and getting out of bed, at the exact same time each day.
  • Limit yourself to 7 hours in bed to consolidate your sleep.
  • Avoid napping during the day. Power naps have lots of benefits, but they are counter-productive if you are struggling to sleep at night.
  • Reduce your caffeine and cigarette intake, especially in the afternoon and evening.
  • Consider a dry spell. Alcohol speeds the onset of sleep, but it disrupts your sleep in the second half of the night as your body begins to metabolize the alcohol. It also reduces the amount of REM sleep you encounter. Drinking on a regular basis to get to sleep is a false economy as you end up with less sleep overall. This Medscape article can give you more information about the effects of alcohol on sleep.
  • Set up a regular exercise routine, preferably in the morning so you aren’t pumped up too close to going to bed.
  • Eat your large meals earlier in the evening (avoid large meals just before you go to bed).
  • Ensure that you have exposure to natural light.
  • Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Try to avoid anything emotionally upsetting just before you go to sleep.
  • Don’t use your bed to watch TV, listen to music or read. Use it just for sleep (or sex) so you start to associate your bed with just sleep.

2. Use an old iPod touch, iPhone or Android phone as sleep aid

Smartphones have been around for a while now, and many people have an old model around. A great use for an old iPod touch, iPhone or Android phone is to give it a permanent home next to your bed.

An iPhone or Android phone makes a great sleep aid. You can use a new iPhone or Android phone, but we find most old models run sleep apps just as well. But most digital sleep tools require consistency, so if you’ve got an old iPod touch, iPhone or Android Phone lying around then we think it’s a great idea to give it a permanent home next to your bed.

3. Download a bio alarm clock app

There are a few different apps that make use of the accelerometer found inside smartphones to measure your sleep. These so called, Bio Alarm Clock apps can be used to smooth out the waking-up process.

The idea behind bio alarm clocks is to wake you up when you’re already in a light sleep phase. People have different phases of sleep, and you move between deep sleep and light sleep. (People sleep in four different waves interspersed with REM sleep). According to the NINDS (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke) “It is very difficult to wake someone during stages 3 and 4, which together are called deep sleep. There is no eye movement or muscle activity. People awakened during deep sleep do not adjust immediately and often feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes after they wake up.”

This is why you can sometimes wake up feeling refreshed and find, even after a few hours sleep; or wake up feeling wrecked after a long sleep. It’s not about how much sleep you’ve had, but when you wake up.

This is where the bio alarm clock steps in; you tuck the phone under your pillow, and it monitors your movement to detect patterns between deep sleep and light sleep. And it slightly adjusts the wake-up time to ensure that it wakes you up during the correct cycle.

The two leading bio alarm clocks are Sleep Cycle (69p) for iOS and Sleep as Android (£1.99) for Android. We’ve tested Sleep Cycle and it makes a huge difference to how well we feel when we wake up. Not only do we wake up feeling refreshed and generally okay, but we’ve also found it more effective and managing to wake us up and get us out of bed close to the time we set.

If you don’t have an old iPhone or Android phone, or want a more permanent solution, there are permanent devices coming soon, like the Withings Aura bio clock. This device, set to go on sale later this year for $299 (UK price TBA) combines a body movement pad with a room ambient sensor (to measure noise pollution, room temperature, and light level). While $299 for an alarm clock might seem over-priced, we have found apps like Sleep Cycle to make a marked difference.

4. Use meditation apps (or videos) to get to sleep

Apps like Sleep Cycle can wake you up, but meditation is a popular technique for getting to sleep, and Pzizz Sleep for iOS is one of the best apps we know for getting to sleep.

Pzizz Sleep combines audio and spoken word to build a new soundtrack when you go to sleep. You can choose how much audio to speech and how long you want the Pzizz soundtrack to run for. Pzizz uses Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) with binaural beats when you’re asleep to create a unique aural soundscape each night. (It’s worth pointing out that scientists are somewhat sceptical about the science behind binaural beats as an aid to sleeping.) Even so, we find Pzizz to be an enchanting way to fall asleep.

5. Ask your doctor about the Sleepstation app

If these apps from the App Store don’t quite cut it, then the UK’s health service NHS has just announced a combined app and consultation process. Sleepstation is a six week course run by Dr Kirstie Anderson, that’s approved by the NHS. You have a professional consultation with a sleep expert, and use the app to monitor and track your sleep.

Sleepstation uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help treat insomnia. “Most doctors can suggest good sleep hygiene and while that is good advice it is not in itself going to cure insomnia.” says Anderson, “The key thing about the Sleepstation is that it’s personalised for each user. If you put a particular pattern into your diary it will change the programme to make it fit your sleep pattern.” A recent Sleep Station trial of 75 insomnia suffers showed an 80 per cent success rate of better sleep. Sleepstation is not cheap, the app and consultation costs £59; but Sleepstation is being prescribed by NHS GPs in some areas, so the service may be worth checking out.

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