Of all the things I enjoy doing, sometimes I think I love sleeping the most. Which is strange, because it’s also one of the things that I most resent doing. I constantly wish that I didn’t need to sleep quite so much, so I’d have more hours in the day to do more “productive” pursuits.
It seems I’m not alone. Many of us wish that we could get by on less sleep. But then there’s the other side of the coin: the insomniacs who would LOVE to be able to get eight straight hours a night. And, on occasion, I’ve experienced that side of sleep too, usually when feeling anxious and stressed about something. There’s nothing more frustrating than being desperately tired and exhausted, but unable to sleep.
And make no bones about it, sleep is essential to life. If we don’t get enough sleep, there are many potential side effects, all of them bad. Our bodies need time to recover and our brains need time to rest. There is a long history of the use of sleep deprivation as a form of torture and tests on animals have led scientists to believe that prolonged sleep deprivation could be fatal.
On a less macabre note, the amount of sleep you get affects your productivity and relationships. If I don’t get enough sleep then I can be grumpy, irritable and generally not very fun to be around. Compare that to the morning after I get a full night’s sleep and I’m a different person.
But it’s not just the amount of sleep you get, but the quality. I’ve noticed a couple of common factors in my own sleep patterns that determine whether or not I get a great night’s sleep. For example, I’ll usually sleep well if:
- I’m sleeping in our campervan.
- I’m camping (usually but not always).
- I’ve spent the day outdoors, particularly if I’ve done a long walk or run. But an evening’s run in the fresh air can often have the same effect.
- I’ve been reading for a while before bed (unless it’s a really exciting book!).
Conversely, there are a number of triggers which pretty much guarantee me a poor night’s sleep, which include:
- Too much sugar before bed.
- Working on the computer late at night.
- Watching scary movies or thrillers in the evening. Basically, anything that gets your pulse racing or makes you think too much. (Yes, this does make me a very frustrating person to watch Netflix with.)
- Checking my phone religiously before bed.
These revelations are nothing new and simply corroborate what many studies have demonstrated about good quality sleep. But do I always follow these guidelines? Of course, I don’t. I’m human. My life isn’t just one ballgame where I can go hiking each day, get to bed early every night and never worry about anything. I have work to do, deadlines to meet and occasional bouts of anxiety to deal with. I am even writing this late in the evening (though I promise I’m going to stop soon).
Perhaps it’s a classic case of knowing exactly what I need to do to fix something but struggling to have the disciple to implement it. Probably something to do with my Obliger tendencies…
Why Being Outdoors Helps Us Sleep
So, anecdotal evidence aside, what is it about being outdoors that helps us sleep well? There’s been a fair bit of research done on this topic. Here’s a summary of the main points and some of my own thoughts:
- Exercising outdoors first thing in the morning boosts our body’s natural sleep rhythm. The daylight activates the light-sensitive tissue in our eyes, encouraging the brain to produce melatonin (the hormone that makes us sleepy) earlier in the evening. If you struggle to sleep, then experts recommend exercising in the morning rather than the evening, particularly just before bedtime.
- Sleeping outdoors for a week (without smartphones!) has been shown to reset our biological clock to a more natural wake and sleep cycle, meaning we go to bed earlier and sleep for longer. When it’s cold and dark, our bodies naturally tell us to sleep, and when the sun comes up and it starts getting warmer, our brain tells us to get up. It takes us back to the days before central heating, electric lighting and Netflix, when our lives were much more affected by changing seasons. But if you don’t have a week, even a weekend spent camping can have a positive benefit. As if we needed an excuse…
- Sleep is often the first casualty of too much time spent in front of a screen. Presuming you don’t go hiking with your head buried in your phone, this makes time spent outdoors a form of digital detox. Which, most people agree, is a good thing to do every now and then.
- Another trigger for a poor night’s sleep is stress and worry. Spending time outdoors has been proven to lower stress levels and help reduce depression and anxiety, leaving us more relaxed and better able to sleep.
- Finally, there’s the simple fact that if you’ve been active outdoors all day, you’ll be pretty knackered, physically and mentally, and ready for a good rest. Plus, if you’re sleeping outdoors, there isn’t much else to do once it gets dark!
How To Sleep Better at Night
That’s all very well, but realistically, most of us can’t spend all day every day outdoors. So for those of us with busy lives, how can we help ourselves sleep better at night?
Firstly, you don’t have to spend long outdoors to reap the benefits. I find that even a half hour or forty-five-minute run can be enough to tire me out and get me ready for bed. Rather than going to the gym in the evening, try going for a run or a boot camp session outdoors instead. And if you find that exercising in the evening wakes you up rather than sending you to sleep, see if you can switch your training sessions to the morning.
Switch off in the evening. Don’t go for your evening run, only to come home and spend two hours in front of your computer or mobile phone. You’ll undo all the good work you’ve put into helping you sleep. (And yes, this is the guilty voice of experience talking…) Try and schedule your day so that all you need do after exercising is have some dinner and relax, perhaps by reading a book or spending time with your family.
If you always have a hundred thoughts jostling for attention in your head, then try meditation or yoga before bed. It can take a bit of discipline (particularly with meditation!) but switching off your mind before bed will certainly help you drop off to sleep quickly. I often use the Down Dog app on my phone to do a short, gentle yoga session in the evening. It helps me relax, stretch out my muscles after a day’s work and wind down from the day,
There are lots of different views out there on whether there’s a link between sugar and sleep. Some people say sugar before bed will keep you awake, others say it’s a myth. Chances are, like many things, it’s down to the individual. What I do know is, if I have a lot of sugar in the evening it will almost always stop me sleeping or leave me feeling groggy the next day. I love puddings, so this makes me pretty sad. But I think on balance, I love my sleep more. So while I may sometimes give in on the rare occasion I eat out, generally I’ll try and limits my portion size on puddings, have home-made puddings that contain less sugar or (shock horror!) have no pudding at all.
You don’t need to camp out for a weekend or a week to adjust your body clock to be more in tune with nature. It just takes a bit more of that dreaded word, discipline! At home, there are many distractions that can stop you going to bed early: household chores, television, socialising or even work. But there’s a reason why we tend to feel more awake in the summer when evenings are longer, and sleepier in the winter when evenings are short and dark. Rather than beating yourself up about wanting to go to bed early in the winter, why not listen to your body and let it tell you when to go to bed, and when to get up? (Though that doesn’t give you an excuse to be late for work just because it doesn’t get light until 8 o’clock in the morning!)
I think I’ll always slightly resent needing a good eight or nine hours sleep a night to be able to function properly when other people seem to do just fine with six or seven hours sleep. But I also feel grateful that most of the time I can have that much sleep. I have a warm house, a cosy duvet to snuggle up in and a husband to warm my feet on. I’m in a much better position than many people out there.
We all have different requirements and different struggles with sleep. But we owe it to ourselves to give our bodies and brains the rest and recovery time they deserve.