How to get the perfect night's sleep
Darragh McManus on how re-tooling your body clock will help you through the day
Published 28/12/2010 | 05:00
Are you a lark or an owl? Don't worry, those aren't euphemisms for some weird new sexual practice, but refer to how your body clock is set.
Some folks (around 15% of us) are at their best in the morning, like a lark singing a welcome to the day; another 15% are better towards evening, making them the definitive "night owl". (The rest are neither.)
You'll know which one you are: larks rise early and are able to consume breakfast without wanting to retch, owls like to stay up late and watch the infomercial channel until even that goes to bed before them.
The problem is, while being an owl tends to make you more extroverted and funny, it also has serious disadvantages, especially for professional success: the world of work runs on an early clock, and owls are not at their best until well into afternoon. It's also a drag to, well, drag yourself out of bed at 7am when you want to lie in till noon, especially in winter.
It's caused by the internal circadian rhythm, which peaks and troughs at different times of day. According to Simon Archer of Surrey Sleep Research Centre in the UK, certain genes control whether you're a lark or an owl (age, habit and cultural influences play a part too).
But things can be improved to some extent, by retooling your particular body clock. So if you're an owl, make it your New Year resolution to obey the old maxim, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise" by following our guide:
First, get checked out for sleep disorders of medical origin; clearly it will be nigh-on impossible to settle into a 'lark' sleeping pattern if you're not sleeping properly in the first place.
These can include: grinding of the teeth (known as bruxism); hypopnea syndrome (abnormally shallow breathing and slow respiration; night terrors, in which sleepers are abruptly woken by feelings of immense fear; narcolepsy, the well-known condition which makes sufferers fall asleep at any point during the day; somnambulism (sleep walking and other actions); restless leg syndrome; nocturia, or frequent night-time urinating; and the common condition of sleep apnea, in which the airway is obstructed during sleep.
There is a wide range of sleep aids which can help you nod off at an earlier time than your body is used to (including sleeping tablets, but those are never recommended for regular use).
The LightSleeper is a small white orb which projects a soft light onto the ceiling for half an hour, in a slow, circular pattern, and costs about €150.
Less expensive suggestions include Nelsons homeopathic remedies, the Boots Pillow Mist aroma- therapy spray, Lush's Dream Time aromatherapy balm for the temples, blackout blinds for your bedroom, the Isocones Natural Sleeping Aid which work on acupressure, herbal teas containing valerian, or the Cloud B range of soft toys and pillows which play calming sounds from nature (they're made for babies but work on grown-ups too).
Try to limit your exposure to situations which disrupt, scramble or otherwise mess up your cycle, such as long-haul travel and its attendant jet-lag, which can cause fatigue, disorientation and insomnia.
Set a new, earlier wake-up time and stick to it religiously -- for the whole week. Research shows that sleeping more than 90 minutes later at the weekend will readjust your body clock back to its original 'owl' setting.
And according to Jason Ellis of Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research in England, quit using the snooze button: set the alarm for when you want to rise, and hop in the shower to wake yourself up properly.
Exercising in the morning helps speed up your metabolism and pumps oxygen to the brain, making you feel refreshed and energised. And many gyms, such as The Fitness Dock in Dublin's Camden Street, now open as early as 6am.
The importance of light can't be overstated. It affects your circadian rhythms by suppressing the body's release of melatonin, a natural hormone that tells you to go to sleep (this is why we find it easier to rise early during the summer).
Experts recommend exposing yourself to bright light -- natural or artificial -- for at least 20 minutes, as early as possible, every morning.
Many people use portable light-boxes which stimulate neurotransmitters in the brain by emitting light that mimics the light of the sun. This has been shown to reset the body clock. And Harvard researchers found that the wavelength of the colour blue is most effective, leading to the creation of the BLUEWAVE light therapy unit.
Brighterday, based in Ballyogan Business Park in Dublin, stock a large range of light therapy products (www.brighterday.ie).
It's crucial to eat breakfast, too, even if you don't feel like it: within two hours of waking, your body needs to restore glucose it has used during the night.
Missing brekkie makes you sluggish and less productive. Slow-release carbohydrates, like porridge or beans, are best.