Life Health & Wellbeing

Wednesday 18 September 2019

The dos and don'ts for getting a good night's sleep


Badly needed: A good night's sleep
Badly needed: A good night's sleep
Actually going to bed
Tongue and throat exercises can tackle snoring

It's no surprise that the holy grail these days is a good night's sleep. A nation of stressed-out, caffeine junkies tied to our smartphones, we'll try anything to beat the tossing and turning that has become part of modern life. Pat Fitzpatrick looks at the latest research and wonder-cures, to figure out the dos and don'ts when it comes to bedtime


It's a very bad idea to drink just before going to bed. It blocks REM sleep and leaves you feeling groggy and cranky the next day. It also means a lot of trips to the jacks.

This advice to avoid alcohol in the hours before sleep has been taken on board across the world. Except here in Ireland, where people use it as an excuse to start drinking earlier. "Sure, we'll get it out of the way now and stop at nine o'clock," said you, after which the whole thing became a bit of a blur.

Still, the more you read about the effects of alcohol on sleep, the more you realise we've been doing it wrong all along. A recent study by the University of Melbourne found that late-night drinking impairs the brain activity necessary for learning and memory formation.

This simple fact would seem to explain the Irish condition, in its totality. If you disagree and think we are good at learning and memory, then I suggest you look at house prices in Dublin. And try not to hum that country classic, Here I Go Down That Wrong Road Again (We're back where we've already been).


ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It's known in some circles as AIHO, Attention Induced Head Orgasm. Try and say that without laughing. It isn't kinky as such, unless you are the sort that gets turned on by a video of a whispering lady pretending to brush your hair. (They probably make you pay extra at the hairdressers.) That said, search for ASMR on YouTube and you will end up watching a clip of a whispering English woman pretending to be a travel agent in what is clearly her bedroom. It's not something you want to get caught doing by your partner, or your boss.

Particularly because listening to it is supposed to put you to sleep. The idea is to trigger a tingling sensation that begins in the head and can work its way down to your toes, if you do enough of it. That sounds familiar, says you, popping open a bottle of Prosecco.

It would be wrong to scoff at ASMR. Partly because it has millions of sleep-deprived followers who will have no problem staying up all night trolling you on Twitter. But mainly because it is weirdly addictive, says you, nodding off to a video of 'Emma' describing what's in her new bag. (Your money, probably. There's no such thing as a free head orgasm.)



Can't sleep because there is something on your mind? Maybe worried that you are a touch gullible and inclined to go along with the latest self-help therapy? Mindfulness has you covered.

It's no surprise that the mindfulness crowd have a cure for insomnia. They are in so many rackets at this stage, it wouldn't come as a surprise if they launched three flights a week to Providence, Rhode Island.

When it comes to sleep, mindfulness gurus recommend letting thoughts flow through your mind without analysis, while you focus on your breathing. Resist the urge to scoff. There is scientific evidence now that mindfulness is a good way to tackle insomnia. And scoffing at science these days puts you on the same side as Donald Trump. Agreeing with people like that is the kind of thing that will keep you awake at night. So, focus on your breathing. Starting with the top of your head, work your way down through your body, sensing your ears, mouth, arms, chest and maybe more. Don't get turned on. Stop that, get your hands off yourself. This is supposed to be pure and spiritual. Keep breathing. Sense your knees, your leg, your foot. Seriously, stop interfering with yourself when you should be practising mindfulness. The Buddha will be really angry.


The good news is that an orgasm releases a bunch of hormones to help your brain on its way to REM sleep. The bad news is that Irish people aren't gone on sober sex, so there is usually a bucketful of alcohol undoing all the good work.

Still, there is a raft of scientific research showing that sex is your passport to the land of nod. The simplest form of research is to count the number of words a man uses in the four seconds between his orgasm and falling asleep. (One.)

Some advice for men, while we are on the topic. Women are aware that sex will help them sleep; pointing this out to them in the hope of getting a leg-over, well that's got failure written all over it.

Also, bear in mind that lack of sleep can affect testosterone, and therefore your sex drive. This is usually represented on internet articles by a guy sitting on the edge of the bed in his boxer shorts, with his head in his hands. His frustrated partner looks on with a mixture of concern and contempt. You just know she's going to sleep with someone at the office party. So, it's best to get into the 'sex/sleep' cycle, as against the 'too tired for it/now she's on Tinder' one.



We all know a 'coffee doesn't affect me' guy. He loves telling people about the double espresso he drinks before going to bed. You don't hear much more from him because the next time you look, he's face down on the table.

We're still amateurs when it comes to strong coffee. (Too many of us still call it expresso.) So, while other countries have got used to the notion that there is a time for everything, we're still wondering why we're staring at the ceiling for two hours a night. Factor in our inability to form memories or learn anything (see above), and it's no surprise we're downing a double espresso at 7pm the following day, to get us the through to bedtime.

Here's the science bit. A sleep research foundation in the US found that caffeine taken six hours before bedtime could cause you to lose an hour's sleep. The advice is to take no more than 400mg of caffeine (four cups of coffee a day), and to limit them to morning and early afternoon. Finally, while expensive brown leather shoes look good on Italians, they just make us look like bogmen. In a similar vein, don't think it's cool to ape Italians by drinking a double espresso at midnight. We're just not cut out for it.


Melatonin is the hormone that tells you to go to sleep. It's like your mother when you were young, except it doesn't have an outrageous fantasy involving Gay Byrne.

Your melatonin receptors calcify over time, preventing you from getting enough of the hormone. That is why melatonin supplements are a big hit with older people, almost as popular as Nationwide or complaining about their lives while queuing to board yet another flight to Fuerteventura.

The bad news is you can't get supplements over the counter here. The good news is melatonin is sold as a dietary aid in the US. Anyone who has squeezed next to an American on a plane knows they can do with all the help they can get on the diet front. That said, it isn't regulated in the US, so be careful if you decide to bring back a bucketful.

Its free availability is controversial now, with a lot of literature discussing the dangers of self-medicating and possible side effects. Mind you, one of the main side effects is listed as fatigue; that's hardly going to scare off anyone who wants to get some sleep.


The standard advice now is to turn off your smartphone, half an hour before going to bed. Obviously, this does not apply if you are married - it's an awkward 30 minutes, sitting there trying to have your first conversation in three years. You'll just end up lying in bed, wondering if you have drifted apart. Eventually, one of you will sit up and google "have we drifted apart?", which leads to eight million articles titled '8 Signs you have drifted apart.' (The standard photo here is of a couple in their underwear, she has her arm on his shoulder, but he's just not interested. The key thing here is that they are in their underwear.)

None of these articles will recommend you stop surfing the internet every night, because turkeys voting for Christmas and all that. You might however find them suggesting you turn off the TV half an hour before going to bed, as this can also disturb sleeping patterns. Particularly if you stayed up watching Big Brother, after which you lay in bed for hours, trying to figure out why.


A herb that's supposed to help you sleep. Where have I heard that before, says you, still struggling with the old short-term memory.

It has been in use since ancient Greece and was prescribed as a cure for insomnia by Galen, as far back as 2AD. Some say this is good thing. Others say, who the hell is Galen?

The herb, often taken as a cup of tea, has been prescribed to treat anxiety down the centuries, with English people taking it during World War Two to relieve the stress of air raids. Now it is pitched at people who lie awake all night worrying that they're not buying enough unproven drugs over the internet. It's fair to say no one ever went out of business pitching to that crowd.

The internet can't make up its mind about valerian. The NHS website says it isn't normally recommended and can have side effects. On the other hand, a guy on Reddit called AllanfromWales1 said he takes it in pill form, with 'fairly good results'. It's hard to know who to believe.

Finally, be careful how you click if you buy this online. You could end up with a copy of Valerian, Luc Besson's latest sci-fi movie about time travel, based on a 1960s comic strip from France. In fairness, that also sounds like something that might put you to sleep.


Tongue and throat exercises can tackle snoring

No, it isn't a fetish site. You need to get your dirty mind seen to. And not by a naughty nurse. Tongue and throat exercises are the new way to tackle snoring. These have replaced the more traditional treatment of sending your husband to the spare room. The spare room is no longer a solution for older couples, because Ultan, their man-child of a son, is in there, and you wouldn't believe his lack of earning power. The tongue and throat workouts are listed in a new book by Mike Dilkes, an ear, nose and throat specialist. He has been dubbed 'the patron saint of snoring', for reasons which aren't immediately clear. One of the exercises recommended by Saint Mike is to stick out your tongue and hum the national anthem. This should be huge in Ireland, because no one knows the words. Another exercise is a form of gulping, which can be triggered by looking at the price of Mike's short book, written with Alexander Adams, Stop Snoring the Easy Way(£12.99).

Still, it beats the Stop Snoring the Difficult Way, which is to lose weight and cut down on the booze. So, 'Sinne Fianna Fail/ata faoi gheall ag Eirinn, hum hum hummmm, hum-hum-hum, hum-hum, hummm hummm.'


Actually going to bed

You won't find much about this radical approach on the internet. Mainly because it doesn't involve shipping you a batch of herbs or a book. But it has been helping people get to sleep all over the world for as long as we can remember. The method is called Actually Going to Bed. (It used to be called Going to Bed, but the only way to get millennials to pay attention to anything is to put the word actually before it. That's actually true.)

Here's a one-step guide to Actually Going to Bed. 1: Go to bed. That's it. Don't flick through the channels one more time in the crazy hope there might be something good on ITV. Don't open Facebook again and leave a comment on your friend's new profile photo, your phone will be beeping all night with other messages of support because your friend is as delicate as a daisy. Don't open another fun-size Crunchie, unless your definition of fun is lying awake all night wondering if chocolate is worse than espresso in terms of sleep. (It so is.)

That's it. Just go to bed. And actually sleep tight.

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