The bedtime routine of a sleep expert

In the final instalment of their podcast series, Dr Nicola Barclay, University of Oxford Sleep Scientist, and John Tuton, Mammoth Founder, discuss the bed-time routine of a sleep expert.

JT: Another question we’ve got here where there’s somebody acknowledging, yeah, look, I know the advice is to put the phone and technology away and I struggle not to be constantly switched on. However, what can I do to break the cycle and give myself that down time? So, with that with that in mind then, Nicola, what does your routine look like? You know, let’s hear it from one of the country’s leading experts, you know, how do you do it?

NB: My bedtime routine is a little bit dictated by my daughter, who doesn’t sleep very well. But regardless of that,  you need to be attuned to the sleep needs that you require. So everyone sleeps slightly differently. Sleep is a personalised thing that we do we are not all the same. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. We have a general average between seven and nine hours for the adult population, but not everyone needs that.

So some people need six hours, some people need a little bit longer. So we need to be attuned to that and we can experiment with how we feel when we’ve had different amounts of sleep and work out what’s right for you. But fundamentally as well, it’s about the timing of sleep. You’ve probably all heard of night owls and morning larks, and this is what we call Chronotype type. We all have an individual Chronotype type, the timing that we are particularly awake and when we start to feel sleepy. So I know that I need around six hours sleep and I’m a morning type. I find it very difficult to stay awake in the evenings.

So what I do, I have a very strict bedtime routine where once my daughter’s in bed, I will also get myself ready for bed, you know, brushing my teeth, doing my hair, getting into pyjamas and doing all that a couple of hours before bedtime. And then I’ll sit and watch a favourite TV show and then strictly 10:30. I’m upstairs in bed. I don’t have to do anything in the bathroom. I can just go straight to bed and I’m out like a light. But I have suffered from insomnia for many years and it has taken work to actually get to that state to be able to put my head on the pillow and fall asleep.

And so even though what I’m going to say at another point is that sleep itself is an automatic process, you know, we can’t control when we’re going to fall asleep, but we can control the environment at which we are going to go to sleep in and we can control the day and we can control those hours leading up to the night time. An important thing as well, that I should have mentioned is I strictly control light exposure. So, we know that light is an alerting signal and light hits a very deep centre of our brain, which control was asleep, wake cycle, the suprachiasmatic nucleus. So, light from the sun or from the rooms that we are in travels through a particular pathway through our eyes and stimulates the cells of a suprachiasmatic nucleus and this SEN then tells the rest of the cells in the body whether it’s time to be awake or time to be asleep.

So light actually works as an alerting signal and when we are needing to go to sleep, the light actually inhibits a hormone called melatonin. So melatonin is sometimes called the hormone of darkness. It’s secreted in dim light conditions in almost darkness, and it physiologically makes us sleepy and we need melatonin to get to sleep. So if we are exposing ourselves to lots of bright light in the evening, then we actually delay the onset of melatonin. So we are able to stay awake later and later and later with lots of bright light exposure. So one way to help yourself get to sleep easier is to reduce your light exposure in the evening in the hours leading up to bedtime.

So, for the last two hours of my day, from eight thirty to ten thirty, I have very dim lights all over the house. You will not see me putting any lights on. And we know that even a very short flick of a switch of a light pulse is enough to reset the circadian rhythm and so it’s really important not to switch on the bathroom lights just before bed.

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Watch the full interview here.