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7 easy ways to improve your sleep, according to an expert

And the surprising things that could be causing you to wake up at night.

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HOW DID YOU FEEL when you woke up this morning? Delightfully refreshed, or groggy and wanting to curse at your alarm?

According to a survey by Natural Sleep of 1,800 people in Ireland, only over half of us (54%) are getting 6-8 hours sleep, with around 36% of us getting less than six hours.

And most of us should be aiming for eight hours, right? Well actually, it’s not that simple, says independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, an academic who has provided expertise to the likes of Channel 4, CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC.

Here’s the surprising truth about shut-eye and how to make the most of it each night.

1. It’s not about hours of sleep, it’s about feeling alert

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Aiming to achieve a minimum number of hours every night will only do so much, warns Stanley, who says the magic ‘eight’ is the biggest myth when it comes to sleep:

Your need for sleep is a little like your height in that it’s different for everyone. It’s important to get the sleep that you as an individual need, which will be somewhere between four and 11 hours.

So, how do we work out whether we need more or less than that? Actually, how we feel when we’re not sleeping can be the most accurate marker, shares Stanley:

The amount of sleep you need is the level that leaves you feeling alert during the day – if you feel sleepy during the day, you didn’t get enough the night before. Equally if you think you have insomnia but feel fine during the day, you probably don’t have it.

2. Comfort in your bedroom is key

A crucial aspect of all this is getting your sleeping environment right. It’s important to psychologically associate your bedroom with sleep and not other things like watching TV, says Stanley, who shares how best to make your bedroom comfortable:

Your bedroom needs to be dark (ideally pitch black) so make sure you have heavy curtains that block out external light. It needs to be quiet, comfortable and cool. You don’t want your bedroom to be too warm – it should be around 16 or 17 degrees.

According to Reader’s Digest, cotton sheets can allow air to circulate better at night than other fabrics, allowing you to keep cool, so consider investing in sheets or pyjamas made from cotton, if you do tend to feel too warm at night.

Creating comfort by using natural materials is important for this, especially if you tend to eat calorific food or consume alcohol late at night – which will release heat as your body breaks it down over night:

To get a good night’s sleep you need to lose heat – decreasing your body temperature by about 1 degree or so. You can be warm under the covers, but your bedroom should generally be cool, not warm.

3. Listen to your body’s signals around sleep

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The biggest problem with sleep, is that we don’t see it as important, highlights Stanley. Not that long ago, pubs and shops would close and TV programming would end – now there are, “so many things that compete with our sleep”:

It may sound obvious, but the best time to go to bed is the minute you start to feel sleepy but people don’t do this – they wait until their partner goes to bed or their TV show ends or the time they think they should go to bed instead, which is problematic.

Is there an ideal time to wake up? It’s actually more about establishing a routine than giving it a specific time frame to become alert before we get up, says Stanley:

The most important change is to fix your wake up time. Your body starts waking up approximately 90 minutes before you ‘wake up’, so if your body can anticipate when you’ll wake up, you won’t feel groggy and like it takes time to get going

4. Get up early at the weekend (yes, really)

This might sound unachievable right now, but the ideal scenario is “to wake up naturally without an alarm clock having gotten enough sleep”, says Stanley, who shares how:

Probably the best change you can make is waking up at the same time seven days a week, 365 days a year. The reason you have to catch up at weekends is that you haven’t gotten enough sleep during week.

5. Don’t underestimate the importance of the hour before bed

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When we don’t see sleep as important enough to say, turn off Netflix, we don’t give ourselves enough time to wind down before sleep, which is crucial, argues Stanley:

You need to put yourself in the position to go to sleep. An hour of ‘wind down’ time would be great but most people find this difficult. Try to spend at least 30 minutes leaving your phone or tablet aside, relaxing, listening to music or doing whatever it takes to ‘switch off’.

Seems simple, right? But your phone is a lot to blame for the lack of time we spend doing this, says Stanley, which warns that the lighting on your phone will make it difficult to go to sleep:

Sometimes this can be due to work – you take work home with you via your mobile phone. A lot of people leave their phone next to their bed because they use it as an alarm clock but that means they check their phone last thing, during the night if they wake up and in the morning.

6. Don’t be afraid of having an espresso with dinner

The idea that the caffeine we consume during the day could be keeping us awake at night has been around for a long time, but don’t necessarily believe the hype, warns Stanley:

Caffeine is only a problem for people if they are sensitive to it – for those people, having a coffee a couple of hours before bed can disturb their sleep. Other people have espressos after dinner and it has no impact. If you know it has an impact, avoid it. If not, don’t worry.

7. Try to have dinner 3-4 hours before you sleep

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Find you’re guilty of a few late dinners or an unplanned trip to the chipper on your way home from a night out? Again, this can make you too warm at night, explains Stanley:

If you eat too late at night, your body has to process that food – it burns off calories which can affect your body heat. You need to leave about three or four hours between dinner and going to bed.

Reckon you’ll be hungry in that time? ”Light snacks are fine, but the more sugary or calorific the food is, the more problems that it may cause when you drift off”.

And perhaps Stanley’s most important advice of all? Don’t ignore poor quality sleep if it’s impacting on you long term:

If you haven’t slept well the majority of nights for a month, the thing to do is to see your doctor. Changes in sleep are not a natural part of ageing necessarily – don’t just accept it. Do check if everything is OK.

Sleep is incredibly important, and sometimes it just takes little changes to feel more refreshed each morning. Lidl’s special offers this week include a comfort mattress, a reversible jersey bedding setfitted sheets, a mattress topper and ladies’ pyjamas, along with a number of floor lamps. Check out their sleep range here.

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