Doctors say you’re risking premature death from diabetes, stroke or heart disease if you’re getting less than six hours shuteye a night
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As medical advice goes, it’s perhaps the easiest pill to swallow – if you want to live longer, get more sleep. According to Public Health England, kipping for less than six hours a night means you’re 12% more likely to die prematurely from anything from diabetes to stroke to heart disease.
And in particular it’s the middle-aged, 40-60-year-olds, who are being targeted by the government to get seven to eight hours of better quality shuteye.
Mid-lifers, who are often stressed by juggling families and/or careers, are being encouraged to make seven lifestyle changes – stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, taking more -exercise, improving diet, reducing stress, improving sleep and checking for common signs and symptoms of disease.
PHE says: “Only around 20-30% of what we think of as “ageing” is biological; the rest is “decay” or “deterioration”, which can be actively managed or prevented.
“Those in middle age often don’t get enough exercise, they’re stressed with the strains of working harder, they’re often eating poor diets – and if you’re tired, that exacerbates all those other potentially negative factors.”
So what is a good night’s sleep? The general thinking is that we need 4-5 full 90-minute cycles of deep sleep to feel refreshed in the morning.
Professor Jim Horne, from Loughborough’s Sleep Research Centre, says: “It’s not about hours spent in bed, but the quality of those hours – so preparation is key to wind yourself down after a stressful day’s work or otherwise.”
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See right for our 90-minute countdown to a great night’s sleep.
Sleep minus 90 minutes: Load up on carbs
Cath Collins, chief dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London, says a good way to help yourself nod off is to eat carbohydrates such as pasta, potatoes and rice for your evening meal.
She says: “They cause insulin to be released and lets the tryptophan that’s naturally found in your bloodstream (and makes serotonin that signals sleep) through to your brain.”
A light carbohydrate snack such as a bowl of porridge with honey before bed should hit all your sleep buttons.
Sleep minus 60 minutes: Clear away work
Dr William Dement, author of In the Promise of Sleep, says: “When you eliminate the stuff in your bedroom that isn’t related to sleep, such as work papers, your brain starts to associate the room only with sleep and intimacy.”
Keep any computers or TVs in another room, or inside a cabinet. You’ll be shutting the door on stress and late-night screen gazing, which has been proven to hinder sleep.
“Instead of watching TV, wind down with a book – it won’t overstimulate your mind and you’ll go to sleep when you’re tired, not when the programme finishes.”
Sleep minus 45 minutes: Pop some pills
Not sleeping pills, but vitamin B5, an antidote to cortisol, the stress hormone that surges as we get older
In tests carried out by Lyon University sleep researchers, athletes and couch potatoes alike who downed a high-carbohydrate drink enjoyed a sleep-inducing drop in cortisol.
Sleep minus 30 minutes: Chill out
Part of the reason exercise helps you sleep has to do with its effect on your body temperature. This rises when you work out, then gradually drops when you rest.
“It’s that drop that promotes sleep,” says Dr Dement.
“Exercising six hours before bedtime is optimal, but any time of day will help.”
Sleep minus 20 minutes: Heat your feet
“Lower your core temperature with a hot bath shortly before sleeping, and wear socks in bed,” says Dr Beata O’Donaghue, Consultant in Sleep Medicine at The London Clinic.
“Warm feet cause blood vessels to enlarge, dispersing heat and lowering your core temperature.”
Sleep minus 15 minutes: Have a drink
Swap that single malt nightcap for a cup of Horlicks or any other warm, milky drink. “Milk’s loaded with tryptophans, the building blocks of serotonin, the body’s most important sleep hormone,” explains Collins.
But if you’re prone to snoring, beware – dairy products can cause extra mucus to be produced which can obstruct the airway and make your nocturnal rumblings even worse.
“Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than the other techniques such as counting sheep,” explains study author Allison Harvey. “Plus, it’s easier to stay with it because it’s more interesting.”
And the best time to hit the sack? 10pm. “Levels of the stress hormone cortisol are rock-bottom, while your body produces a surge of sleep-inducing melatonin, which peaks around midnight,” Harvey says.
“Your heart rate falls along with your body temperature and stress hormones, so your whole body’s primed for sleep.”
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