Sleep expert shares seven easy tips to boost your sleep, lift your mood and improve your self-control

A woman sleeping in a bed
(Image credit: Shutterstock / New Africa)

Exercise and diet are often seen as the bastions of a healthy lifestyle, but improving your sleep offers arguably greater benefits. 

The problem is, though we spend roughly a third of our lives in the land of nod, most of us aren’t very good at it. That’s where Dr Sophie Bostock, aka The Sleep Scientist, can help. 

“The benefits people will very quickly notice [from a good sleep] are improved mood, positivity, and also your ability to regulate emotions,” she explains. "Another one is self-control, or your ability to follow through on your goals. That’s why, if you’re trying to improve your life and your health, sleep is such a great thing to start with.

“There’s a lot of generic sleep advice out there, but if it’s a coaching situation, it’s all about finding stuff that’s relevant. That's why I always recommend that people experiment, because [what works will] really depend on you and your routine.”

So, whether you’re an early bird or a fully-fledged night owl, it's worth making small tweaks to supercharge your sleep – here are Dr Bostock's top tips for testing the water. 

Dr Sophie Bostock, founder of The Sleep Scientist
Dr Sophie Bostock

Dr Sophie Bostock is a sleep expert and founder of The Sleep Scientist – a platform designed to make the latest sleep research more accessible and answer people's common queries.

She completed her PhD in health psychology at University College London, focusing on why happiness protects against heart disease and how to improve wellbeing at work. 

Dr Bostock then spent five years working on sleep-improvement platform Sleepio, and she has also published research on the impacts of sleep on mental health and performance, in collaboration with the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute in Oxford, and international researchers. 

She now works as an independent “sleep evangelist”, working with clients to improve their sleep. 

A sleep expert's top tips to improve your sleep

1. Establish a regular routine

It can be easy to fixate on the amount of sleep you’re getting each night, but Dr Bostock says the regularity of your sleep also plays a major role in its effectiveness.

“When we talk about consistency being really important, we’re talking about circadian rhythms,” she explains. “Circadian rhythms are these internal body clocks that are wired into every cell in the body. We are wired to work on a 24-hour rhythm, so regularity is, we now think, almost as important as sleep duration for our long-term health.”

This is why shift workers can struggle with fatigue, and an increased risk of physical and mental health conditions such as heart disease and depression, she says. 

“When our rhythms are haphazard, what it does is create stress on the body. You have some cells working at different speeds and not speaking to other cells and systems, and this causes a bit of chaos in the body.

“Whereas, when you’re consistent, everything is aligned. You find yourself waking up in advance of your alarm clock going off, getting hungry at meal times, getting sleepy at bedtime and falling asleep quickly. Regularity is number one.”

2. Prioritize light

Even if you can’t establish a regular routine, Dr Bostock still recommends aiming to give yourself consistent signals to keep your body clocks aligned. 

“These signals are called zeitgebers or time-givers, and the most powerful signal to your body clock is light,” she says.

“Bright light is a really strong stimulus for your circadian clock. When you get light landing on the receptors on the back of the eye, it tells the master clock that it’s time to be alert.”

Dr Bostock recommends getting plenty of natural light, particularly in the morning, as well as taking work breaks outside and setting your desk up next to a window to help with this. 

3. Leave time between dinner and bed

My usual evening routine involves a late dinner followed by an hour of crashing on the couch in front of the TV before bed, but Dr Bostock says this is far from ideal. This is because eating is another zeitgeber, sending signals to your body that it’s time to be awake. 

“If you’re eating at 9 o’clock, you’re telling your internal systems, ‘It’s still daytime, there’s still stuff to do, I still have my food to metabolize’." 

Leaving three hours or more between your final meal and bedtime would be ideal, she advises, but if you can’t do this then aim for a minimum of two hours. 

4. Rise and shine

People’s internal rhythms tend to fall into one of two camps; early birds and night owls. While early birds naturally wake at the crack of dawn, night owls rarely feel sleepy until after midnight, then struggle with alertness until roughly 10am the next day. 

But, though many people won’t want to hear this, both groups can benefit from getting up with the sun. 

“There was actually some research done recently which shows that, if you’re a natural early bird and you get out of bed early, your clocks are aligned – you’re going to function really well,” Dr Bostock says. 

“But if you’re a night owl, even if you follow what seems to be your natural internal rhythm by going to bed late and getting up late, your mental health seems to be worse than people who follow an early bird pattern. 

“As human beings we seem to be wired towards getting up at dawn, being alert during the day and sleeping when it gets dark at night.”

To shift their routine forward, Dr Bostock suggests night owls use zeitgebers to  “get those circadian rhythms going”. This involves “getting lots of bright light first thing in the morning, getting some breakfast, and getting your body moving”, then doing the opposite before bed. 

5. Be intuitive

“If you’re feeling very sleepy throughout the day, it suggests either you’re not getting enough hours of sleep, or the quality of your sleep isn’t good enough,” says Dr Bostock. This is linked to “sleep pressure”, which builds up the longer you're awake. 

To find a routine that works for you, she recommends the following test. 

“If you have [a vacation] coming up, you can try and be sensitive to what your needs are. As soon as you feel tired, go to bed. Don’t set an alarm and see what time you wake up. 

“For a couple of days people will typically sleep longer, thinking, ‘This is unsustainable. I can’t sleep for 10 hours at a time’. But they’re probably paying back a little bit of the sleep debt that they’ve built up. What you should find, after three, four or five nights, is you start to stabilize around a certain amount or sleep window. 

“A lot of us don’t give ourselves the opportunity to work out what our unique sleep needs are, and it might genuinely only be 30 minutes more than you get now. I’m not saying that you need to allow for 10 hours of sleep.”

6. Establish a pre-bed routine

The stress system has major implications for our sleep, but a good pre-bed routine can help quash these effects. 

“Most of us have heard of fight or flight – the way we respond to acute stress. In this modern era, though we might not be defending ourselves against saber-toothed tigers, the kinds of things that amp up our stress response are everywhere.

“A lot of people struggle, quite naturally, with work stress. Why? Usually, it’s because you feel like you’re under scrutiny. It springs from our instinctive need to be accepted by our tribe.”

When you’re stressed, you may struggle to fall asleep. And, when you do succumb to exhaustion, you’re still too wired to get into a deep sleep. 

“Your brain stays at this higher level of arousal, so you could wake up at any moment and run away, but what that means is you wake up in the morning still feeling exhausted,” Dr Bostock says. 

“One of the factors [for switching off this stress response] is having a good bedtime routine, and that’s about familiarity. If unpredictability and a lack of control make your brain feel uneasy, then what we want is to feel in control. We want to know exactly what’s coming next, because it reassures the brain.”

7. Destress before bedtime

Another way to switch off this stress response is to process the niggling thoughts playing on our mind ahead of bedtime. 

“I recommend some kind of debriefing process throughout the day,” says Dr Bostock. This could be talking to family and friends, journaling, mindfulness, gratitude, or even something as simple as writing a to-do list. 

“Reflect on each thought, express it so it’s not just churning around in your head, then move on. It’s a case of downloading, then moving on to some sort of positive thought.”

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Harry Bullmore
Fitness & Wearables writer

Harry is a huge fan of picking things up, putting them down again and writing about it, which uniquely qualifies him for the position of fitness and wearables writer with TechRadar. 

He’s an NCTJ-qualified journalist with a degree in English and journalism and several years’ experience covering the health and fitness beat. This has involved writing for the likes of Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Fit&Well, Live Science and Coach. 

Harry is passionate about all things exercise-related, having spent more than a decade experimenting with a wide range of training styles. He's used strength training, bodybuilding, Pilates, powerlifting, gymnastics, rowing, yoga, running, calisthenics, CrossFit and more to build a fit, functional body (and have fun while doing it). 

When he’s not writing or training, he can usually be found racing his dog Archie up scenic hills in the south west of England or working to complete his NASM-certified personal trainer qualification.