Over this last year, many of us have lost our usual daily routines, with no commute, lunchtimes with colleagues or clear time differences between office and home time.
While this in itself is not necessarily a concern, routine helps cement the position of our circadian rhythm (body clock) and so aids good sleep. Without a set routine our body clock can begin to drift, particularly if we are night owls who may find getting up for work more difficult as our body clock moves slightly later each day.
Where possible, a consistent daytime routine of light exposure, meals and exercise can be beneficial to help support our body clock, and making a more defined distinction with our routines, between days and nights, helps support good sleep.
Going for a walk during the day to get some bright light, even on a cloudy day, helps create routine with our exposure to light. Where possible go for a walk before work or walk during your lunch break, even half an hour is beneficial.
Having your breakfast, lunch, and evening meal at around the same time each day, at ‘normal’ mealtimes helps your body clock. Regular exercise brings many benefits and if you can exercise at roughly the same time each day, preferably not late evening, this will also help your body clock (and fresh air and exercise also help sleep). A regular exercise routine is great for improving sleep quality and quantity, but vigorous exercise too close to bed can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Yoga or gentle stretching before bed can be a valuable part of your bedtime routine.
As well as daytime routines our evening and bedtime routines can support sleep.
Darkness is the signal for our body to produce melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’, so we need to make sure that our activities in the evening are helping to prepare us for bed. About an hour (ideally more if you can) before bed, switch to lower levels of lighting (such as a lamp, rather than overhead brighter lights), and try not to use any electronic devices like your phone, laptop, tablet or TV. Devices with LED or LCD screens are generally rich in ‘blue light’, which is particularly alerting to our body. Many of these devices now have ‘night mode’ built in, which turns the screens black and white, or reduces the brightness and adds a reddish shade to the screen. The latter does reduce the amount of blue light, but using such devices may still be mentally stimulating, or may be a reason why we put off going to bed (look out for our next blog on bedtime procrastination).
Our daytime behaviours may also impact our sleep.
Caffeine is great for helping us feel more alert when needed, but it can interfere with our sleep later in the day. What’s more, caffeine circulates in our body for a surprisingly long time. On average, it takes 4 hours for the caffeine level in our bloodstream to halve, which is why it is recommended to limit your caffeine intake after lunch.
Think about how much caffeine you drink during the day. For example, the average shot of espresso contains about 110mg of caffeine, meaning that 4 hours after drinking it, 55mg of caffeine is still circulating in your bloodstream – enough in some people to disturb sleep. For many of us, drinking caffeinated drinks is simply a habit, something to do when we take a break from our desks, or something we do to stave off the withdrawal effects of not having caffeine (such as headaches and fatigue) or not having enough sleep the night before.
When we consume caffeine regularly, we become tolerant to it, meaning we need more and more to maintain its effects, that first cup of coffee of the morning can be about combating caffeine withdrawal rather than anything else. If we drink too much caffeine or drink caffeinated drinks later in the day, this can become a vicious cycle – the caffeine disrupts our sleep, meaning we need caffeine the next day to feel ‘sharp’, which then disturbs our sleep, and so on.
For a double-performance boost, take a ‘nappuccino’: a coffee followed by a 20-minute nap (Pink, 2018). Take about 150g of caffeine, (approx. 2 espressos). Caffeine takes about 25 minutes to engage in your bloodstream so drink just before you lie down to nap.
As you wake up, the caffeine is beginning to kick in. However, to ensure you are fully awake, walk around for around 10 minutes to dissipate any grogginess after waking up.
This is a general guide, but there are large differences between people in their sensitivity to caffeine. Some people are very sensitive to caffeine and drink very little or none because even a cup of tea can make them feel anxious and disrupt their sleep
Caffeine can also have negative impacts on how we feel during the day. When stressed it can be tempting to take a tea or coffee break, but caffeine can worsen stress because it activates the same pathways in our body associated with the ‘fight and flight’ response (the sympathetic nervous system). Instead of having a tea or coffee break, try something relaxing such as taking a walk or trying some stretching exercises.
How can I reduce my caffeine intake?
If you want to reduce the amount of caffeine you drink, it is important to take it gradually – going ‘cold turkey’ is often not very pleasant!
Try these strategies to help:
If you drink instant coffee, mix decaffeinated coffee powder with ordinary coffee to make a lower caffeine drink
Introduce one or two decaffeinated drinks into your daily diet. Then gradually increase this by alternating decaffeinated drinks with caffeine containing drinks
Replace caffeinated soft drinks with the caffeine-free version, or sparkling mineral water
Drink smaller volumes by using a cup instead of a mug
Try taking the tea bag out slightly earlier to reduce the caffeine in your cup of tea
If you are using caffeine to mask feelings of exhaustion, you need a new strategy, for example, napping during the day, going to bed earlier in the evening, or moving your 6 am workout to slightly later in the day. If getting enough sleep is really difficult (e.g. due to homeschooling and work demands or having a new baby at home) caffeine can be helpful in the short term to get us through difficult times, but try and get back to a good sleep routine when you can.