There is a gene, possessed by people like Napoleon, Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump, that means a body can function at its peak on just a few hours of sleep (although we’ll let your politics be the judge of whether that grouping implies some less appealing side effects). The rest of us can pretend that we’re at our best when burning the candle at both ends, but in reality, it leaves your brain a hot mess.
Literally, in some cases: if you regularly cut short your shut-eye, your body reacts in the same way as when you’ve been hit in the head, releasing a cascade of chemicals normally associated with brain damage. No wonder an interrupted night means you wake up punch drunk.
Late nights are also bad news for your body. If you’ve hit the gym, your muscles repair overnight; less time snoozing means less time growing. But odds are, your only workout was right arm to lips, since missing hours slashes your willpower, increases your appetite, and even primes your body to cling on to fat. Before you let House Of Cards roll onto the next episode, adopt these tricks to speed you to the land of nod.
Put Your Smartphone Away
Your smartphone is, in a neurological sense, a slot machine. Each notification carries the promise of reward (an Instagram like from your work crush) or disappointment (your mum inviting you to Farmville. Again).
Your brain reacts accordingly, dribbling out dopamine each time your pocket buzzes. But this emotional bungee is bad news for sleep, since it keeps you in a heightened state not conducive to slipping off. Plug it in at 9pm and don’t check it again until the morning. You don’t work for Amazon, those emails can wait.
In Fact, Put All Your Screens Away
Your body has evolved, over millennia, to respond to the cycles of the sun. It goes up, so do you. It goes down, your eyelids follow. When it gets dark, your body releases a hormone called melatonin, which kick-starts your sleepiness.
Artificial light slows this a little, but it’s the blue light from phone, computer and tablet screens that’s most insidious; a study from Harvard University found that six hours of exposure drops your melatonin levels for twice as long and knocks your sleep cycle back three hours.
Dim the lights and swap the screens for a book once dinner’s off the table.
Eat Early, Eat Well
All hormones in your body are built from the fuel you feed it. Melatonin is no different. One of its raw building blocks is an amino acid called tryptophan, according to Dave Gibson, a sleep expert at Warrens Evans, which is particularly concentrated in eggs, poultry and hard cheese. Snack on them early in the day to replenish your stocks – just leave enough time before bed to avoid weird dreams.
You know caffeine’s out – ideally, you should ditch tea and coffee after lunch – but simple carbs pre-bed are just as bad. White bread, potatoes and rice quickly break down into sugar, spiking your energy levels just as drowsy kicks in.
Swap them for whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, says nutritionist Cassandra Barns. These complex carbs drip-feed energy through the night, to stop your body from releasing its starvation hormones, but release it slowly so you don’t get a sudden, wake-up spike.
Lose The Booze
When your brain’s racing, a couple of pints might ease you into unconsciousness. But the sleep it initiates isn’t beneficial, according to a study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
The researchers found that a nightcap spiked levels of alpha waves in the brain, which are normally present when you’re resting, but not asleep. These override the rather handier delta waves, which reboot your brain and make sure your day’s experiences are filed away properly. The result? You wake up groggy and forget where you put your keys.
For a better pre-bed tipple, swap the hard stuff for coconut water. It’s low-sugar, which circumvents those sudden energy spikes, and is packed with sleep-inducing electrolytes, like magnesium, potassium, calcium and phosphorous.
“Balanced levels of these minerals are necessary to maintain normal muscle action, nerve function and hydration in our body,” says Barns. “Deficiencies or imbalances may cause cramping and restless legs at night, and therefore disturbed sleep.” Just don’t be tempted to add a glug of vodka.