‘Lighting is paramount’: the science of sleeping well

“We all have our own unique relationship with sleep, but two things are true for all of us: to sleep soundly we need to feel safe and settled in our environment,” says sleep therapist Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake. The solution is multi-sensory. “Creating a pre-bedtime ritual, incorporating visual, physical or olfactory cues can be a good way to foster those feelings,” she says. “So my most important tip is to find a routine that helps you to drift off and to stick to it.”

And it’s not just about the 20 minutes before bedtime. “From the moment you step through the door in the evening, start making the transition from the busyness of the day to a relaxed state that’s ready for sleep,” says Ramlakhan. “There are a few small tricks that can be incorporated into anyone’s evening, no matter how busy.”

But where do you start? “Lighting is paramount,” says Ramlakhan. The hormone melatonin is responsible for making us fall asleep; the pineal gland in our brain naturally starts to release more melatonin into the bloodstream at night. However, bright lights, especially screen light, can delay the production of melatonin by stimulating a nerve pathway connecting the retina in the eye to an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. “Candles are a good option if you don’t want to delay the onset of melatonin release,” says Ramlakhan. She recommends two hours of low light, giving the brain plenty of time to start pumping the sleep hormone into the system. Opt for the Calm Candle, £7.50, which releases a gentle fragrance mix of clary sage, lavender and sweet orange – formulated to promote relaxation.

In fact, lavender has long been used as a natural sedative; as far back as the 14th century, Charles VI, king of France, is said to have demanded that lavender be stuffed into his pillows to help him sleep.

“My own bedroom is scented with lavender,” says Ramlakhan. Over the past 10 years, several studies have found that, neurologically, the smell of lavender oil has anti-anxiety and analgesic properties. “The scientific benefits of aromatherapy interventions are still being understood, but incorporating them into our night-time routine can make us feel calm from the associations we have with the smell.” As well as lavender, Ramlakhan uses eucalyptus because, as she explains: “It was used in my childhood a lot – and that memory makes it a potent relaxant for me. Adding something with a strong aromatherapeutic smell into your night-time routine can act like a trigger, telling your brain that it’s time for sleep.”

When you’re sleeping away from home, bring your bedtime routine with you to reduce the unsettling feeling. So, if lavender is part of your night-time ritual, says Ramlakhan, “the associated behaviour and smell is likely to help you relax and create feelings of safety.” Ren Pillow Spray, £19, is blended with essential oils, including lavender.

Alternatively, switching your regular shower gel to something like L’Occitane Aromachologie Relaxing Shower Gel, £16.50, could work just as well. It has a blend of essential oils that infuse the steam with a relaxing scent. “And if you’ve got time for a bath in the evening, salts are a great way to relax tired muscles,” says Ramlakhan. As well as washing away tension, This Works Deep Sleep Bath Soak, £22, smells divine and will leave your skin feeling soft and hydrated.

The trick is not to leave showering or bathing too late. Like light, body temperature plays an important role in preparation for the night; the process of rapid cooling after a hot shower is proven to aid sleep, but it takes about 90 minutes to reach peak drowsiness. Is it bedtime yet?

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Sleep saviours

Transform your bedroom into a spa-like sanctuary with the relaxing aroma of the Ragdale Hall Time to Sleep Candle, £9.50

Centre yourself after a long day by coming home and being greeted by the relaxing aroma of this Calm Diffuser, £15

Help to reduce sleep-associated anxiety with the bestselling, fast-acting This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, £19.50

Sink into a bath delicately infused with the calming scent of lavender, perfectly blended with bois de rose, clary sage and geranium with the Ragdale Hall Sleep Bath Elixir, £7.50

Beautifully fragranced to calm the mind, This Works Deep Sleep Shower Gel is the perfect antidote to the end of a long, stressful day, £22

The M&S Sleep Shop has everything you need for a great night’s sleep. To find out more go to marksandspencer.com or visit a Sleep Shop in your local store.

The Guardian

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