How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep in London

Londoners are among the worst sleepers in the UK – but why is that? And what can we do to turn our sleep karma around? We went to the experts to find out

Anyone who’s tried to brave it through the day on just a few hours will know just how important getting sufficient sleep is. It affects every aspect of our physical health and mental wellbeing and skipping out a on good night’s worth will have you feeling groggy, foggy and irritable. If you go for long periods without sleeping, you could begin to suffer from a number of health issues: a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes, risk of heart disease and poor balance, just to name a few. 

Just as important as enough hours in bed is the actual quality of sleep you’re getting. Several factors can affect how well you sleep, such as noise level and alcohol consumption, but being a Londoner can also put you at a bit of a disadvantage. Life in the city isn’t really conducive to a great sleep schedule and light pollution, noisy streets and days spent indoors at a computer tend to have many of us tossing and turning at night. Beyond that, fast-paced work environments and busy days can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety, making it harder for us to fall asleep and – once we get there – even tougher to stay asleep.

In 2023, Click Pharmacy analysed NHS data to see which regions in the UK suffered the most from sleep disorders (which include insomnia, sleep apnea and excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)). Lo and behold, they found that London was home to the highest number of poor sleepers, with a whopping 14.4 sleep studies per 10,000 people (where a sleep study indicates someone is suffering from a sleep disorder). 

The majority of us will have struggled with getting enough good sleep at some point in our lives, and if that’s what you’re experiencing right now, don’t worry, there are things you can do. We chatted with three sleep experts who know all about how to make the most out of your bedtime hours and have picked out some practical tips tailored just for you. Whether you want a better understanding of the science behind sleep, or the simple lifestyle tweaks that could make a big difference, here’s how to reclaim your Zzz’s.

Charlie Morley | Lucid Dreaming Expert

Charlie Morley is a bestselling author of four books on lucid dreaming, sleep & mindfulness. For the past 15 years, he’s been running immersive sleep & dream retreats across the globe and he’s presented his work at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities as well as the Ministry of Defence.

Can you talk a bit about why sleep and rest are so important?

Sleep is really, really good for us. We are better at literally everything we can measure when we get sufficient sleep. Sufficient sleep means sleeping for about 30 years, approximately a third of our life. 

Insufficient sleep, now classed by the National Sleep Foundation as fewer than seven hours per night, leads to measurable cognitive impairment, and there is no biological function in the body that is not adversely affected by it.

Poor sleep affects every part of our life, from cognitive ability – a sleepless night leads to 40 per cent less memory storage – to weight loss – dieting while sleep-deprived loses muscle, not fat. Even immune function is affected, as we have a whopping 70 percent drop in immune cell activity after a night of poor sleep. Insufficient sleep affects wider society too, with sleep deprivation being directly linked to tens of thousands of traffic accident deaths every year and to a 170 percent increase in major surgical errors.

How would you define a good night’s sleep?

If during the day, after a night’s sleep, you feel well-rested, relaxed, you don’t feel sleepy and you don’t need to drink coffee or something else to give you a boost before lunch, then you’ve had enough sleep and you’ve probably had the recommended amount of sleep of 7-9 hours. However, some people will vary and need less sleep than this. So a good night’s sleep isn’t always about what happens for you at night but more about how you feel the next day.

Do you believe that people living in London in particular suffer from a lack of sleep/ do not get enough rest? If so, why do you think that is?

City living, compared to living in the countryside where we’re more in tune with the rhythms of nature, can be one of the most detrimental environments for good sleep. Partly because of the light pollution you find in places like London, an environment where the rhythms of day and night are constantly controlled i.e. where we’re more exposed to street and other outdoor lighting. Also as Londoners we are living in a busy environment, we’re more likely to be working longer hours in office environments or connected to devices. So city life generally means we’re exposed to more artificial lighting, the outside isn’t as dark as it would be in the countryside and as a result this can be detrimental when it comes to sleep.

Which common habits can be most detrimental to high-quality sleep?

We all know that too much exposure to blue light before bed, answering emails in bed, too much coffee etc will impact our nervous system and potentially impact our quality of sleep. Interestingly, the most important barrier to good sleep begins not two hours before bedtime when people start to wind down, in many cases that’s too late. Lack of relaxation during the day and stressful lifestyles actually lead to poor sleep at night. Good sleep begins during the day. The more daylight hours we spend in a relaxed state rather than a stressed or heightened state can help improve our sleep at night. So being in a stressed or anxious state during the day is probably the most detrimental habit to high-quality sleep.

Do you think that working in an office vs working from home can have an impact on sleep quality? If so, how?

This can be quite subjective. An individual’s work environment can be a big factor for many. For some people working from home where they don’t have the stress of office life means they are in a more relaxed state during the day. Others might feel social isolation from working from home, which means they feel lonely during the day and this can be a stressful place to be for extroverts or those who need human contact more than others, because loneliness can lead to a stress response if there’s a feeling that we no longer belong to the tribe. 

So it really depends on the person and their need for human contact. Of course, it also depends on whether the individual enjoys their job, leading to the right amount of satisfaction and contentment. If a person has neither of these things, this may impact sleep. Lastly, if their job offers a ‘good level of stress’, the kind that keeps them motivated vs. an overwhelming amount of stress, the latter could also impact sleep.

Any tips specific to balancing work/life/sleep balance – something that many Londoners have a hard time with?

Londoners might not be able to achieve 8-9 hours a night but what might help is napping or a form of Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) during the day such as Yoga Nidra. What can be important is looking at the bigger picture – the 24-hour period as a whole – if we can increase our sleep time by one hour within that period, this can positively boost our wellbeing. Just increasing our overall sleep by half an hour and introducing a half an hour nap, this extra hour of sleep and rest a day can be a powerful way to boost our wellbeing.

What do you think is the most underrated tip for getting better sleep?

Breathwork. These days, the benefits of breathwork are well documented. We know that the brain has the lungs on speed dial. The reason why changing the way you breathe can have such an impact on your physiology is because the brain fast-tracks messages from the lungs above all others. 

One of the best ways to do that is a technique called coherent breathing, which can be practised by simply counting the length of your breaths. It can be practised with your eyes open or closed, as a formal meditation practice or informally wherever you are: sitting at your desk, on your morning commute or taking a walk in the park.

Coherent breathing is simple. It’s about slowing down your breath – simply breathe in for six seconds and out for six seconds, which will result in around five breaths a minute. Breathing at five breaths a minute is really good for us and forms the core of coherent breathing. If you can, do this for 20 minutes a day (any time) for seven days straight and research shows it has a marked impact on sleep patterns and that’s when you see a real impact on sleep. Keep it up and do it for a longer period consistently (e.g. one month) and it’s even more beneficial for sleep and wellbeing. 

Evidence shows that coherent breathing significantly improves the symptoms of anxiety disorders, PTSD, trauma, stress-related disorders, inflammation, depression and, of course, troubled sleep. One of the most remarkable benefits is that it may have a similarly detoxifying effect on the brain as deep sleep. This is due to the increase in blood flow that it creates. In fact, coherent breathing might act as a waking-state method of supplementing the neurological benefits of deep sleep that so many insomniacs are missing out on.

As an expert in stress and trauma-impacted sleep, what would you say are the signs that stress and/or trauma is what is causing poor sleep? 

Nightmares or night terrors, which are more like night-time panic attacks, are probably the top two causes. Nightmares happen while we’re asleep, but night terrors and sleep paralysis occur in a liminal hinterland in which the boundaries between sleep and waking blur. They are both pretty common for people working with trauma, PTSD or high levels of stress and anxiety, but, just like nightmares, once you know how they work, they become much less scary. A night terror is quite different from a nightmare. Whereas nightmares usually occur in REM dreaming sleep, night terrors aren’t actually linked with dreaming at all and are more akin to night-time panic attacks. 

With each – nightmares and night terrors – some psychoeducation around what they are and why they might be occurring for the individual can be a helpful place to start. Understanding some of the causes can help. Acknowledging and honouring these nighttime occurrences can also be a really helpful way to integrate them.

For general stress, probably the process of getting to sleep is what impacts dropping off to sleep and leading to less overall sleep. This might be one indication you have high levels of cortisol so relaxation techniques things like Yoga Nidra can really help.

Dr Hana Patel | Lucid Dreaming Expert

Dr Patel is an NHS and private GP specialist in mental health and sleep. She’s also the resident sleep expert at mattress brand Time4Sleep

Can you talk a bit about why sleep and rest are so important?

A good night’s sleep is more than just downtime. Sleep is crucial for our health as it serves to re-energise the body’s cells, as well as improve vital brain functions such as learning and memory. 

Sleep allows the brain to properly regulate important bodily operations, such as mood, appetite and libido. Because sleep is so restorative, not getting enough of it can result in a large range of increased health risks, including heart disease, stroke and obesity.

How would you define a good night’s sleep? 

Healthy sleep hinges on three main aspects- the amount of sleep you get, the quality of that sleep and whether you are able to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. The amount of sleep you need will depend largely on your age. It is usually recommended that school-age children sleep for at least nine hours a night, teens between eight and ten hours and adults between seven and nine. On average, women also need around 20 more minutes of sleep than men.

If you’re unsure whether you’re getting enough sleep, consider whether you usually need an alarm to wake up. If your sleep schedule is consistent enough, your body should naturally wake up at the correct time every day.

As a doctor, are there any myths about sleep that you’ve come across? 

Often, patients believe that bedrooms must be warm for optimum sleep. Whilst living rooms should be heated to 21-23°C, most doctors recommend an ideal bedroom temperature of around 16-18°C. Bedrooms that are too cold or too hot can seriously impact your sleep. Overheated bedrooms can cause continued restlessness throughout the night, resulting in broken and disrupted sleep.

Overheated rooms can also cause your skin to appear dry, red, and itchy when you wake up in the morning, due to the humidity that is present. Consider your use of heating if you have sensitive skin, as high levels of humidity can also cause dust mites and mould growth which are both common triggers for eczema.

Do you believe that people living in London in particular suffer from a lack of sleep/ do not get enough rest? If so, why do you think that is?

Research has identified risk factors for poor sleep that may be more common in an urban setting, including environmental factors, such as nearby light and noise, occupational factors such as night shift work, and psychosocial stress. 

Housing and neighbourhood environments are associated with poor sleep outcomes as are households with more people. I would recommend blocking out city lights. Consider using thick curtains or shades to keep your room dark at night. It may also be beneficial to use a sound machine to fill your room with soothing sounds or ‘white noise’ to drown out city noise.

Which common habits can be most detrimental to high-quality sleep?  

I would recommend reducing the amount of light in the bedroom, whether this be artificial light or natural light. If your curtains or blinds don’t already block out light from the outside, think about installing some blackout curtains, which will ensure all light is blocked.

Phones, laptops and other electronic devices all produce blue light that will hinder your ability to sleep. Not only do these devices produce relatively intense light, but they can also be emotionally stimulating, both of which affect how sleepy we feel. You can try a number of methods to reduce your exposure to blue light before bedtime, leaving your phone in a different room or switching it off completely before you go to bed are great practices for a healthy nighttime routine.

Whilst I appreciate it might be difficult to completely cut out a bedtime scroll, it’s important to try this if you struggle with sleep. Even switching your phone into dark mode or lowering the brightness will reduce the intensity of the light and thus the level of stimulation, however, it’s best to switch it off completely if you can.

Which habits can we build that will improve our chances of high-quality sleep?

A sleep routine is key – try to develop habits that allow your body to prepare itself for bed. Include things that you enjoy and that relax you such as listening to relaxing music, reading or listening to an audiobook, or having a cup of caffeine-free tea. 

Relaxation techniques such as a hot bath or shower, stretching, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing may also help to relieve anxiety, reduce muscle tension, and allow you to fall asleep more easily. Sleep apps can also help if you’re still struggling.

Do you think that working in an office vs working from home can have an impact on sleep quality? If so, how?

According to a study conducted among U.S. healthcare workers in early 2020, those who were able to work from home reported later and longer sleep, less physical activity and better mood compared to those who were required to be in the office. This suggests that while working from home may make it easier for people to get the amount of sleep they need, however, it may not be as good for encouraging an active lifestyle or instilling early bedtimes.

Any tips specific to balancing work/life/sleep balance – something that many Londoners have a hard time with?

If you’re having trouble maintaining a work-life balance and it’s affecting your sleep schedule, make sure you are prioritising self-care activities that are relaxing and allow you to properly switch-off. Examples of these might include reading, knitting, taking a hot bath or any other non-work-related hobbies that you enjoy.

In addition to this, take regular breaks at work and make sure you’re not checking any work emails in your free time or when you’re on holiday. Remember that you don’t have to face stressful periods alone. Oftentimes, talking to friends and family about what you’re going through can help lighten your mental load, allowing for a better night’s rest.

Lastly, ensure your diet is varied enough, that you’re exercising regularly and that you are making an effort to stick to a regular sleep schedule. This will give your body the energy it needs to sustain a busy lifestyle and will make sure that you are fully equipped to deal with any major stressor in your life.

What do you think is the most underrated tip for getting better sleep?

Though it may seem like a no-brainer, you’d be surprised at how many people don’t change their sheets on a weekly basis! Sleeping in sheets that are covered in dust and dead skin cells will irritate your nasal pathways, especially if you’re particularly prone to allergies. Reducing the risk of obstacles which are set to disrupt your sleep, is a key factor in good quality sleep and is often overlooked.

Hector Hughes | Travel Company Co-founder

Hector Hughes is a wellness expert and entrepreneur who founded Unplugged, a UK-based digital detox escape in nature, after struggling with burnout himself.

Can you talk a bit about why sleep and rest are so important?

Getting good quality sleep is the number one best (and easiest) thing you can do for your brain and body health. It’s crucial for learning, memory, energy, productivity and your immune system, to name a few. A good night’s sleep fixes a lot of problems – hence the phrase “sleep on it”. It helps our brain process information and emotions and makes connections to solve problems that feel impossible when we’re constantly stimulated. Our brains aren’t supposed to be productive for 12 hours a day. They need time for boredom and rest to meander, which is why it’s usually when we’re most relaxed that we have those eureka moments.

But we’re not prioritising sleep as much as we should. We suffer from a ‘busy problem’ in the UK, we glorify being busy and have so many pressures (internal and external) to be hyper-productive and innovative. So even though the conversation about the benefits of sleep is on the up – there’s still a gap between what we want to do and what we actually do in our everyday lives. 

Busy life, stress and high screen time get in the way of a good night’s sleep. These are all the pain points we felt ourselves before starting Unplugged in 2019. Myself and my co-founder, Ben, previously worked together at a tech start-up and found ourselves regularly racking up 11 hours of screen time a day. Our high screen time and lack of decent sleep caused us to burn out. After a recommendation from a friend, I jetted off and spent two weeks at a silent retreat in the mountains in the Himalayas. Going offline made me feel like I could breathe again, and sleep properly again. When I returned I felt completely recharged and focused, a feeling I hadn’t had in years. I quit my job the following Monday. 

The growth of sleep tourism is a promising step, with many people looking for deeper experiences that improve their wellbeing and challenge their norms. They want to return from travels feeling better than before they left, and a fundamental element of feeling refreshed is getting a good night’s sleep. And it’s for this reason that many of our guests choose to stay at Unplugged – because they long for better and improved sleep. We build our digital detox escapes around rest and getting a good dose of the natural and free antidotes to busy life: screen time and stress.

How would you define a good night’s sleep?

Most important is do you wake up feeling rested? For me, that’s helped by getting to sleep easily, and staying asleep for the optimal duration for your own sleep routine. Keeping good sleep hygiene includes going to bed at the same time every night, and waking up at the same time every morning to regulate your circadian rhythm. Removing screens from your evening routine will make it easier for you to fall asleep. Many of us go to bed with our phones and scroll for a while. This stimulates our brains and the blue light can suppress the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Reading fiction for an hour or so before bed is magic, as good as any sleeping pill.

Do you believe that people living in London in particular suffer from a lack of sleep/ do not get enough rest? If so, why do you think that is?

Yes. The work culture in London can be very intense, with external pressures put on employees to meet targets YoY and internal pressures put on themselves to succeed by going above and beyond. Burnout is on the rise, with the majority of its sufferers being in London. One study found that 70% of Londoners feel overwhelmed by stress. London also has an incredible amount to offer from a social and cultural perspective, which can make us feel pressure to fill our evenings and weekends. Social media and society can glorify being busy, which can push us to feel like we need to be ‘always on’ to keep up. So sleep and rest can take a backseat in our everyday lives.

Which common habits can be most detrimental to high-quality sleep?

Stress is the number one inhibitor of sleep. Whether that is from work or personal lives, our phones can contribute to this by constantly buzzing with notifications and emails 24 hours a day. Social media and screens are massive contributors to poor sleep. Not only does scrolling social media stimulate our brains when they should be winding down, the blue light also suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy.

Which habits can we build that will improve our chances of high-quality sleep?

  • Avoid using your phone at least one hour before bed 
  • Definitely don’t scroll social media or reply to work emails before you go to sleep
  • Swap your phone for a traditional alarm clock or a Lumie light. This will remove your phone from your bedside and make it easier for you to have screen-free evenings
  • Utilise Sleep Modes and Do Not Disturb to put your phone into quiet mode during the evenings
  • Set time limits on distracting apps or delete them entirely 
  • Read fiction to switch off your work brain
  • Get a dose of nature for at least 120 minutes a week, but as much as possible. Nature is a natural antidote to stress, and just 2 hours in nature is proven to reduce cortisol levels and spending 3 days in nature has been scientifically proven to provide a sense of calm while improving cognitive function
  • Take naps if you need them, but not too late or for too long. Aim for 20 minutes, and no later than 3pm 
  • Go to sleep at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time every morning. Yes, even on weekends!

Do you think that working in an office vs working from home can have an impact on sleep quality? If so, how?

Yes, but there are pros and cons. Working from home means we don’t have a physical barrier between work and rest, so we can end up working longer hours. However, the absence of a commute can give us more time at home to do things that positively impact sleep – such as exercise or later mornings. Going into an office (especially on a Monday) might give us stronger ‘Sunday scaries’, which can impact our sleep quality but the social energy needed to be in an office may help us feel more tired in the evenings. 

You run digital detox retreats; how does being online affect our sleep? Do you have any tips for how Londoners can have their own digital detoxes at home/ reduce screen time?

Using your phone for long periods of time can cause sensory, mental and creative tiredness. Plus, using your phone at night can make it harder for us to get to sleep and result in us going to sleep later than we normally would. To reduce your screen time, it’s recommended to change your relationship with your phone and your devices. In London, we work especially long hours and we are always on the go. Constant push notifications and so it’s no wonder that more than 80% of Brits admit to being burnt out. Here’s a few ways you can get a taste of Unplugged at home:

Remove your phone from your bedside or under your pillow. 90% of us admit to using our phone in the hour before bed. Using your phone before bed isn’t good for our brains. It suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy and regulates our wake-sleep cycle. By removing your phone from arms’ reach morning and night, your brain will get deeper and longer sleep.

Stop using your phone as your alarm clock. If you have to reach for your phone to turn off your alarm, you’re likely to check emails or social media as soon as you wake up. More than 80% of us check out phones within 15 minutes of waking which primes the brain for distraction throughout the rest of the day from the dopamine boost. It can also start our day making us feel anxious about urgent emails or the day ahead. We love using a sunlight-simulating alarm clock, such as a Lumie. This helps your brain and body wake up more naturally, especially in darker mornings. 

Get outside for a tech-free break in nature. The easiest way to control your screen time is by removing your devices from reach. Leave your phone at home and go for a walk. If you feel like you need your phone for safety reasons, pop your phone on airplane mode for the duration of your walk. Getting outside in winter months is especially important to get a natural dose of vitamin D. 

Use your phone to help you control your phone use. IPhone has great tools to help control your app usage. Head to Settings > Screentime and you’ll be able to see a breakdown of your most used apps. In the same area, you can add ‘Downtime’ where you can set certain hours in the day to lock apps from your home screen. There are also ‘App limits’ which allow you to set time limits for each app, so for example 30 minutes a day on Instagram and then it will remind you and then lock the app. I also use Do Not Disturb and Airplane mode a lot when I need to focus so that my phone doesn’t light up and distract me. For a more permanent change, you can switch off notifications on your phone so that you check your apps on your schedule.

Consider taking a digital detox for 3 nights. At Unplugged, we create a space for you to purposefully go offline. We include a phone lockbox for you to lock your phone away and replace it with books, games, a map and compass and a cassette player. This allows you to reset your brain and body by scrapping the to-list and emails for a few days. These 3 days of freedom make you recognise your bad habits and reset your relationship with your phone – plus you have a great time doing it! We recommend doing 1-4 detoxes per year, depending on your phone usage and life schedule. 

What do you think is the most underrated tip for getting better sleep

Getting rid of your phone at night. By removing your phone from your hip, you’re not only removing the constant distraction in your daily routine from social media and emails, but you’re removing blue light from your evening routine too. Blue light emitted from your phones reduces the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, which makes it harder for you to fall asleep. By removing phones for 3 nights, our guests are more likely to fall asleep quicker and get a good night’s sleep. 47% of us admit to losing quality sleep by scrolling through social media or binging on Netflix.