Alongside eating and breathing, sleep is one of the fundamentals of life, and arguably the most important – you could survive for three times as long without food as you could without sleep, and 17 hours without sleep produces performance impairments equivalent to 2 alcoholic drinks.

However in today's frantic world we all too often don't give sleep the time or attention it deserves. This guide aims to give you the basics – “sleep 101” if you will – to give yourself the first foundations of a healthy sleep routine.

Make time for sleep

Many of us who wish we had better sleep can take a single, simple step to move closer to our goal: make time for sleep.

When it comes to sleep many of us fall into a pattern of “boom and bust” – squeezing sleep in around other commitments during the working week, then trying to catch up on our days off. However, evidence suggests that having a stable, consistent sleep schedule – going to bed each night and getting up each morning at the same time – is generally effective at producing satisfying, efficient sleep.

You may say this isn't possible for you – social engagements and work deadlines certainly make it more challenging. But often we have more control over our time than we assume. Why not try to “choose sleep” for a week or two, over other demands on your time, and see what impact it has on how you feel during the day? Perhaps block out the time in your diary in advance, labelling it as a 'sleep experiment', from at least 2 hours before you intend to head to bed each day. Spend that time winding down from the day, doing something you enjoy and find relaxing – some well-earned “me time“!

Reserve your bedroom for sleep

As the name suggests, our bedrooms are intended to be places of rest and relaxation. But in recent times they have been invaded by a variety of disruptive influences – mobile phones, tablets and laptops. These devices upset our sleep in two main ways. First, their screens produce a lot of “blue light” (visible light with relatively short wavelengths) which is known to suppress our natural sleep hormones. Second, the activities we tend to undertake using these devices – checking email and social media, playing games, watching exciting movies – keep us alert and engaged.

For both of these reasons you should ideally make your bedroom a “device exclusion zone”. If you need to use your phone as alarm clock at least be sure to switch it onto airplane mode as soon as you enter your bedroom, to discourage yourself from using it for anything else.

If you manage to reserve your bedroom for sleep and sleep only you are more likely to fall asleep faster each night, as your brain develops an ever-stronger association between that environment and sleep.

Energize yourself at the right times

What we eat, drink and do can have a huge impact on the quality and pattern of our sleep – and not just in the time before bed. Think of your sleep as just one component in your 24 hour cycle of wake and rest; to get the most out of it you need to control what you eat and drink and when.

The principle is simple: undertake energizing activities earlier in the day, and avoid them as you approach the evening. As you would expect this includes consumption of caffeine (avoid any tea, coffee or energy drinks after lunchtime) but also when we eat our evening meal – we should ideally leave a few hours after eating before heading to bed, to allow digestion to get underway and our metabolism to return to baseline.

Similarly exercise can elevate our alertness for several hours, so we should ideally exercise no later than late afternoon. Certainly we shouldn't expect to be able to exhaust ourselves and fall straight into bed!

Many people use alcohol as a tool to relax and unwind at the end of the working day. However you should be wary of using alcohol as a sleep aid. Alcohol is an effective sedative, so can help us get off to sleep, but also tends to create a more broken up and unsatisfying sleep. In addition using alcohol this way can create an unhealthy reliance on it as part of our sleep routine.

Common questions

How much sleep does a person need?

It is true to say that the average adult sleeps around 7 to 8 hours. But this is just an average – the amount of sleep we need varies depending on our age, and on what we are doing in our lives. It also varies from person to person. Some people can survive on as little as 4 hours of sleep a night, while other people seem to need up to 10 hours. For this reason it is important for you to discover your own personal sleep needs, at any particular point in time. You can do this by keeping a record of your sleep for a couple of weeks, and calculating how many hours of sleep you get on an average night.

How common are sleep problems?

Sleep problems affect 1 in 3 of us at any one time, and about 10% of the population on a chronic basis. Problems getting to sleep will be familiar to most of us at one point or another – lying there, staring at the ceiling, just willing your eyes to shut whilst the clock counts round. For most people this is associated with a period of stress or excitement – an important meeting at work or a big event like a wedding for example. Once that stress has passed, it is once again possible to get to sleep quickly.

However for some people this problem persists – every day worrying “am I ever going to get to sleep tonight?," and most nights lying awake frustrated, just wishing for some help to get back to sleep. This is a subtype of insomnia, referred to as 'Difficulty Initiating Sleep' in the official DSM-IV manual of psychiatric disorders. Surveys suggest that approximately 13% of all chronic poor sleepers experienced only problems with getting to sleep, while approximately 60% experienced problems with both falling asleep and staying asleep. The inability to initiate sleep can be very distressing at night-time but also has consequences for the daytime – reducing daytime energy, concentration and mood. For some people this trouble getting to sleep persists for years or even decades.