University of Oxford sleep specialist reveals how to get a better night’s sleep

With most of us spending more time at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the boundaries between living, working and sleeping have become blurred. 

The unease around coronavirus is affecting sleep for a massive three quarters of people, according to a previous report by The Sleep Council.  

As such, health and wellbeing company, Mammoth, has teamed up with one of the country’s leading sleep scientists, Dr Nicola Barclay, from the University of Oxford’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, to reveal the best ways to ensure a more restful night. 

Her tips include avoiding bright lights and big meals two hours before bedtime and exercising earlier in the day. 

Speaking to FEMAIL, she also suggests taking a hot bath to cool down before trying to get some rest and creating a decluttered sleep environment.

With most of us spending more time at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the boundaries between living, working and sleeping have become blurred (stock photo)


‘Exercise is fantastic for sleep and as part of a healthier lifestyle all round,’ says Dr Barclay. ‘We know that if we have a day where we’ve done lots of physical activity, our sleep rewards us for doing that exercise by boosting slow wave sleep (SWS). 

‘SWS is the deep, replenishing sleep that our brains and bodies really need. If you exercise, you are likely to enjoy a better night’s sleep and feel more alert the next day.  

‘However, exercise in the couple of hours before bed may raise your body temperature to such an extent that makes it more difficult to get to sleep. 

‘Our body needs to be cool to get to sleep, so the optimal time to exercise is earlier in the day – morning or afternoon rather than evening. But even just a small amount of daily exercise can improve your sleep – so it’s well worth making time for it.’

Avoid big meals before bed and have a light supper instead 

Dr Barclay says: ‘Eating large meals before bed makes it difficult to sleep, so time your biggest meal earlier in the day and have a light supper a few hours before bed. 

‘This is particularly important to consider for those working different shift patterns,’ she adds.

‘You may be tempted to have a big meal when you get home from shift and then go straight to sleep, but try to leave a couple of hours in between your meals and bedtime.’


The sleep expert says: ‘If we expose ourselves to lots of bright light in the evening, we stay awake later. That includes phones, tablets and computers, which emit blue wavelength light. 

‘One way to get to sleep easier, is to reduce your light exposure in the evening and in the hours leading up to bedtime. So, for the last two hours of my day, from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, I have very dim lights all over the house. 

‘You will not see me putting any lights on. Even a short flick of a switch from a light pulse is enough to reset the circadian rhythm (the sleep-wake cycle), so it’s important not to switch on the bathroom lights just before bed. 

‘I also turn my devices to night shift mode from 7pm in the evening until 7am in the morning. Making a few small changes can really help to improve your sleep.’


‘Our brain and body need to be cool in order to get to sleep, and it is known that individuals with insomnia have a higher body temperature in the hours leading up to bed time,’ explains Dr Barclay. 

‘There are simple things we can do to try to drop our body temperature – including having a hot bath. Sounds counter-intuitive, but when we get out of a hot bath our body temperature drops dramatically when we hit the cool air, and this process mimics the natural process of our body cooling, facilitating sleep.  

‘Also, why not buy sheets that have a lower thread count that allow more air to pass through, and lower tog duvets, to keep the bed cool. This also goes for pyjamas – make sure you are not bundled up in too many hot clothes, and even dare to go bare to facilitate a cool nights sleep.’


‘With many people now remote working due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the boundaries between home life and work life are blurred. That’s why it’s even more important to make the distinction between work and the bedroom and create a relaxing sleep environment’, says the sleep specialist. 

‘Not everybody has the luxury of a home office. Some people might have enough space in the kitchen or a spare room, but although it isn’t ideal, many may have no choice but to work in the bedroom. 

‘We need to find a way to maintain the divide between the work space and the sleep space. If you can put up screens or hide away all work-related things like your computer and notebooks – do it. 

‘If you’re finding it difficult to get to sleep and you’ve been working in the same room all day, you will have built up associations for the bedroom as a place for wakefulness and work. 

‘Subconsciously the mind will still be on work, so we need to close off any cues that link to work. We need to be strict with ourselves and have a time limit for when we stop checking our emails.  

‘The bedroom should be your sanctuary. Make sure it’s cool, dark, quiet and decluttered. Fresh sheets, a comfortable mattress and a supportive pillow are really important.’ 

Allow yourself dedicated ‘worry time’ 

Dr Barclay explains: ‘Worrying in some senses is a useful thing for us to do. Our brain is trying to problem solve, so it’s normal to worry to some extent. 

‘But when intrusive thoughts come into our head frequently and we’re multitasking more than ever, it can be exhausting and draining. I’m a worrier myself – but I schedule in worry time. 

‘Give yourself half an hour a day where you dedicate time to your worries, thinking about loved ones, work, money, or whatever those worries may be. Have a dedicated “worry space” (not in the bedroom) where you can devote time to these concerns.

‘Schedule it in and put the day to bed before you get into the bedroom. If you wake up in the middle of the night feeling anxious, have a notebook next to your bed so you can jot down your worries, then put it in a drawer and go back to sleep. 

‘That way, you won’t spend time through the night trying to remember your thoughts. 

‘Also making sure you have relaxation time in the hours before bedtime is a good way to soothe the mind. Don’t expose yourself to anxiety provoking stimuli before bed. 

‘Have some time to yourself, whether it’s watching your favourite TV show, listening to music, or having a relaxing bath.’


‘There are lots of cognitive techniques that help to distract the mind from concerns you might have before going to sleep,’ the sleep expert reveals. 

‘Believe it or not, even the age-old tradition of counting sheep can help! You want to do something that will take your mind away from your worries.  

‘Breathing techniques and counting are really good, as is meditation, especially in the hours before bed – to prepare your mind and body for sleep. 

‘Use breathing techniques to focus your mind on your breath as you inhale and exhale – what does the sensation feel like? Where you can feel the breath? 

‘Imagine the breath as it travels through your nose and throughout your body. Feel your breath as you exhale through your mouth. How does it feel on your lips?’ 

She adds: ‘You can try to be mindful in other ways too, consider how your body feels as you are lying in bed, notice any sources of discomfort or comfort. Focus on your senses, how do you feel, what can you smell, what can you taste, what can you hear? 

‘The focus here is to be present in the moment and really ‘feel’ your body. These techniques can really help with controlling a racing mind, particularly at bedtime and during those unwanted awakenings at night.’


Dr Barclay says: ‘We all have an individual sensitivity to caffeine. Some people are very sensitive to its effects and it will be very stimulating, even with just a cup of tea. Other people rarely feel it. 

‘But caffeine has a long half-life, meaning that the time it takes for your body to metabolise it is around five hours. In other words, if you have a double espresso around 5pm, you are likely to still have as much caffeine in your system at 10pm as having a single shot of espresso. 

‘Would you really have an espresso before going to bed? Understanding the amount of caffeine found in food and drinks, like coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate, can be really helpful.

‘It’s a good idea to limit your caffeine intake and have your last caffeine of the day earlier. I also recommend avoiding alcohol close to bedtime as it can lead to disrupted sleep later in the night.’

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