Hitting the sack sounds simple enough. But for 35 per cent of Australians, struggling to sleep is something we experience on a regular basis (according to the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health’s 2016 Sleep Health Survey).
From battling to fall asleep to waking up exhausted (even after what we think is a full night’s sleep), many of us aren’t able to get the rest our minds and bodies need.
So, how much sleep do we actually need? The US’ National Sleep Foundation reports adults need, on average, between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. That figure can shift depending on a range of factors like age, weight, or lifestyle, so it’s hard to pin-point a one-size-fits-all number. But the impacts of getting a bad night’s sleep are universal.
Getting enough Zs is essential to preserving our physical and mental health, as well as safeguarding our overall quality of life. In fact, getting enough sleep is crucial to our memory, mood, performance at work or school and ensures virtually all our bodily systems can perform as usual.
And if we deprive ourselves of sleep, this can lead to everything from microsleep (where the body goes into brief moments of sleep when we should be awake) to more serious conditions such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic dysfunction, and even early death.
Whether you’re suffering from fatigue and a lack of focus throughout the day, or can’t seem to switch off before bed, here are five practical ways to get a better night’s sleep.
Create (and stick to) a sleep schedule
If sleep is a constant battle for you, start by looking at your daily habits. Do you hit the snooze button every morning before work? Is sleeping in until 11am on a Sunday morning all too common? Are you staring at your laptop screen right up until the moment you turn off the lights?
All of these micro behaviours contribute to the length and quality of our sleep.
Developing a consistent sleep schedule is one of the most effective ways to curb your sleep woes. By going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, you’ll be able to keep your body clock in check. Basically, this means it’ll be easier for you to fall asleep and to get up the next morning.
But don’t go overthrowing your entire routine overnight. The best way to create a new sleep schedule is to make small adjustments over time. Try shifting your sleep habits in 15 minute increments over a few days (read: go to bed 15 minutes earlier and wake up 15 minutes earlier, then rinse and repeat). This will make it easier for your body to get used to the new routine (and will help you stick to the schedule in the long term).
And for the serial nappers among us, it’s time to ditch you 3pm snooze, too. Sneaking in extra sleep throughout the day (particularly after lunchtime) is a recipe for disaster, as it decreases our drive for sleep each night, making it more difficult for us to fall asleep when bedtime actually rolls around.
But what happens if we just can’t fall asleep at night? If you can’t doze off within 20 minutes, the Harvard Medical School recommends getting up again and only returning to bed when you’re completely exhausted. This strategy of sleep restriction ensures you don’t create a negative association with going to bed (due to spending hours tossing and turning) to improve your chances of falling asleep faster.
Understand the impact of light on your sleep cycle
We’ve all been told to switch off the screens before bed. But where does this advice come from?
It’s all to do with this hormone called melatonin, which is produced in the brain and is controlled by light. Essentially, melatonin regulates our sleep cycle. When it’s dark, our brain produces more melatonin to help us fall asleep (and the opposite occurs during the daytime when it’s light).
So, what does this have to do with checking your phone in bed? The blue light emitted from tech like our laptops and smartphones tricks our brain into thinking it’s daytime. This throws our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour sleep cycle) totally out of whack by suppressing the brain’s ability to produce melatonin.
In fact, it can take us twice as long to fall asleep if we’ve been exposed to blue light right before bed.
The best way to ensure a good night’s sleep is to keep the bedroom for sleep and sex only. Stop checking your phone (and emails) after dinner, and go tech-free at least an hour before bed. In fact, a recent study by Virginia Tech revealed checking emails after hours causes increased stress and anxiety, so switch off after you finish work for the day.
Remove all screens from where you sleep, as these can interfere with your ability to wind down before bed. And if you need something to help you chill out, try tuning in to something like Headspace’s sleep music and sleepcasts to wind down before bed.
Get moving during the day
You don’t need us to remind you that staying active is a wise move. And when we’re talking about sleep, breaking a sweat has been shown to improve the quality and duration of our sleep.
But, before you get moving it’s important to understand how and when to workout to get the best results.
We know that getting a bad night’s sleep can decrease our motivation and physical activity levels, which leads researchers to conclude that there is a strong link between exercise and sleep. In fact, the medical director of Johns Hopkins Centre for Sleep, Charlene Gamaldo MD, reveals that moderate aerobic exercise can increase the amount of deep sleep we get each night.
Research has revealed that at least 30 minutes of vigorous activity is best for improving sleep quality, but any exercise is better than nothing.
So, should we be heading out for a run, or tackling a tough workout before bed? Research indicates that working out at night is fine, as long as it’s not intense activity and is done at least an hour before bed. This is because exercise releases endorphins in the body that can make it difficult to relax before sleep.
The golden rule is to aim for regular exercise throughout your day, and avoid strenuous workouts right before bed.
If you’re lacking the motivation to get moving, there’s plenty of ways to exercise without making it another chore. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Download an app to track your daily activity and step count, and set up notifications to prompt you to get moving.
- Find a workout style you enjoy, whether it’s running, swimming, kicking the footy or going for a hike in the bush. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you’ll be to stick with it.
- Keep track of your progress and reward yourself for moving for at least 30 minutes each day.
Steer clear of booze and big meals before bed
We know that eating a huge burger and downing a few tinnies will make you want to hit the sack, but hear us out. Although a bit of booze might help you fall asleep faster, the quality of sleep you get during the night will be much lower than when we’re sober. It’s all because drinking disrupts our sleep cycle and can even make us feel fatigued or foggy throughout the next day, too.
You know the feeling. It’s waking up at 3am in a cold sweat, craving a glass of water. It’s dragging yourself out of bed in a daze and feeling you haven’t even slept at all.
After a big night of heavy drinking, our bodies spend less time in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, which is the most important part of restorative sleep that helps our bodies rest and recover. So, to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep, make an effort to limit your booze and caffeine intake at least four hours before bed.
What we eat can have a major impact on our sleep quality too. Eating late at night, or consuming large portions of carb-heavy dishes, can exacerbate digestive symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn or acid reflux (all of which work to disrupt our sleep). To help get a better night’s sleep, try tucking into your dinner earlier and avoid eating two to three hours before bedtime.
Talk to a doctor
Although shifting our lifestyle can be helpful, for more serious conditions it’s important to seek professional medical advice. Chronic sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep paralysis, snoring, sleep apnoea (a disorder where the body stops and starts breathing repeatedly during sleep) and more are just some common conditions that often require professional attention from a doctor.
If the strategies above aren’t providing help, or you think you might be suffering from a sleep disorder, speak with a GP to access professional help. A doctor will be able to prescribe temporary medications tailored to your symptoms, refer you to a sleep clinic or recommend a psychologist or counselor if mental health issues are impacting your sleep.
Photo credit: Getty Images / Amelia Hanigan