By Dr Lyndel Shand, Health Psychologist & Research Fellow, Australian Centre for Heart Health
One-third of the world’s population experience short-term sleeping difficulties, often in response to stressful events.
However, for some these problems can become longstanding – for an unlucky 3% of Australians, these sleep disturbances may last a lot longer and lead to a diagnosis of insomnia. Chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with a range of health concerns, including weight gain and increased risk for heart disease and stroke.
Have a regular bedtime and wake up time (even on weekends)
Our bodies’ circadian rhythm that controls our sleep cycle operates over a 24 hour period so sticking to the same bedtime and wake up time every day of the week is important for keeping it in sync. While catching up on some sleep over the weekend is important for many of us, long sleep-ins will delay the urge to fall asleep in the evening, disrupting your sleep cycle and making it hard to get back into routine on Sunday night/Monday morning.
Establish a bed time ritual
Just like with children, adults need a regular bedtime routine. Quiet activities in low light undertaken in the lead up to bedtime can help us to unwind and provide a signal to our body that bedtime is approaching. For example, having a warm shower or bath (the rise, then fall in body temperature promotes drowsiness), a cup of warm milk or non-caffeinated tea or read a book.
Go to sleep when tired
Sounds obvious, right? However many people go to bed at the same time despite not being tired enough to fall asleep. They therefore they lie awake for a long time becoming frustrated that they can’t fall asleep. Going to bed when you’re actually drowsy will mean that you are more likely to fall asleep quickly.
Napping during the night prolongs your need for sleep later in the night. So while napping may help you get through the day, your urge to fall asleep will be delayed until later in the night. If you really must nap, limit naps to 20 minutes and avoid napping after 4pm.
Create the right environment for sleep
It’s important that our bedroom right for sleeping. Our body temperature cools during the night so keeping your bedroom at our 16 degrees is optimal. Layer blankets and doonas so that you can warm up and cool down throughout the night. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible, free from bright lights (including alarm clocks) and free from distractions (i.e. television, devices on silent).
Limit screen time
Smartphones and tablets emit blue wavelength light that activates our brain, signally that it’s time to wake up by suppressing the production of melatonin. Therefore using devices right before you want to sleep will make your brain more alert, making it difficult to wind down and fall asleep. Try to switch off from devices at least an hour before going to bed.
Expose yourself to bright lights or sunlight throughout the day
Exposure to light throughout the day can assist your circadian rhythm stay in sync so that you are alert during the day and begin to feel sleepy in the evening as it gets dark.
Regular physical activity is important to promote restful sleep. However exercise too close to bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep. Try and schedule exercise for during the day or early evening.
Dump your thoughts
Worrying or stressful thoughts can often disrupt sleep. If you are going through a stressful time and thoughts and worries are keeping you awake, try ‘dumping’ them by writing them down or writing a ‘To Do’ list for the morning. Keeping a notebook by your bed can be helpful.
If you are unable to fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to sleep then get up out of bed. Do a quiet activity (i.e. no screens) or something relaxing and when you start to feel sleepy again, go back to bed.
You snooze, you lose
Shortly before waking, our sleep becomes lighter, our core body temperature rises and levels of hormones such as cortisol increase. If we were to sleep naturally without that pesky alarm clock, these factors would allow our bodies to gradually prepare for waking. Alarm clocks may wake us in the middle of a sleep cycle when our bodies have not had time to fully prepare us for waking. This may lead to an increase in sleep inertia, the groggy feeling you have immediately upon waking, and often the inevitable snoozing cycle. So when you hit snooze and fall back asleep, your sleep cycle starts from the beginning. Except this time when your alarm goes off, if you’re in a deeper stage of sleep, it’s a lot harder to wake up.