How to get a good night’s sleep

Experts are urging Australians to be aware of positive sleep habits, with nearly half of all adults suffering sleep problems.

There are plenty of reasons to keep you awake at night.

As the pandemic erodes health, jobs, freedom and financial stability, lives are being filled with more uncertainty and anxiety.

Then, if that wasn’t enough, there’s the stimulation of technology, too much caffeine, exercise, bad sleeping environments, changing work patterns or stress.

Whatever is holding you back from getting a good night’s sleep, you’re not alone.

Sleep problems are common in Australia with up to 45 per cent of adults of all ages not getting a long, or good enough, sleep.

Psychologist Dr Frank Cahill.

Psychologist Dr Frank Cahill.

Recent Sleep Health Foundation studies show a lack of sleep affects mental, physical and emotional health.

Psychologist Frank Cahill says we should be aiming for about seven hours a night but that “sleep is like shoe sizes and varies between people.”

“Some people can function on five to six hours and others need eight to nine hours a night,” he says.
“The major measure is how you function during the day, if you are waking up tired, you are probably not getting enough quality sleep.”

While ongoing issues could mean a more severe health problem, experts say more people need to be aware of positive sleep habits.

Sleep specialist Dr Carmel Harrington says how we sleep at night is dependent on what you do during the day.

“To get the best sleep possible we do need to prepare both our mind and body for sleep,” she says.

“To prepare the body we need to get up at the same time every day, exercise for at least 20 minutes per day, not have caffeine after midday, refrain from alcohol and not sleep during the day. Eat only a small meal at night and especially no big meal within three hours of bedtime. You also shouldn’t be exercising within three hours of bedtime, this will alert the body.”

Dr Carmel Harrington. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

Dr Carmel Harrington.

Psychologist Bei Bei says often people don’t realise how active their minds are when they’re trying to fall asleep.

“Some people go through a period where they are working or studying right up to bedtime and have an active mind before they get to bed,” she says.

“It takes a little time to wind down and people might not notice they are really wound up and of course, that makes it harder to get to sleep.”

Bei says it’s normal to have the odd bad night and if you do, it’s important not to overcompensate.

“Your body is going to make up for the sleep you lost by sleeping deeper (the next night), you don’t need to be worried about losing those hours,” she says.

SLEEP FACTS AND HELP

BEST SLEEPING APPS

● Sleep Cycle 

● Calm 

● White Noise Lite 

● Pzizz

● Slumber

COMMON SLEEP MISTAKES

● Poor sleep environment 

● Staying in bed when you can’t sleep 

● Not keeping consistent sleep and rise times 

● Having a television in your room 

● Not preparing your body properly for sleep 

COMMON SLEEP MYTH

● Alcohol helps you sleep. It might help you to fall asleep but five hours later, you will be unable to maintain sleep. 

Harrington says there are common misconceptions about sleep.

“Alcohol is a sleep stealer,” she says.

“If you drink enough it will help you get to sleep but about five hours later, you will be unable to maintain sleep and sleep structure is significantly altered. Many people cut back on sleep to fit in a daily exercise routine, thinking that they are doing the ‘healthy option’. However, there are three pillars of wellbeing; nutrition, exercise and sleep and all are equally important and sleep needs to be an equal priority to the other two.”

We’ve pulled together advice and tips from top sleep specialists around the country who share their secrets on how to improve your sleeping habits and what you could be doing wrong.

The are: the Sleep Foundation, sleep psychologists Dr Bei Bi (Monash University), Rosemary Clancy (Sydney Sleep Centre), Frank Cahill (Sleep with Confidence) and Justin Craig (Queensland Sleep CEO).

HERE ARE THEIR TIPS

Go to bed only when sleepy

Choosing the right time to go to bed is key to a good night’s sleep.

Avoid going to bed when you are feeling agitated, alert or emotionally distressed.

“Picking the time to go to bed is really important because if you go to bed when you’re not quite sleepy and when your body isn’t ready, it will take you much longer, you will have to wind down when in bed,” Bei says.

She says if you’re lying awake, don’t focus on the fact you’re not sleeping but on resting your body instead.

Have a regular routine

This means going to bed at night at the same time and getting up in the morning at the same time (where possible).

The Sleep Health Foundation recommends using an alarm clock and avoid sleeping in, even if you have a poor night’s sleep.

Seek the sun as soon as you wake up

Experts say this keeps your body clock well-tuned and helps with your sleep in the long term.

You should get up as soon as the alarm clock goes off. Don’t press the snooze button.

Clancy suggests as soon as you wake-up aim to get 45-60 minutes of sunlight in the morning.

She says it resets your circadian clock which is a 24-hour internal clock.

“You don’t have to get out and do exercise, although the ideal is a short walk in the sunlight, you can just have your breakfast in the sunlight in the morning and that’s going to help.”

Bei says it can be as simple as opening the blinds and making your living environment as bright as possible from the moment you wake up and throughout the day.

You should get up as soon as the alarm clock goes off. Don’t press the snooze button, experts say.

You should get up as soon as the alarm clock goes off. Don’t press the snooze button, experts say.

Dim the lights at night

If the sun is going down and it’s dark outside, Bei says keep the lights in the house dim, especially so in the two hours before going to bed.

This allows your body to start producing melatonin, says Bei, the hormone that makes us sleepy.

The bright lights in the morning erase the melatonin which helps you feel more alert.

Only nap for 30 minutes

Day naps should be mostly avoided but if required, keep them to 20-30 minutes between 1pm and 3pm. A nap doesn’t make up for inadequate night time sleep, says Craig, but a short nap can help improve mood, alertness and performance. If you exceed 30 minutes, it reduces your sleep drive which is critical for helping you fall asleep at night. Make sure you’re awake for at least four hours before going back to bed.

Establish a relaxing routine at bedtime

Allow yourself one to two hours to wind down before bed. This time should be used to prepare your mind and body for sleep. Disconnect from study or work, and de-stress from the day. Avoid activities that are physically and mentally stimulating. The Sleep Health Foundation acknowledges we can’t completely shut off thoughts but we can endeavour to make them calmer. Whatever relaxes you is what you should be doing before bed. This could include things like taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, listening to calming music or having a herbal tea.

Limit screen time

The effect of bright light from tablets, laptops and phones can delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, Cahill says. While the impact of screen time varies between each person, Cahill says gaming or playing games at night has been shown to produce the ‘stress’ hormone cortisol which isn’t conducive to falling asleep. Cahill says, however, with some people, it’s not necessarily the screen that’s affecting their sleep but the content.

If you can’t sleep, get out of bed for 10 minutes

Lying in bed for long periods and trying to fall asleep can set off a period of sleep onset insomnia, Bei says. Cahill recommends if you’re struggling to fall asleep, get out of bed for 10 minutes to cool down and reset. Repeat as necessary. The Sleep Health Foundation advises if you’re not asleep within 20 to 30 minutes of going to bed, you should get up and go to another room but make sure you don’t have screen time. Read, relax and go back to bed when you feel sleepy. If you are waking regularly for long periods during the night, Cahill says you should consider going to bed later and getting up earlier. “Shortening your time in bed can help increase your sleep drive which can help reduce the frequency and length of night-time wakes and break the pattern of waking,” he says.

Minimise distractions in your bedroom

The bedroom environment should be comfortable. Remove technology like computers or televisions from your bedroom. Don’t use your bedroom as a living room, office or study, according to the Sleep Health Foundation. Keep the room temperature cool and Bei believes around 18C is the optimum temperature. Get rid of clocks in your bedroom to avoid “clock watching” which can create bad sleeping habits.

Stop worrying about not sleeping. This is possibly one of the hardest things to do but it’s one of the most important. Cahill reminds us that sleep is the one thing you cannot control. “If you are not sleeping, focus on resting and drifting, that’s something you can control. Sleep will typically follow,” he says.

If sleep problems don’t go away, get help

If your sleepless nights are consistent and ongoing, it may require specialist help. Bei says most sleep problems respond well to treatments including cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia.

INSOMNIA

Sleepless nights are a familiar scenario for many Australians but when does your lack of sleep become a deeper problem? 

Recent studies by the Sleep Health Foundation have shown almost four in 10 Australians are regularly not getting enough sleep.

Common causes of sleep deprivation were found to be poor lifestyle choices and sleep environments like changing work patterns, overuse of electronics and excessive noise or light in the bedroom. 

But research also found almost 60 per cent of Australians regularly experience at least one symptom of a sleep disorder, like insomnia, sleep apnoea or restless legs, three or more times per week. Sleep psychologist Rosemary Clancy says an occasional bad night’s sleep is normal but when they’re consistent, it could mean a more serious sleep disorder. 

“The criteria for insomnia is difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or consistently waking up about three times a week over a three week period,” says Clancy, who works at the Sydney Sleep Centre. “If it’s lasting a few months, we’re talking about chronic insomnia. You might start with difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep or you’re awake between 2-4am for three out of seven nights.” 

Frank Cahill, a sleep psychologist at Sleep with Confidence in Melbourne, says the key treatment for insomnia is breaking the sleeping pattern. “The best way we do that is stimulus control and getting people out of bed for short breaks and increasing their sleep drive. Cut out all naps and go to bed later and get up earlier.” 

One of the most effective strategies to treat insomnia, says Clancy, is often the most surprising. 

“Part of the treatment is allowing your sleep to be imperfect,” she says. “This is ironic because you see many people asking, ‘how can I get more deep sleep?’ but in fact, the way out of insomnia, if it’s a conditioned insomnia, is not trying so hard because the harder you try, the more sleep effort you put in, the more problematic the insomnia is going to become.” 

The Sleep Health Foundation studies found consistent lack of sleep is linked to detrimental health including an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The study also found Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) appeared to increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

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