A to Zzzzz of Sleep: Get Better Sleep Simply

Experts agree that one of the simplest factors for better health is to get enough sleep. Unfortunately for many, this can be anything but simple. Almost everybody has trouble sleeping now and then, but such problems may be clinical symptoms of insomnia. According to the Sleep Foundation, if you have trouble falling asleep at night, or staying asleep, or you wake up in the morning feeling unrefreshed, you may be suffering from insomnia. 

Insomnia can affect people in different ways. Some sufferers have trouble initially getting to sleep, while others wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty falling back asleep. 

It is recommended that healthy people generally need about seven hours of sleep per day. However, most people get far less than this on average, putting themselves at risk of impaired mood, judgment and memory, with poor sleep quality also linked to health problems including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and increased mortality. 

Because our sleep-wake cycle (the circadian rhythm) is controlled by a pacemaker in the brain that responds to external factors like light, temperature and social and physical activity, there are certain behaviours you can follow to get a better quality of sleep and to fall asleep more easily. These behaviours or habits for good sleep are known as “sleep hygiene”. 

Establishing a regular bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends, helps regulate the body’s clock.

Spend some quiet time (usually 30 minutes to an hour) before bedtime winding down. Relaxing, sleep-enhancing activities can include a warm shower, light reading, deep breathing practices and meditation; while activities such as watching TV, using the computer or working right before bedtime, or in the bedroom, can make it harder to fall asleep.

Importantly in this period of wind-down before sleep, decrease blue-light exposure at least an hour before bedtime. Some lightbulbs and electronic screens emit blue-light which decreases production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). Most electronic devices now have a “sleep” or “night” setting to reduce or eradicate blue-light on devices past certain times in the day.

Some people might still find the ancient Celtic yan, tan, tethera, methera counting of sheep soothing, but if you awaken in the middle of the night and stay in bed, don’t lie there staring at the clock or pretending to be a shepherd. And don’t watch TV or scroll the news or social media on your laptop or cell phone either! Instead, get up and go sit quietly in a different, comfortable and dimly lit location to read, stretch, meditate or practise deep breathing. This is important because you should associate your bed with sleep only; therefore, also try to only go to bed when you feel sleepy.

Try to keep your bedroom’s temperature comfortable and cool, and the ambience quiet, well ventilated and as dark as possible. Aim for your body to be thermally neutral where you don’t have to sweat, or shiver, to keep warm or cool.

If you feel hungry before going to bed or during the night, try a healthy, light snack only; larger meals late at night mean that the body may need to expend energy digesting while asleep.

Natural light exposure during the day is essential for getting enough vitamin D to set the body’s clock right, and if you haven’t got enough light during the day, you probably won’t be able to sleep at night!

Researchers aren’t entirely sure why exercise makes you sleep easier, but it definitely does! Just 30 minutes of light, aerobic activity can improve your sleep on the same day! However, try to limit very heavy activity to at least two hours before bedtime.

A healthy diet low in sugar, with more complex carbs like wholegrains and oats, avoids sugar spikes that can keep you up, while these types of carbs release more sleep-inducing tryptophan too, which is also found in high amounts in oily fish like salmon, as well as in nuts, eggs and milk. Tryptophan is needed for the production of the melatonin. Vitamins and minerals like B-vitamins, zinc and magnesium are also needed for the conversion of tryptophan to melatonin, with supplementation with zinc and magnesium found to help adults with insomnia.

Please more about the benefits of magnesium here.

Stimulants will keep you awake, avoiding them before bed aids in falling asleep.

Nicotine is a major stimulant and is associated with numerous sleep problems.

How comfortable you find your sleep surface is important for getting good sleep; therefore, chose your pillow and mattress carefully.

If these tips don’t help, speak to your healthcare professional to help determine whether you are suffering from insomnia and require medical treatment. 

Your doctor may also ask about what prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking that can affect sleep; including some antihypertensives like beta-blockers, certain antidepressants and ADHD medications and steroid and other allergy medications. Do not stop taking any prescription medications without speaking to your doctor first.