We devote around seven to eight hours to sleep each night in adulthood and ten to 12 hours in childhood. This amounts to around 200,000 hours in our first 60 years of life.
Not getting enough sleep does a disservice to our brain and physical health. But how can we improve our chances of getting a good night’s rest?
1. Silence the mind
Trying to fall asleep can be a tricky, especially when thought-chatter is involved. Instead of dozing off, we reflect on the activities of the day and events of the past. Negative thoughts tend to surpass positive ones and can set in motion a train of worry and anxiety.
Strategies to shut down thought-chatter include meditation, praying, listening to music, or simply feeling at peace and contented. Accepting the notion that everything else can wait till the morning will help. For most things, you can “sleep on it”.
2. Reduce bad daytime and pre-sleep habits
Stimulants such as caffeinated beverages can delay and disrupt sleep. The day-long use of caffeine (two to three cups) causes a gradual build-up of caffeine in the body. But effects on sleep depends on whether or not the person is a regular coffee drinker.
To avoid it interrupting your sleep, refrain from drinking coffee for at least six hours before bedtime.
Other foods can help us ease into sleep. Consuming foods high in tryptophan such as cherries, cherry juice, pumpkin seeds, milk and yoghurt (consumed at any time daily) or foods that have a high glycemic index such as short-grain rice (three to four hours before bedtime) can help.
At elevated levels, tryptophan makes its way into the brain and is converted to melatonin. Known as the “hormone of darkness”, melatonin is released at night time and induces sleep.
Light powerfully suppresses the release of melatonin and, therefore, sleep. So avoid using electronic devices that emit light in the period just before bedtime. Recent studies suggest even artificial room light can suppress melatonin levels.
Exercise plays an important role in decreasing the time it takes to fall asleep and improves sleep quality. The mechanisms by which exercise improves sleep remain speculative. Some suggest it increases slow wave sleep (referred to as deep sleep) and psychological functioning.
The appearance of slow wave sleep is associated with growth hormone release. Growth hormone builds up metabolic molecules and improves muscle mass and muscle strength.
Getting better sleep after you start exercising may also be explained by improved psychological functioning. Exercise promotes well-being and self-esteem, and decreases anxiety and symptoms of depression.
It doesn’t matter what time of day you exercise, as long as the activity is not at the expense of your sleep duration.
3. Stay asleep
Some people have no problem falling asleep but others struggle to sleep through the night.
Being too hot or too cold, noise and light can interrupt your sleep. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and cool (around 20-22°C is optimal).
A full bladder will signal a trip to the bathroom and break your sleep. One way of getting around this is to stop drinking fluids two hours before bedtime. It takes around 60 to 90 minutes for liquids to move through the body and turn into urine.
Since alcohol is a diuretic and disrupts sleep patterns, avoid it close to or at bedtime.
4. Maintain a routine
A structured bedtime and rise time will help establish your sleep-wake pattern. Sleepiness will automatically descend at bedtime. You’ll also wake more easily and may not even need an alarm clock.
5. Break bad sleep beliefs
Being anxious about not getting sufficient sleep may amplify sleep problems. So can worrying about your sleep’s impact on daytime functions such as thinking, memory, emotions and performance.
It can be difficult to change these patterns of thinking. If you’re struggling, you can seek help from a clinical psychologist. They can assist you to make the emotional and behavioural changes needed to promote healthy sleep.
Rest assured that any sleep debt you incur by getting a poor night’s sleep can be repaid through a catch-up sleep.
Sleeping well is about life-long bedtime and rise-time habits. Preparing a conducive sleeping environment, curbing thought-chatter at bedtime and following a structured sleep-wake routine will be a win for all sleepers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chin Moi Chow is Associate Professor of Sleep and Wellbeing at The University of Sydney, and a researcher with an interest in exploring the impact of lifestyle factors on sleep.