By Dr. Kate Gregorevic
In a world of always being available on email, a constant supply of TV shows to stream and the pressure to always fit just one more thing in our day, sleep can feel like a luxury. At the same time, all of these things can make falling asleep really difficult. For anyone who would like to enjoy the mood, cognitive and health benefits of sleep, here are my top ten tips.
- Use light to set your circadian rhythm – light helps to set our body’s day-night cycle, called our circadian rhythm. Getting light in the morning and dimming the lights in the evening helps to encourage a surge of melatonin from the pineal gland in the brain which is an important trigger for sleep.
- Put the screen down – the light from iPhones and iPads are particularly potent for suppressing melatonin release. Reading on an iPad before bed is a sure-fire way to suppress melatonin, read an old fashioned book instead.
- Exercise – exercise and sleep have a bidirectional relationship, both enhance each other. Being physically active can help you sleep better, sleeping better can give you more energy for exercise!
- Cool down – At around the time we get ready for bed, our bodies actually cool down a little. Turning the thermostat down to 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit or 18-20 degrees Celsius is one way to prepare your body for an optimal sleep. Taking a hot bath also works by cooling the body. When you have a warm bath, blood vessels close to the skin dilate, so after you get out body heat is lost.
- Avoid caffeine after midday – It takes your body around six hours to break down half the caffeine in your morning coffee, meaning that if you have a coffee at 3pm, half the coffee is still flowing around your body at nine pm. If you want to have refreshing sleep, keep the coffee/tea and cola for before midday.
- Avoid alcohol – although alcohol makes you drowsy, because it is a depressant, it actually impedes deep sleep. When you have been drinking, the alcohol stops you getting into a deep sleep, and so you have multiple night awakenings leaving you feeling unrefreshed in the morning.
- A bedtime routine – Our minds need time to wind down before sleep, which is why it is important to have a per-sleep routine to get ourselves mentally prepared to nod off. It can be as simple as a shower, a peppermint tea and a good book!
- Get up at the same time each morning – although it can seem like a good idea to catch up with a weekend lie in, this can throw your sleep out for the next night. One of the recommended changes for improving sleep is to get up at the same time every day so your brain knows what to expect.
- Avoid naps – if you are having trouble sleeping at night, the tempting afternoon nap is not a good idea. This reduces sleep pressure and means that you are not as ready for bed at night. Particularly problematic is the early evening nap in front of the tv. It is better to actually go to bed, or choose a more engaging activity.
- Get professional help – if you are chronically exhausted, having unrefreshed sleep, snoring or falling asleep whenever you sit down, you might have an underlying medical condition. There are some conditions, like obstructive sleep apnoea, where the airway closes when the muscles relax for sleep, that lead to extremely unrefreshing sleep. If simple sleep hygiene measures don’t help, it is time to see a sleep physician. Additionally, if you have significant insomnia, which is trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, cognitive behavioural therapy with a psychologist is the most evidenced based treatment.
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