How to improve your sleep

Written by Lani Finau | 24 November, 2020

How to improve your sleep

Sleep. It sounds simple, right? You wake up, do your day, then hop straight back into bed – out like a light. So why is it that so many of us struggle? And what on earth can we do about it?! Let’s dive right in.

Almost 50% of Aussies report that all or most of the time, their day-to-day routine doesn’t provide enough opportunity for adequate sleep. Just re-read that for a second: all or most of the time they don’t have time for proper sleep... sound the alarm bells, please!

Whilst time is of the essence, that is reportedly not the only issue. Sleep is disrupted by: stress, pollution, hormones, blue light, weight, stimulants, diet, temperature, crying babies, barking dogs, and everything in between.

Seeing as there’s no shortage of reasons we can’t sleep at night, it’s safe to say just one key to better sleep won’t quite cut it. Below, we’ve broken down five sleep supporters to help you catch your zzzs, and the disruptors sabotaging your slumber – you (probably) never knew.

1. Cycle syncing… the circadian edition

Within each cell, you have what’s called a ‘circadian clock’. This dictates the timing of cellular processes, helping control your sleep-wake cycle.

If you were to look at each cell as the hard little working bees that they are, the circadian clock would be akin to their schedule. It provides structure around when and why they should be doing something, such as releasing hormones or signalling to cells.

Sleep tip no. 1: Establishing a regular sleep cycle. Start with just one week of waking up and going to bed at the same time. The deepest and most restorative sleep has been proven between the hours of 10pm - 2am, as this is when your pineal gland releases a significant amount of melatonin (your sleep hormone). You then enter a more superficial sleep around 2am - 3am – which is why so many people report waking up around 3am! If you can go to bed at 10pm every night and wake up at the same time (ideally close to when the sun rises) you’ll be supporting healthy circadian rhythm function.

2. Eye masks: fancy accessory or sleep necessity?

While a sleep mask may do an awesome job at blocking out light from your eyes, what it doesn’t account for is the light in the rest of the room – this can be an issue.

You have photoreceptors not just in the eyes, but all over the body including the skin, central nervous system, and even internal organs! These “extraocular photoreceptors” are responsive to light throughout and can disrupt and suppress sleep hormones, such as melatonin. This results in lighter more restless sleep.

Sleep tip no. 2: Be sure that you sleep with the blinds shut in a completely dark room, then on the flip side, always allow sunlight in during the morning (to suppress sleep hormones and boost cortisol and other “wakefulness” hormones). Ideally, you want to be spending 10-15 minutes out in the sun (without sunglasses or sunscreen!) at some point near after waking. Enjoying breakfast outside or an early walk is a great option.

3. Blame it on the blues

As with every health trend, it seems anything “anti-blue light” is trending at the moment… and for good reason!

Blue light can occur both naturally and artificially. When you step outside, blue light is emitted from the sun. It is essential for the regulation of sleep/wake cycles, shown to improve:

  • Alertness
  • Reaction times
  • A sense of vitality and wellbeing (you know, that feel-good sensation you get when you’re in the sun!)

So, what’s the catch?

Blue light from sun rays are also accompanied by a spectrum of other colours, making it a healthy, whole and balanced light source beneficial for anxiety, depression, lowered mood, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. The issue is that artificial blue light doesn’t carry these same therapeutic benefits. Not to mention, it doesn’t disappear like the sun does every night! Instead, it comes at us with all guns blazing in the evening hours; TV screens, iPhones, laptops, overhead lights, LED lights – you name it, they’re all switched on!

There’s a reason the sun falls every night, it allows our bodies (that are so intricately aligned with the sun) to get the message… “Hey there, great work you – smashed today, but now it’s time to switch off, unwind, and release all your calming bedtime hormones, okay?”... But what do we do instead? Block that message over and over by exposing ourselves to even harsher blue light than we had in the day, ramping up cortisol, adrenaline and all the other wakeful hormones that put melatonin to bed (how’s the irony in that?).

Sleep tip no. 3: Avoid bright overhead light in the evenings. Wear blue light blocker glasses. Invest in light bulbs that don’t use blue light. And evidently, have as minimal screen time as possible! Seriously, if you’re in bed reading this right now… switch off your device and go to sleep! We promise this blog will still be here tomorrow! If devices are unavoidable at night, another trick is to switch night-mode on, this changes the colour of your screen to block the blue light.

4. The goldilocks issue: too hot, too cold, just right

Ever wondered why you sleep like a log in winter? Well, believe it or not – this could be because your body actually prefers to sleep in a cooler temperature! (Who would’ve thought?).

It doesn’t have to be an Arctic-kind-of-cool, but between 15.6°C and 19.4°C does the trick. This is because of the thermal effect that temperature has on your circadian rhythm. Throughout the day, your body temperature fluctuates slightly, in line with your sleep.

In the evening, as your sleep hormones are released the body temperature begins to decline, preparing you for rest. Then in the morning, this gradually increases. Studies have even indicated that some types of insomnia are associated with poor thermoregulation.

Sleep tip no. 4: Having a warm bath or shower in the evening near your bedtime facilitates that rise and fall in body temperature that may facilitate a deeper sleep. Alternatively, you could just try leaving the window cracked open a little on slightly cooler nights!

5. Bring it to the breath

Did you know that on average humans breathe 20,000 times a day? Now we’re not sure about you, but that’s more than we eat, exercise or even sleep – hence the notable * impact that breath has on wellbeing.

Utilising the breath specifically before bed is a great way to get the body to enter the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Studies have shown that modulating the autonomic nervous system through the implementation of slow breathing techniques (in addition to other relaxation methods and sleep hygiene) may be even more powerful at supporting sleep and insomnia than other traditional pharmaceutical interventions.

Sleep tip no. 5: Implement some calming, deep breathing techniques into your evening. A great method is the 4-6-4 technique where you breathe in the nose for four seconds, hold for six seconds, then breathe out the mouth for another four seconds. You can just repeat this three to five times before bed to relax the body into a mildly sedated state.

References:

Sleep Health Foundation. (2019). Chronic Insomnia Disorder in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/news/special-reports/chronic-insomnia-disorder-in-australia.html

Okamoto-Mizuno, K., & Mizuno, K. (2012). Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm. Journal of physiological anthropology, 31(1), 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/1880-6805-31-14

Jerath, R., Beveridge, C., & Barnes, V. A. (2019). Self-Regulation of Breathing as an Adjunctive Treatment of Insomnia. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 780. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00780


Lani Finau

Lani is a Nutritionist (BHSc) passionate about teenage and adolescent health. She's also a Wellness Writer and Content Creator for Aussie health and lifestyle brand SWIISH and works closely with schools, teens, and young athletes as a Sports Coach in her spare time. She will be opening a clinic in February in Caringbah and will specialise in female health.

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