A good night’s sleep is just as important to your overall health as a healthy diet and regular exercise.
In this second part of our two-part blog series, we ask our NeuRA sleep experts Professor Danny Eckert and Dr Hanna Hensen about the two biggest challenges for good quality sleep – falling asleep and staying asleep.
- What can you do to help fall asleep?
Sleep is a trained behaviour. Routine is key.
If you ask a good sleeper what they do to go to sleep so easily, they will likely say something like “I don’t know, I just do it”. However, if you were to watch them, they probably have a very standard routine that they do each night.
Having a dark, quiet bedroom and avoiding stimulants (e.g. caffeine and electronic devices) and heavy meals in the lead up to sleep can be helpful.
- Is it true that phone and tablet screens are bad for sleep?
The natural body clock is controlled by light and in particular blue light. The screens on laptops, tablets and mobiles often emit a lot of blue light, which makes them appear brighter. This is great in the daylight but as far as sleep is concerned it’s like trying to sleep outside on a sunny day. Blue light suppresses the release of the natural hormone melatonin, which is important in promoting sleep.
Some modern phones and tablets have settings that change the screen colours at night to reduce the amount of blue light they emit. There are also apps for both Android and iOS that can reduce the blue light in screens, but these are not perfect.
The best idea is to avoid screens in the hours immediately before sleep – maybe try reading a book (with dim lights) or some relaxing music instead.
- Is napping okay or does it stop you sleeping at night?
It is important to remember that napping during the day does not replace good quality sleep at night. However, in certain instances, a nap can be a sensible countermeasure to restore alertness. This depends on two factors, the length of the nap and the timing of the nap.
Short naps that are under 20 minutes can make you feel refreshed and restore alertness. However, naps that are longer than 20 minutes can often cause grogginess as you may be waking from a deeper sleep. This is called sleep inertia.
Napping late in the day can create problems falling asleep – even a short nap in the early evening.
- What effect do food and alcohol have on sleep?
Diet can certainly play a role in the quality of your sleep. Caffeine and stimulants late at night are not a great idea if you want a good night’s sleep – so late-night coffee and chocolate should probably be avoided. Spicy and acidic foods can cause heartburn or indigestion, and sometimes reflux, which can be worse when you lie down.
Sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea can also aggravate reflex. If this is potentially a problem for you, talk to your GP. Additional resources can be found on the Australasian Sleep Association and Sleep Health Foundations websites.
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not help you sleep better. It might assist healthy people to fall asleep but it reduces the amount of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep later in the night, which results in poor quality sleep. Inadequate REM or disrupted sleep that occurs with alcohol can cause daytime drowsiness, problems focussing and poor concentration. Overall, drinking alcohol late at night disrupts your sleep and should be limited.
- How can I get back to sleep if I wake up in the night?
It is not unusual to find yourself awake in the middle of the night with your mind racing and to have trouble getting back to sleep. If there is not an underlying medical issue like sleep apnoea or chronic pain, there are a few things you can do to help fall asleep again.
- Try not to watch the clock.
- Relaxation techniques such as focussing on relaxing specific parts of your body, working from your toes to the top of your head.
- Keep the lights low and do not turn on any screens (research has found that the blue light in your phone is the same as being outside on a sunny day as far as sleep is concerned).
- Focus on your breathing.
If you do find yourself still awake after about 15 minutes, rather than lying in bed awake, try getting up and doing something relaxing and go back to sleep when you are tired. This will help train your body to know that the bedroom is for sleeping, which can help break the cycle in the long-term. If it is a problem that lasts more than a few days or is having a negative impact on your life, visit your GP.
See the Australasian Sleep Association and Sleep Health Foundations websites for more information.