“Sleep is an important Pillar of Health. It’s the anchor to a healthy life and optimal living. There is nothing that sleep does not impact. It’s essential for our immune function, hormonal regulation, detoxification, mood regulation, learning and memory,” says Dr Amy Gajjer – an Integrative Medical Doctor based in Sydney.
Worried you’re doing it wrong – or simply not getting enough? You’re not alone. We’re a sleep-deficient population, with 70% of us sleep-deprived! It’s a modern malaise that has led the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to name lack of sleep as a public health epidemic.
But don’t panic! There ARE ways to improve your sleep, as Dr Gajjer will explain in this useful guide. Consider it essential bedtime reading.
The importance of sleep
Sleep is one of our greatest reset buttons, and it’s the single most effective thing we can do every day to reset our brain and body. When there is a lack of sleep, there’s an increased response to stress, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, mood disorders and emotional distress. It also impacts our learning memory and cognition and reduces our immunity.
Unfortunately, when it comes to sleep debt, we can’t just pay it back. Meaning that if we lost sleep the night before, we can’t just make up for it the next day. It’s therefore really important to have that sleep routine each and every day as best as we can.
Some important facts:
One-third of our lives is spent sleeping
The ideal amount of sleep is 7-9 hours each night
The critical time period to maximise sleep’s benefits is 10pm to 2am
Even though what we do before bed to get a good night’s sleep is important, it’s also important to appreciate the importance of daylight, and also things we can do during the daytime to enhance our sleep later on. In the morning, we have what is known as the cortisol awakening response. So this is where we have high cortisol levels in the morning, which literally wakes us up and gets us alert and ready for the day. Sunlight also stimulates a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus and that helps to reduce melatonin.
Factors that will help improve your snooze
So, what are practical things that we can do right now to improve our sleep? While supplements and psychological support such as cognitive behavioural therapy can be helpful, here we’re going to focus on lifestyle changes. This includes things like reducing stress and addressing diet, exercise, and environmental factors.
Regulate your sleep cycle
First and foremost, it’s important to have a regular sleep cycle. Ideally, you want to be going to bed and waking up at the same time every day – including weekends. Regularity is key.
It’s good to avoid naps in the late afternoon or evening, but there’s nothing wrong with napping. If you do need to have a nap, that’s totally fine, but try and keep it to about 30 minutes and preferably before around three o’clock. Ideally aim to be in bed around 10 or 11 o’clock and have a routine. Around half an hour to an hour before bed, start trying to wind down and relax and prepare yourself for sleeping.
Eat your evening meal early
It’s important to eat early, around six or seven o’clock, and allow at least two to three hours before going to bed. If you go to bed full, digestion won’t happen effectively and that in turn will affect gut health.
Avoid high-intensity exercise
It’s also important to exercise for sleep – but ensure that’s done during the day and preferably earlier, usually before six o’clock. If you are to exercise too late, this can increase your cortisol and adrenaline levels, which will impact your sleep.
Try these sleep aids
During sleep, our core body temperature drops so things that we can do to help include having a hot bath or shower, sipping herbal tea and wearing socks. Also having Epsom salt baths and adding lavender oil which also promotes sleep.
Refresh your bedding
Consider your mattress and pillows and whether they’re supportive enough. Ensuring you have an appropriate mattress (for your sleeping position and individual symptom considerations) is an investment in health – particularly when we remember that we spend a third of our lives sleeping!
Change your mattress regularly – every eight years, max. Pillows should also help support your neck as this can have implications for the whole of the spine. Memory foam pillows can be particularly supportive. And a weighted blanket can help when there is stress or anxiety.
It’s really important to reduce stress before going to bed. Try and avoid work or anything that’s potentially stimulating or anxiety-provoking, like watching the news or doing the taxes at least an hour or so before bed. If you find that the mind is distracted and uneasy, then consider journaling. This helps to get your thoughts out onto paper and clear the brain.
Music can be calming and relaxing and meditation is also fantastic before bedtime. For breath-focused meditation, you can use apps such as Calm, Headspace or Insight Timer.
There are some yoga poses that can be very calming as well. Things like simple forward folds and child’s pose. Yoga Nidra is like a progressive muscle relaxation body scan from one of the yoga traditions that’s also been shown to improve the quality of sleep and be very restorative.
Consider your food and drink
Try to avoid caffeine after two o’clock and if you’re very sensitive, avoid it after midday. Avoid alcohol within three hours of bedtime. Even one unit of alcohol has been shown to affect sleep quality, so even ‘happy hours’ can be disruptive.
It’s important to ensure adequate fluid intake because sleep itself is also dehydrating. So make sure you have adequate water intake during the day and keep some on hand for when you wake up.
Studies have also shown that a diet high in sugar and low in fibre can contribute towards interrupted sleep and reduce deep sleep. And steer clear of high-sodium foods that affect our vascular tone.
Create an ideal sleep environment
When it comes to environmental factors, there are four main areas to address:
- electromagnetic radiation.
It’s really important to get natural sunlight first thing in the morning, ideally outdoors incorporating some walking or other physical activity. At night, it’s good to reduce light intensity, especially an hour or so before bed. You can do so using dimmer lights or Himalayan salt lamps.
If you’re having to do any work using the laptop or on your phone, you can also consider using amber glasses, which help to block out the blue light. When it comes to the room itself, just ensure that it’s sufficiently dark. Use shades and eye cover if necessary.
Temperature and noise
Our core body temperature drops during sleep and we also know that a cool room temperature, around 18 to 20 degrees, is favourable. When it comes to noise, if you’re quite sensitive, use earplugs. You can use white noise generators and check appliances for noise as well.
There’s been a lot more research on electromagnetic radiation (EMR) recently – and it’s important to reduce this as best we can. We can’t control the EMR around us from other residences, but at least we can control what we have in our own homes.
Simple things include switching off the wifi at night, having your phone on airplane mode and ensuring there are no other electrical devices in the room. Or at least make making sure they’re switched off. Try also to avoid electric blankets while you’re sleeping. (These are fine to warm the bed beforehand.)
So, what are some of the tricks we can start implementing now?
- First and foremost, prioritise your sleep. It is an absolutely critical pillar of health and it impacts everything.
- Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every single day, whether weekday or weekend.
- Generally speaking, aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep and aim to go to bed by 10 or 11 o’clock at night.
- An hour or two before bed, reduce light exposure and ensure that the bedroom is cool (around 18 to 20 degrees) and that you’ve addressed noise and electromagnetic radiation.
- Don’t have any caffeine after two o’clock (midday if you’re sensitive) and avoid alcohol within three hours of bedtime.
- Try to get natural sunlight first thing in the morning as it will help your sleep later on.
About the author
Dr Amy enjoys presenting at community workshops, seminars and corporate events. She is a Medical Advisor to “Dance Health Alliance”, a not-for-profit organization, that facilitates dance programs in the community and care homes, to improve quality of life and mind body balance for people with neurological conditions such as Dementia and MS.
Dr Amy also enjoys writing (e.g. Fitness First, Prevention) and has published her first book, “Slow butterfly” on healing Hashimoto’s holistically, released in August 2022.