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Sleep Hygiene - How To Master Your Routines For Better Sleep

by Dr. Melissa Ree, Clinical Psychologist BSc(Hons) MPsych (Clinical) PhD on Wednesday 10 November 2021

Sleep is a state of reduced consciousness, characterised by changes in brain activity, breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and several other physiological functions. There’s typically little memory of the hours that passed during sleep. Sleep is a busy time for the brain and is important for brain health. Many restorative functions are performed, including cleaning of the brain where toxins are cleared via the glymphatic system. 

How common are sleep problems?

We all experience bouts of sleep every now and then, during travel, illness or periods of stress.  Indeed, research suggests that at least a third of adults experience regular poor sleep and about 10% of adults have the sleep disorder Insomnia. There are many things, however, that may help to improve sleep and our overall health.

How can good or poor sleep impact our mental, physical, and emotional state?

  • Sleep is critically important to our health and wellbeing, and is one of the three pillars of health alongside good nutrition and physical exercise. The fact that an average sleeper will spend about 25 years of their life asleep tells us that sleep must be fundamentally important. 
  • Sleep can have an impact on our physical health (immune system, metabolic function and much more), our cognitive function (concentration, memory consolidation, problem solving, reasoning), and our mental and emotional health. Poor sleep can contribute to the development of poor mental health (see Freeman et al 2020 for a review). The good news is that if someone is experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, improving their sleep can be an effective way to feel better overall. 
  • While it’s important to appreciate that sleep is important, it’s also wise to not become overly preoccupied and perfectionistic about it. When we become overly worried about sleep, this can get in the way of restful slumber. Good sleep does not need to be perfect sleep and the human body is remarkably resilient in the face of some sleep disruption. 

What is Healthy Sleep?

There are four stages of sleep

  • Stage 1 is light sleep, dosing
  • Stage 2 is where we spend most of the night
  • Stages 3 and 4 are deep sleep where rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs. It takes up about 15% of the night’s sleep and is the stage where our most vivid dreaming occurs.

Interestingly, our bodies go into a paralysis-like state during REM sleep so that we stay safe and don’t act our dreams! One complete sleep cycle (i.e., Stage 1 through to REM) takes about 90 minutes. The amount of deep sleep we get reduces as we age, but a healthy adult in their 20s might get about a 1.5 hours of deep sleep each night. 

 

Is it healthy to wake up during the night?

Yes. We are most prone to briefly waking up when we transition from one sleep cycle to the next.  This is entirely normal and healthy as long as the wakings are brief and not too frequent (up to 5 brief wakings may be experienced).

How long should I sleep for?

More sleep isn’t necessarily better. It’s more about each person finding their ‘sweet spot’ in terms of their ideal sleep duration.  See the National Sleep Foundation guidelines for recommended sleep duration across the lifespan. https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/files/pdfs/Sleep-Needs-Across-Lifespan.pdf
 
Good sleepers take less than 30 minutes to fall asleep and will wake up once or twice during the night. We all have nights where it takes a long time to fall asleep, or we’re wakeful overnight. This is often triggered by stress, and will usually pass after a night or two. The body is designed to tolerate short term sleep loss.
If you are generally feeling and functioning well during the day, it is likely that you are getting enough good quality sleep.

 

How do I achieve healthy sleep?

When we are functioning well, sleep happens quite automatically, and we don’t need to give it much thought. As long as we set up good conditions for sleep, our bodies will give us the type and amount of sleep that we need. When sleeping poorly, it’s helpful to make proactive and considered changes to routines around sleep, while not getting into a cycle of overthinking and worrying about it.

Ideas to consider for setting up a healthy sleep routine include:

  • Get up at a similar time each day (variation of an hour or less). A regular rising time anchors the body clock and helps to establish a healthy sleep routine. Rising at the same time helps us to feel sleepy at a similar time in the evening. 
  • Have a wind down period before you go to bed. 1-2 hours before bed have a routine that helps you down regulate from the day. TV, reading a book, having a bath, gentle stretching or yoga, and medication are all great wind down activities. You may need longer to wind down after a demanding day. 
  • Go to bed only when you’re sleepy. Sleepy means yawning and being close to nodding off. It is possible to be fatigued but not sleepy. If you are not sleepy, it is likely that you will toss, turn and become frustrated in bed as you try to sleep before your body is ready. Don’t expect to finish work at 11pm and be sound asleep by 11.30pm! You need time to unwind. 
  • Don’t worry, plan or problem solve in bed. If you find that your mind is busy when you are in bed, set aside time each day to do the thinking, reflecting, and problem solving that your brain wants to do. Then, when you’re in bed, practice letting your thoughts go or a relaxation exercise. 
  • Avoid checking the time overnight. One reason that the mind can be busy at night is related to monitoring the time. When we are worried about falling asleep, we are naturally inclined to check the time to see how long we’ve been awake. 
  • Avoid catastrophising about sleep loss. The more frustrated and anxious you become, the more likely you won’t sleep as your mind are body will be tense. Remember that your sleep does not need to be perfect and the odd bad night won’t do you long term harm. 
  • Balanced days = restful nights. Poor sleep is a problem related to both the day and the night. What happens during the day affects sleep at night, and sleep at night affects mood and functioning during the day. Being proactive in the face of stress can be very helpful for sleep. Working towards days that are balanced with productivity, fun, exercise, and social elements will be a good recipe for restful slumber. 

What about napping?

Naps can disrupt night-time sleep. However, a short nap (less than 30mins) seven or more hours before your bedtime can be very restorative without interfering with your night-time sleep. People vary with respect to naps so this may need a little experimentation.

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If you have trouble implementing the suggestions contained here, or find that you are still sleeping poorly, consult with your GP or sleep specialist. 

Interested to learn more about ways you can stay balanced? We can help connect you with a personal trainer to discuss your lifestyle and fitness goals, online or in person. Talk to us today!
 

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