One of the common issues that I experience with my clients is sleep complaints. This includes the ability to get to sleep, quality of sleep, and the ability to wake up feeling refreshed after getting enough sleep. The main sleep issue that I come across is the inability to fall asleep with ease (racing mind, laying awake, anxiety, overthinking), closely followed by waking up feeling lethargic, and like you’ve not actually slept well at all.
A 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults found that sleep problems are quite common, with around 33-45% of adults having difficulty sleeping or feeling the results of inadequate sleep during the day. Of these people, around 20% experienced problems relating to chronic insomnia. Most interestingly, 26% of respondents stated that they use the internet right before sleep and experience sleep related difficulties.(1) For some people, an underlying medical condition such as restless legs or sleep apnoea can cause problems sleeping, however for the majority of people its due to their sleeping and night time habits.
Lack of sleep can affect a person’s physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as their ability to work and function with day to day tasks. Not only that, it could shorten your life expectancy, and put you at risk for diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. (2)
Why is sleep so important?
When we sleep, there are many functions that the body carries out that are required for optimal health and well-being.
Sleeping is important for maintaining memory and consciousness – and during REM sleep the brain can clear your working memory and improve the ability to process information when you next wake. It is also during sleep that your brain is able to remove toxic accumulation of by-products of neural activity that are accumulated during the da. This is due to the fact that when you sleep the space between the brain cells increases, allowing for the waste to be removed more effectively.
During sleep, your body also repairs itself. The major functions designed to restore the body such as muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis and growth hormone release mostly happen during sleep. It is also important for immune function and to conserve energy resources. (3)
So as you can see, sleep is pretty important!
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t realize the effect their evening and pre-bed time habits have on their ability to get to and stay asleep. And this is where the term “sleep hygiene” comes in. These are first-step basics that you can implement to try and help you get a good night’s rest. Of course some of you may require more – which I can definitely help with – but this is a great place to start.
1. Your electronic devices are probably contributing to your sleep issues
When you consider the survey results above, you’ll notice the link between using the internet right before bed and prevalence of sleep issues. This is not a coincidence, and it has to do with both the use of electronic devices and not allowing your mind to calm down and relax before bed. Our bodies are designed to regulate our sleep / wake cycle based on light. Electronic devices emit a “blue light” which is fine during the day because it can boost attention and reaction times, however at night it has been shown to inhibit the secretion of melatonin, which is essential for good sleep. (4)
If you have trouble getting to sleep at night, it would probably be beneficial for you avoid looking at bright screens for a good 2-3 hours before bed. However we all know this may not be realistic at all. A lot of people work late, or use TV to relax after a busy day, or like to read in bed. If you can, try for at least an hour before you want to sleep. If even that is too difficult, it would be worth investing in a pair of red lens glasses to wear in the evening. Red light has the least power to shift your circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin, meaning it will reduce the effect that blue light has. Smart phones also have the ability to either install an app that will put a red overlay over the screen, or may have a night time setting that will do a similar thing. These apps can also be installed on some desktops/laptops. I would strongly recommend taking the TV out of the bedroom if you have one, to avoid the temptation of watching TV while trying to get to sleep.
2. Create a routine around going to bed.
This is something new parents do for babies, to help them wind down at the end of the day and teach them that night time is for sleeping. The same applies for adults. If you are still rushing from your day, or try to jump straight into bed after working or watching a high paced TV show then your body hasn’t had the chance to wind down, and it’s fair to expect you won’t be able to go to sleep right away.
If this is you, then maybe it’s time to create your sleep time routine. What sort of calming and relaxing things can you incorporate into it? For some, it’s the making and drinking of a bed time tea. For others, it may be yoga or stretching in the quiet of the house. Some like to read a book (best to use a real book or a red light filter if it must be an electronic device!), meditate, breathing exercises, have a shower or bath, or have a body care routine. Anything is possible, but the key is to establish this routine and turn it into a habit. And then your body will start recognizing this as “preparing for sleep”, and start to wind down as you begin your routine. By the time you want to actually sleep, your body and mind should be ready.
3. Create a sleep environment that promotes good sleep.
If you are sensitive to light, try block out curtains and covering your clock/putting your phone face down. If you know that your phone will tempt you to check if you hear it beeping or buzzing, turn on flight mode so that you cannot be disturbed by it (or leave it in another room). If you are someone who requires sound to sleep, consider a white noise machine or try a podcast like “Sleep with Me”. Make sure your bedroom is free of clutter so that energetically you are not feeling overwhelmed or feeling confined when you are in your bed. And try not to work in bed!
4. As always, diet is important!
It’s not just a matter of what you eat, but when you eat. Heavy meals right before bed can hinder your sleep. Not only that, it could cause you to wake during the night with reflux and indigestion. This is because our bodies are designed to better digest foods while in an upright position. (5) The stomach can take up to 3 hours to empty, which is why it’s best to eat at least 3 hours before bed OR have a very light dinner.
If you were to look at the Chinese Medicine perspective, the stomach has the highest amount of energy at 7-9am (which is why a decent breakfast at this time is a perfect way to start the day), which means that it has the least amount of energy between 7-9pm (which is when most people eat a heavy dinner). So if falling asleep is an issue for you (or night time waking due to heartburn or digestive discomfort), consider eating earlier (by 6-6:30pm) and have a lighter, easily digestible meal – and then keep a food and mood diary and see if it makes a difference.
These are just some suggestions you can start straight away to make some changes to improve your quality of sleep. Of course, there are a number of herbal remedies and nutritional supplements that can be helpful in promoting sleep, such as magnesium, chamomile, lavender and passionflower. Essential oils, bath salts, and magnesium lotions can all be helpful too. If you feel you require some guidance or further support in this area, then that is what I am here for!