Do you lay awake, wide eyed and desperately wishing for sleep, night after night? Significant sleeplessness can be an intermittent or long term foe and its effects on your health can be alarming. Yes, there’s the tired, irritable self we’ve all experienced from time to time when we’ve burnt the candle at both ends instead of heading to bed early at a reasonable time. But insomnia is a different beast.
The 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults reported that we, Aussies, are missing out on sufficient shuteye en masse, with a lack of sleep affecting an estimated 33-45% of adults. Twenty percent of us also suffer from a significant form of insomnia.
Insomnia is diagnosed when someone has trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or experiences non-restorative sleep for more than four weeks, even though they have had sufficient opportunity. This lack of slumber impairs the ability to function during the day. If you’ve nodded off in front of the telly, forgotten something significant, had trouble focusing at work, or snapped at a loved one for nothing in particular, you might need to prioritise sleep.
Your lifestyle impact on your sleep health:
Lifestyle plays a big role in sufficient slumber so we’ll talk more about this in a moment. Before we do, it’s important to know that insomnia may result from an underlying issue. Sleep apnoea, mental illness, and restless legs can stop you from sleeping well. If you suspect you might have one of the conditions, please seek medical attention.
If, however, you are like most people, your lack of sleep will have, at least in part, something to do with your lifestyle. I’m afraid it’s the way of the modern world. We are digitally ever-connected, work well into the night, eat foods that contribute to overweight and obesity, consume caffeinated beverages, are often chronically stressed, and follow poor sleep habits.
The good news is that many of your habits are in your control, even if they don’t seem so. This means small changes to your lifestyle can result in big benefits to the quality and quantity of your sleep. This can profoundly improve, even transform, your life.
These seven evidence-based and simple steps and strategies will help you onto the right track to faster zzz’s.
1) Stop working late
A staggering 26% of our fellow Australians use the internet most week nights, right before resting their head on their pillow. Sixteen percent report completing work just before trying to sleep. This floods the mind with stress and activity, while the blue light from unrelenting screen time triggers the suppression of melatonin, the very hormone you need to fall asleep. The paradox is this: Poor sleep leads to reduced productivity and an increased incidence of mistakes. Your body will function significantly better, and you’ll get at least as much done, if you set aside work as the sunsets and leave it until the next day.
2) Block or blunt blue light exposure
Light is created from a range of colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. While certain colours can deliver therapeutic benefits, blue light can interfere with sound sleep. Exposure has been shown to suppress melatonin, our sleep hormone, disturbing the circadian rhythm and our ability to fall and stay asleep.
The problem is, blue light is ubiquitous. It is emitted from computers, laptops, smartphones, and televisions. The very sources we use well into the night. As a well known trigger for wakefulness, we need to block, or at least blunt, our exposure. The best approach is simply to put these devices away. Use them only when the sun is in the sky. If this is impossible, try blue-light blocking glasses, an app like f.lux, and switch to dim red lights for your nightlight.
3) Lose weight, if needed
If you are obese and obstructive sleep apnoea is closing your airway at night, leading you to intermittently stop breathing and wake, speak to your health professional about losing excess kilos and the possibility of needing a CPAP machine.
4) Change to caffeine-free beverages
We, Australians, love our caffeine! According to Statista, we consume, on average, 1.92 kilograms of coffee per year. Just over one-third of us drink four or more caffeinated drinks per day. Yet, our addiction could be culling our capacity to sleep.
This can be quickly turned around. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that one day of caffeine abstinence resulted in enhanced slumber. Sleep came more easily, sleep length increased, and its quality improved. These results may be achieved by simply switching to decaffeinated coffee and caffeine free beverages.
5) Keep a journal
Keep a journal. Sit down in the early evening and write down your worries or plans for the following day. When you think of an important item that needs to be remembered, jot it down and then let it go. It has now been safely secured and you can release the associated stress. And speaking of stress…
6) Calm stress
We’ve known for decades that psychological stress can interfere with healthy sleep. Whether you lay awake worrying about financial responsibilities, grieve for a lost loved one, revisit stressful past events, or experience the insomnia common with mental illness, the dark and lonely hours of the night can give rise to rumination.
Implementing calmative strategies can make a wonderful difference. Take a warm bath before retiring to bed, read a gentle book by a red night light, meditate, practice deep breathing techniques, and say affirmations. If you are experiencing mental illness, seeking professional advice can be a blessing.
7) Follow healthy sleep habits
As with anything in life, what you do again and again becomes entrenched and subconscious. You then perform these actions on autopilot. This can lead to beneficial or harmful outcomes. By harnessing this knowledge, you can set up healthy sleep habits.
– Set a standard time to wake each morning.
– Ensure your bedroom is dark, comfortably cool and safe.
– Block out noise, where possible.
– Choose linen that is made from natural fibres.
– Practice relaxing bedtime rituals.
– Ensure your mattress and pillows are high quality, comfortable and supportive. This will protect your spine and body against pain, maintain an ideal sleep posture and allow slumber to come to you.
While it can feel like insomnia and the signs and symptoms that accompany it will last forever, it doesn’t have to. Significant sleeplessness can become a distant memory. The right habits and, if needed, treatment could have you sleeping as well as a fully meditated Buddhist monk. Enjoy!