In this article we take a look a how to improve your sleep. Sleep is a fascinating phenomenon and of paramount importance to one’s overall health and wellbeing – mentally, physically and socially. Sleep allows for the restoration of our body’s immune, nervous and muscular skeletal systems – most importantly, restoration of the brain and cognitive functioning.
Human sleep requirements vary by age and by individual. As advised by the National Sleep Foundation Guidelines healthy adults require between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.
Every 8 hours of sleep is made up of 4 -5 cycles, each cycle lasting approximately 90-120 minutes. One normal sleep cycle consists of 4 different stages: 3 x NREM stages and 1 x REM stage.
- Non-REM sleep is called slow-wave or deep sleep and occurs mostly in the earlier part of the night’s sleep. During this time, heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature drop allowing the brain to restore its energy levels.
- REM sleep increases in the final cycles just before natural awakening. Eye movements will restart and breathing and heart rate will increase slightly. Dreaming mostly takes place during REM sleep. This stage is believed to play a role in memory consolidation.
Brain imaging studies have shown that frontal regions of the brain (referred to as the prefrontal cortex) are most sensitive to sleep deprivation. The prefrontal cortex facilitates decision making, impulse control and assists in mental focus and motivation levels. Sleep deprivation causes slower brain waves in the frontal cortex, resulting in shortened attention span, higher anxiety, impaired memory, and irritability. Conversely, studies show that a well-rested body and brain has improved memory and mood.
Poor quality sleep has been linked with health conditions like obesity and heart disease and mental illness. A growing body of evidence suggests that poor sleep is both a cause and a symptom of mental illness such as anxiety, depression and other mental disorders.
9 Strategies to Improve the Quality of your Sleep
1. Optimise your circadian rhythm.
The body has an internal clock called a circadian rhythm that is driven by endogenous hormones that in turn can be influenced by signals from our environment such as light, stress, dietary stimulants, etcetera.
Keep your circadian rhythm consistent.
Practise a fixed bedtime and wake up time on weekdays and weekends to help create better quality and easier sleep patterns.
Allow natural light to wake you up in the mornings -this further strengthens your circadian rhythm. If this is not possible then exposure to sunlight and fresh air is recommended as soon as possible upon awakening.
2. Avoid screen time 1- 2 hours prior to your bedtime.
Computer, phone and TV screens emit a blue light which inhibits melatonin – a sleep-inducing hormone. So when you look at your screen late at night your body is deceived into thinking that it’s time to be awake. This habit can really disrupt your sleeping cycle. Screen time is also disruptive to sleep in that most information read is a stimulus to our brain. This information may induce stress, worry and anxiety which in turn adds to our insomnia.
Select a wind-down period of at least an hour before going to bed.
Switch all devices to sleep mode, switch off completely or put aside.
Spend this time reading a book, magazine, meditating, listening to gentle music or cleaning the kitchen. Create a calm and somnolent ambience using candlelight, music and sleep-inducing essential oils such as Lavender Oil, Chamomile Oil, Bergamot Oil and Sandalwood Oil.
3. Take a hot or warm bath at night.
Studies show that the body prefers to sleep in a cool environment.
Taking a hot bath counter-intuitively cools your body down. The warm water causes your blood vessels to dilate which remain dilated after a bath thus ultimately releasing heat from your body.
In addition to temperature regulation, a simple warm bath has been shown to improve breathing, oxygenation of blood, soothe muscles, joints and bones, calm the brain and nervous system and improve gastrointestinal health.
4. Limit caffeine intake to mornings only.
Caffeine is a stimulant that promotes alertness. It does this by blocking the receptor for adenosine. Adenosine is a substance in your body that promotes sleepiness.
Caffeine can delay the timing of your body clock, making it more difficult for you to fall asleep and reducing your overall total sleep time. One study found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime reduced total sleep time by 1 hour.
5. Drink alcohol in moderation.
Alcohol has been shown to reduce REM sleep and cause sleep disruptions. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that causes brain activity to slow down. The sedative effects of alcohol can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, but the consumption of excessive alcohol has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration.
People who drink excessively before bed often experience insomnia symptoms and feel overly sleepy the following day. This can trap them into a vicious cycle of self-medicating with alcohol in order to fall asleep, consuming caffeine and other stimulants during the day to stay awake, and then using alcohol as a sedative to counteract the effects of these stimulants.
6. Eat Healthily. Eat your last meal at least 2 hours before bedtime.
A varied balanced diet containing a good mix of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and low saturated fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is required for individuals seeking to improve health and wellbeing. To Improve sleep quality:
- Eat regular well-balanced meals and your last meal at least 2 hours prior to bedtime.
- Avoid overeating or eating too late. This can contribute to heartburn, weight gain and disruptive sleep
See a qualified registered dietician for further advice and guidance.
Meditation helps reduce stress levels and boost sleep hormone melatonin.
There is good evidence-based studies that exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality. The exact mechanism is not fully understood by researchers. What is known, is that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of Non-REM sleep.
Aerobic exercise causes the body to release endorphins and raises your core body temperature. After about 60 to 90 minutes, endorphin levels drop and the core body temperature starts to fall. This decline helps to facilitate sleepiness and helps the brain to unwind.
9. Don’t rely on medication such as sleeping tablets.
Sleeping tablets may be prescribed by a medical doctor for short term use but one should be warned that tolerance and dependence is a serious consequence if used on an ongoing basis. Chronic use of sleeping tablets may result in worsening insomnia that can become resistant to further treatment.
Compiled by: Dr Corrinne Rae Giles (BScDietetics & MBBCh)