How can I get better sleep?

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Merlin Thomas is a physician and a scientist. His research laboratory is at the JDRF/ Danielle Alberti Memorial Centre for the study of Diabetes Complications at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne.
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Sometimes getting a good night’s sleep can seem like an impossible task and we get into such deep ruts that it is difficult to get out. Fortunately, there are many professional therapists out there who can help us get our sleep rhythms back in sync. There are also a number of things you should try to avoid and things you can try to make a positive impact on your sleep tonight.

  • Alcohol: Alcohol is a sedative often used as an aid to sleep (as a ‘nightcap’), but the effect is short-lived. Not only does alcohol tend to fill up our bladder, it also disrupts healthy sleep patterns. It is better not to drink alcohol for at least two hours before bedtime.
  • Food: The release of hormones when we eat can also delay the onset of sleep, which is why it is unwise to snack just before going to bed.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine stimulates our brains for up to six hours after we have our last shot of coffee, tea, cola or energy drink.
  • Exercise: Often we see people out walking or running in the morning. Far from indicating insomnia, morning exercise is one of the best ways to promote sound sleep. In fact, exercising early in the day can significantly enhance the quality of our sleep at night. Not only is it a great way to absorb sunlight and re-set our body clocks, physical activity also works to enhance deep sleep.
    However, exercising within three hours of bedtime is not recommended as it releases stress hormones that keep us awake. For sleep to happen, we need to wind down so our brains can give over to the sleep cycle.  They cannot do this if they are trying to do something else, whether that be coping with stress or engaging in mental or physical activity
  • Work: Where possible, we should put work away at least an hour or two before bedtime.
  • Stress: One of the most important influences on our modern sleep patterns is daytime stress. This can be emotional, physical or environmental stress, such as a noisy workplace, but the result is almost always a bad night’s sleep. When stress is the culprit, the cause, not the symptoms, must be treated. Evenings can be the best time of day to practice relaxation, breathing and other mind-body techniques.
  • Environment: Getting good sleep is easy if you have a good place to get it. You may think you can sleep anywhere, but a dark, cool and quiet room, clean sheets and a decent mattress that allows us to maintain anatomical neutral positions comfortably makes a difference.  Use the bed only for sleeping, sex and very relaxing activities such as reading. You may be asleep, but your days will thank you for it.

Getting a good night’s sleep today

There are many different programs designed to improve our sleep by helping us deal with our daytime issues. There is little point (and rarely any joy) in trying to fix our sleep problems directly when stress, inactivity or other issues during the day are the real culprits. Equally, stress management, mind/body techniques, exercise and getting an optimal diet through the day tend to make things run more smoothly at night.

A variety of sedatives can help us get to sleep. These include herbal and over-the-counter preparations and prescription drugs. Although many of these are effective in the short-term, they are not slow solutions; they are not tailored to our individual needs; they help us to avoid our problems, rather than address them; and they can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing in the long-term.

Be selective – do what’s right for you

One of the keys to getting a good night’s sleep is finding a plan we like and can adhere to in the long-term. As Goldilocks learned, it is important to lie on each bed and find the one that best suits our individual needs. The amount of sleep we need in order to feel (and be) well rested varies among individuals, seasons and even over the course of the working week.

So find out about yourself and listen to the feedback. See how you are performing by keeping a log or journal. Do you tend to feel better on Mondays? Are you making it through to the afternoon without flagging?

Follow your progress and set new goals as you go. It is important to follow up your successes and failures. Not everything will work, but when something does and you wake up feeling refreshed, it is worth bottling.

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