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Can’t sleep? Try these practical tips to improve your slumber

It’s no secret that getting a good night’s sleep helps you feel alert and perky, and basically a whole lot better about life. Yet regular, good-quality visits to the land of nod continue to elude more than half of Australians who just can’t sleep.

A report by the Sleep Health Foundation found almost 60% of people regularly experience one symptom that affects their sleep, such as trouble falling or staying asleep. Nearly 15% have symptoms that could result in a diagnosis of insomnia.

So, what’s compromising your shut eye and what can you do to sleep better and clock up a full eight hours each night? For many people, it’s simply a matter of taking better care of yourself during your waking hours.

Michael Barham, an associate lecturer in psychology at Deakin’s Faculty of Health, says there are five common sleep saboteurs that can impact your sleep quality and duration. ‘Fix these five areas and you’ll go a long way to improving your sleep,’ he says.

Too much screen time

Using electronic devices before bedtime can interfere with sleep because the artificial blue light emitted from your phone or laptop suppresses the release of sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. The more you use your device in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep – and stay asleep.

‘If you’re looking at a screen then you shut your eyes and try to sleep, your brain thinks it’s the middle of the day and can’t sleep,’ Barham says.

There’s also a theory that what we do or watch on our devices – a big game of football or the season finale of your favourite show, for example – stimulates us so much that it interferes with sleep.

The solution to both problems? ‘Use a blue light filter on your devices and have a set time when you turn them off for the night – give yourself 30 to 60 minutes to unwind before going to bed,’ Barham says.

Caffeine and alcohol

Caffeine is a stimulant so it’s pretty obvious it can impede sleep. In fact, its effects can last anywhere from three to seven hours – and that’s for just one cup.

What’s perhaps less well known is the effects that alcohol can have on sleep. Even though a couple of wines can make you feel sleepy, in the second half of the night you’re more likely to experience frequent awakenings, night sweats, nightmares, headaches and generally less restful slumber.

‘Limit your caffeine intake to reasonable amounts – around two or three cups of coffee a day – and don’t consume any after 2pm,’ Barham says. ‘As for alcohol, limit how much you’re drinking. Everyone has their own limits, so it’s important to know what yours are.’

'Use a blue light filter on your devices and have a set time when you turn them off for the night – give yourself 30 to 60 minutes to unwind before going to bed'

Michael Barham,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Irregular bedtimes

When it comes to sleep, your body likes to be regular. Irregular bedtimes can mess with your internal body clock and make it harder to go to bed and wake up when you need to. ‘If you do all-nighters then sleep for 20 hours on a Sunday, it completely breaks your rhythm and your brain doesn’t know what to do with itself,’ Barham says.

He says going to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends, as much as possible will help you sleep better – not to mention optimise your morning routine. ‘Try to go to bed between 9.30pm and 11.30pm every day,’ Barham says.

Stress

Stress and sleep can promote a vicious cycle. Stress makes it harder to sleep, which harms sleep quality, which fuels more stress.

Figuring out how to get a good night’s sleep when you’re stressed is more about what you do during the day than at night, says Barham. ‘As much as you can, manage stress throughout the day, so when it comes to bedtime you won’t be as stressed,’ he says.

‘At bedtime, meditation, breathing exercises and calming techniques can help, but stress is something that really has to be managed as much as possible throughout the day so it doesn’t catch up with you when you’re lying in bed.’

Exercise

Exercise is wonderful for your health and there are so many different types to choose from, but if you work out too late in the day all that huffing and puffing and adrenaline can mean you can’t sleep at night because you’re simply too revved up. ‘Try not to exercise within two to three hours of when you go to bed,’ Barham says.

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Michael Barham
Michael Barham

Associate Lecturer in Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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