Respect your body’s need for sleep
For many of us, it can be easy to think we don’t need that much sleep to get through the day or that the time could be spent doing other more important things.
Staying up late can easily become a habit, but “we need to respect sleep”, says health psychologist Dr Moira Junge.
Sleep is so important, it’s an essential pillar of health, she says.
“If you think that ‘I'm pretty fit and trim but I'm not sleeping well’, then you're not healthy.
“Sleep is considered the third pillar of health alongside nutrition and exercise.”
While you’re asleep, your brain is doing important tasks such as laying down memories and processing the events of the day.
Take naps to reduce your sleep debt
Regular sleep can easily be lost in the busyness of work, families and commitments.
Taking naps on the weekend is a great way to catch up on sleep, says Dr Junge. But make those naps short: 15-20 minutes is ideal.
Don’t be scared of taking naps, as short cat naps won’t interfere with your overall sleep cycle.
“Having tiny naps on the weekend – 15-20 minute naps - is really important to restore the balance when you're trying to get sleep, but you can't because of work, kids, or shift work,” Dr Junge says.
“Try to prioritise sleep wherever you can, even in difficult circumstances.”
But try not to nap in the evening. And if you’ve “napped” from 1-6pm on a weekend, that’s not a nap, that’s a major sleep.
Get out into the light
To get to sleep we need melatonin, the sleep hormone. It’s secreted at night when it’s dark, helping us to sleep and regulate our sleep-wake cycle, and it's suppressed by bright light.
We need to suppress melatonin during the day by getting out into the light as much as possible.
“With our lifestyle these days, particularly with more screen time and people working really long hours - they might leave in the dark and come home in the dark – the messages around that light-dark cycle are lost.
“Get out in the light as much as possible,” says Dr Junge. “On the train in the morning, sit near the window and get the light in your eyes.”
Watching screens at night can also interfere with melatonin. Even using social media , checking your email and having heated conversations at night can keep you awake.
“There is very clear science that these things can suppress the sleep hormone, but they’re also creating too much stimulation,” Dr Junge says.
“It’s really important that the brain needs to get the right cues to understand that it's time for sleep.”
Practice good sleep habits
Good sleep habits are sometimes called “good sleep hygiene”. Some tips include:
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and tobacco close to bedtime
- Exercising during the day, but avoiding strenuous exercise just before bed
- Avoiding heavy, rich or spicy foods and carbonated drinks before bed
- Establishing a regular bedtime routine and a pleasant sleep environment
Each of us will have our own level of sensitivity to these, so try to work out what your limits are.
Sleeping pills are okay for short-term use, but not in the long term, Dr Junge says.
“Sleeping pills can help at times, such as if you have jet lag, have suffered traumatic grief, or you’re in hospital and you can’t sleep. But they’re not meant to be used over a long period.
“There is help available. There are lots of sleep specialists in Australia and you just need to ask your GP to be referred to a centre.”
Don’t worry, chronic insomnia can be beaten
For those who already have chronic insomnia, avoiding caffeine, alcohol and screens at night might help to some degree, but they won’t address the underlying distress around not sleeping.
“With chronic insomnia, people may have already developed a sleep-specific anxiety,” Dr Junge says.
“They have a lot of rituals and worries around sleep, as well as spending too much time self-monitoring. They may even become obsessive about their sleep.”
If you have insomnia, there is help available through a GP, psychologist and via online options and apps.
If your insomnia has become chronic, Dr Junge says the key is to reduce the time you spend in bed awake worrying.
“Don’t worry too much about your sleep. It's one of those things where the more you try, the harder it will become.”
Instead, get up and go to another room to break the association between not sleeping and bed.
Dr Moira Junge is a health psychologist and board member of the Sleep Health Foundation, Australia’s leading advocate for healthy sleep. The non-profit organisation aims to improve people’s lives through better sleep.