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Sleep | What to do when you're having trouble
Posted 2 May 2019
Sleep. We know it’s good for our health but so many of us struggle to get enough of it, no matter how much we need it.
To help you better understand the ins and outs of sleep, we chatted with Dr Dien Dang from the Adelaide Sleep Clinic and Chairman of the Burnside War Memorial Hospital Sleep Laboratory.
According to Dr Dang, it’s estimated that around 15% to 20% of adults deal with insomnia regularly. “Insomnia is the inability to enter sleep or maintain sleep, and can occur at any age,” he says.
“Most of the time, it’s reactive – to an event, an identifiable stress (interpersonal relationships, occupational stress, personal losses, bereavement). Other times, it may point to a bigger problem such as Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, or the Restless Legs Syndrome.”
Five tips for a better night's sleep
Getting a good night’s rest sounds simple enough, but if you’re having trouble, Dr Dang says there are a number of preventative lifestyle tips and tricks to help your body prepare for the best night’s shut-eye.
1. Wind down
While physical activity is encouraged every day for your overall health, Dr Dang says it’s important not to do too much physical activity in the evening. “Avoid heavy workouts three hours before bedtime,” he says.
2. Routine, routine, routine
Our bodies love routine, and this is the same for our sleep patterns. Dr Dang says you’re more likely to sleep better if your body knows when it should be going to sleep and waking up each day: “Maintaining the same sleep-time and wake-time can allow your body clock to remain in sync.”
3. Less daytime naps
While it can be tempting to take a nap when we’re tired, regular napping can have negative effects on your sleep patterns, according to Dr Dang, who says, “napping during the day will prevent a build-up of sleep debt, and push your sleep-time later and later.”
4. Less Light
Many of us take our phones, iPad or kindles to bed, but while we might think reading our e-book or scrolling through Instagram makes us sleepy and helps us switch off, often the bright lights of our screens are having the opposite effect on our bodies. “Turn down the lights, use blue-light filters and avoid bright light prior to bed,” Dr Dang says. “Blue light from your mobile phone, tablets and computer screens can disrupt your sleep even further.”
5. Less caffeine, less nicotine, less alcohol
This might seem like an obvious one, but often we assume our bodies get used to stimulants and become ‘immune’ to the effects. Dr Dang suggests it’s best to avoid these, especially in the evenings and afternoons, as much as possible. “Avoid caffeine at least four hours before bedtime as that will promote wakefulness. Smoking is a stimulant and will disrupt your sleep. Alcohol might sound like a good sedative, but will contribute to fragmented sleep, louder snoring, and worsen any Obstructive Sleep Apnoea.”
How to get back to sleep in the middle of the night
Experienced the dreaded 3am wake-up and can’t get back to sleep? This is a common problem for many, both young and old. While no solution works universally, here’s a collection of some of our favourite tips to get you back to sleep. Everyone is different, so it might take a few tries to see what works best for you.
- Stay calm — often our gut reaction when we wake up and can’t get back to sleep is to panic, especially if it’s a regular occurrence. Worry will only increase altertness more and more, counteracting your ability to sleep. Dr Dang states that although this is less clinically researched, maintaining a calm mind can help many insomnia sufferers. “If it works for you, then give it a go! Meditation, mindfulness therapy, white noise can sometimes help.”
- Oil diffuser — try using an oil burner with a calming essential oil at night. Many find the soft sound of the diffuser, scent and glow calming. It can allow you to focus on something else and create a positive sleep environment. Many pharmacies and alternative medicine shops offer a range of ‘sleep’ related oils designed for a calming environment.
- Sleep apps — these days, there are hundreds of apps to help you sleep, from those that play relaxing melodies or white noise (rain, thunder or running rivers), or meditation-style apps that guide you through the process of getting to sleep. Here are a few of our favourites:
- Change your environment — sometimes simply getting up and out of bed for a glass of water or a stroll to the living room and back can be enough to reset your mind. The Science of Us (New York Magazine) interviewed several sleep experts and suggests trying out a sleep diary for these times. Keep it in the living room and write down the thoughts you’re having. This can be distracting for your mind, as well as providing a useful tool for assessing the cause of your waking up – your triggering thoughts.
- Deep breathing — when we panic as kids, we’re often told to breathe deeply to calm ourselves down. Focusing on your breathing is an integral part of many meditation and yogic practices, all maintaining that if we focus on our breath, our mind can become at ease – precisely what we need for sleep. Focus on breathing in through your nose for three seconds and out through your mouth for five. This counting and breathing method can distract your mind and calm your body.
- Listen to audiobooks or a podcast — many find listening to an audio-book or podcast the perfect distraction tool for your mind to drift off to sleep. When it comes to sleep, our bodies love routine, so you might have a routine of listening to the same audio-book, setting your body into a rhythm.
When should you seek medical assistance?
If you feel your lack of sleep is affecting your quality of life, it might be time to speak to a professional, like your GP.