Tips on getting a better night’s sleep
Trudie McConnochie interviews Dr Moira Junge, CEO of the Sleep Health Foundation for Seniors Health Insurance.
Foggy brain, scratchy eyes, shaky legs and a feeling of impending dread about bedtime. For those who sleep badly on a regular basis, many of these symptoms are all too familiar. Research by the Sleep Health Foundation found that at least once a week, around 60% of Australians have trouble falling or staying asleep, or waking too early and not being able to fall asleep again. Chronic insomnia – when sleep disturbance happens at least three nights a week for more than three months – affects around 14.8% of Australian adults (as classified by the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, version 3 criteria), but since it’s under-diagnosed, the actual number is likely to be higher.
According to reports by the Sleep Health Foundation, not getting enough sleep can have serious impacts on your wellbeing. It also costs the economy by slowing productivity, and contributing to accidents at work and on the road.
Dr Moira Junge, CEO of the Sleep Health Foundation, says sleep science is still in its infancy so it’s difficult to measure whether sleep problems have increased over time, but her non-profit organisation’s research has found that more of us are having trouble getting good-quality sleep.
“It is a significant issue in society,” she says. According to Dr Junge, in just over half of inadequate sleep situations, health concerns (such as sleep disorders, depression or medication side-effects) are the cause. The remainder are due to lifestyle factors. In other words, people are not doing enough to prioritise rest.
“A lot of people are too wired, overstimulated and unable to let go,” she explains. “They’re doing too much and haven’t made time to wind down before sleep. You need a couple of hours at least, as a buffer to relax before you are able to initiate and maintain really good quality sleep.”
When sleep problems become chronic insomnia, typical treatments may involve short-term medication, relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or, less commonly, light therapy or sleep restriction (to encourage the body into a healthier sleep pattern). Medication is only recommended for short-term use. Addressing any underlying issues is important – for example, getting support to manage stress, anxiety or menopause-related hormone fluctuations.
UK journalist Miranda Levy is among those who have found sleep painfully elusive. For a fraught eight years, she barely slept at all, sending her bouncing between specialists and a smorgasbord of various health interventions – mostly unsuccessfully. Eventually, she managed to form a healthier relationship with sleep, a journey she’s detailed in her book The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again.
Read on for tips from Miranda and Dr Junge for sleeping better.
Tips on getting a better night’s sleep
1. Keep a routine
Keeping a regular bedtime helps the body prepare for healthy sleep. “The advice is to go to bed and get up at the same time everyday, even on weekends because then your body’s in a routine,” Miranda explains. A wind-down routine in the evening pays dividends. Do something to relax and turn off computers, phones and devices at least an hour before bed. Some people find meditation helpful, but if that’s not your thing, Dr Junge says watching TV, talking, reading, listening to relaxing music or podcasts will do the trick.
“It’s about having a buffer where no-one’s expecting you to produce anything or do anything, your tasks are done – or you’re happy to leave them – and you’re giving yourself permission to let go for the day,” she explains.
2. Exercise early
Miranda is a morning exerciser, setting her up for a good night’s sleep later. Exercising outside exposes your eyes to sunlight, triggering the body to stop production of the sleep hormone melatonin – a process it starts again when the light fades at night.
3. Try light pressure
While she acknowledges it might not work for everybody, Miranda has found a weighted blanket helpful. These therapeutic blankets apply deep pressure that may help relax the nervous system. “It’s like being sort of tucked into bed,” she says.
4. Don’t focus on numbers
In the digital age it’s tempting to track your sleep through devices such as an Apple Watch or Fitbit, but Miranda believes these can just increase your anxiety by pressuring yourself to achieve a certain number of hours. “The bottom line is how you feel the next day. If a machine tells you that you slept for five hours, but you feel you haven’t slept and feel terrible, that’s the thing that counts, really.”
Sleep Health Foundation recommends adults between 18 and 64 get between seven and nine hours of sleep, and those 65-plus seven to eight, but the exact number for seniors can be between five to nine. “It’s very individual,” says Dr Junge.
5. Break up with ‘sleep anxiety’
Miranda believes it’s important not to “turn your bedroom into a battleground”. Getting anxious about not sleeping only makes the problem worse, she says.
“Change your psychological approach to going to bed,” she suggests. “Don’t think, ‘Oh god, I didn’t sleep last night, I’m not gonna sleep again tonight’. Just tell yourself, ‘Okay, I had a bad night, but tonight maybe I won’t have a bad night. I’m not a terrible sleeper, I just had a bad night.’ Taking the pressure off yourself helps you fall asleep.” Some people also find it helpful to remove clocks from the bedroom to avoid clock watching.
6. Do I need help?
If you’re having trouble sleeping, Dr Junge suggests trying self-help interventions like those above first (for more ideas, go to sleephealthfoundation.org.au), but if you’re not making progress, chat to your GP. They may recommend an assessment for sleep apnoea, a condition where breathing stops and starts during sleep.
“Even mild sleep apnoea needs to be treated, to help with cognitive decline,” Dr Junge says. “People who are otherwise healthy in their 60s and 70s stay well for a lot longer if they’re getting better sleep and their brains are getting enough oxygen at night.”
23 Aug 2023