5 easy ways to sleep better

Expert tips to hack your sleep routine.
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The desire to feel energised is well documented as the driving force behind many of our healthiest choices. It’s the carrot that dangles in front of us when we eat wholefood, exercise regularly and refuse that second glass of wine at dinner.

We don’t want to feel depleted. And yet we do. And underlying our best daytime efforts – and sometimes derailing them completely – is our sleep.

According to a study by the Sleep Health Foundation in partnership with Melotin MR, almost two-thirds of Australians feel that poor quality sleep is affecting their motivation to enjoy life to the fullest. “It’s our third pillar of health, and when we get the sleep we require, we’re able to face the joys and challenges of the day,” says Dr Carmel Harrington, author of The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep.

“However, when we’re sleep deprived, we manage to meet the ‘have tos’ of the day, but when it comes to doing something enjoyable, you just feel too tired to bother.”

For those who relate, here are five ways to get a better night’s rest.

1. Stop hitting snooze

Sleep scientists have known for a long time what new parents learn quickly: routine matters. Our body’s biology craves regular timing. Which means running on empty during the week, and then paying off the sleep debt with a lie-in, won’t cut it. In fact, sleep researchers have found that this actually leads to a kind of jet-lagged feeling.

“The key is to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, as this helps set your body’s internal clock and improves the quality of sleep,” says Dr Harrington. That’s not to say you can’t have a blow-out. When researchers talk about healthy habits, play the game of averages. If you mostly do what’s good for your natural sleep-wake rhythm, for instance, you’ll reap the benefits.

And they’re considerable: sleep scientists at Duke University in the US found the more irregular a person’s sleep patterns, the higher their risk for obesity, hypertension and elevated blood sugar, and the higher the projected risk of developing heart disease over the next decade. So, keep it consistent, both for deeper more satisfying sleep and long-term health benefits too.

2. Take a nap

When I had small children I was told by experts that the more regularly my child napped during the day, the better they’d sleep at night. The opposite seemed more intuitive to me: string them out and they’ll crash for days, as evidenced by my hedonistic 20s and anyone who’s caught a red-eye.

Does this napping strategy work for adults too? Not exactly. We can still benefit from a daytime snooze, but there’s a catch: You have to do it properly. “An ideal time to take a power nap is during the lull of energy we all experience around 3 or 4pm,” says Dr Harrington.

“Set an alarm for 20 minutes, 25 minutes max – more than that and you risk sinking into deep sleep and will find it difficult to wake up. Get up when the alarm sounds and don’t worry if you’ve only slept for 5-10 minutes; the restorative effect will still be there.” To reap the benefits, Dr Harrington suggests that if you do a few minutes of exercise to wake your body up you’ll be ready to go for the next four to five hours.

The added bonus of a quick nap is that you’ll only experience light sleep, as opposed to deep and dream sleep, so it won’t affect the quantity of deep sleep you get at night. There are also significant cognitive gains for the power napper: Research shows even a brief 10-minute nap can boost alertness, memory and mood.

3. Deal with your bed buddy

The truth is that for many women, not feeling rested has nothing to do with their own sleep … and everything to do with someone else. A recent survey from sleep experts ResMed found that about a third of adults are kept awake by someone else’s sleep issues. One friend has a partner who falls asleep about 3am and rises at 8am.

“If I wake at night to deal with the kids or just normal stirring, I can feel him lying there wide awake. He never has that rhythmic breathing of someone who’s asleep. He’s just staring at the ceiling and fidgeting, and noticing it then wakes me up.” And, of course, she’s resentful the next day … and exhausted. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that the partners of insomniacs can be impacted almost as much as the insomniacs themselves.

To find the sleep hygiene fix that may help, commit to things that promote better sleep together, starting with a cool, dark bedroom devoid of technology and distractions. Being open to different sleeping arrangements while trying to address the issue, for both your sakes, may also help.

“It’s important to check they don’t have a serious sleep issue like sleep apnoea, which is when you literally stop breathing multiple times in your sleep, which puts pressure on your heart,” notes Dr Harrington, who recommends taking an online sleep assessment as a first step.

4. Give your gut a break

A few years ago I starting reading Gut by Giulia Enders and I finished it with a simple lifestyle change that dramatically improved my sleep. In her book, Giulia explained it wasn’t until our gut finishes digesting all the food we’ve eaten that other essential processes, such as healing and recalibrating the chemical needs throughout our body, can take place. Ideally, our poor guts needed a 12-hour window without food to get it all done. And her argument was so compelling that I started wrapping up my evening meal by 7pm.

It was a simple enough change, and a surprising bonus was that I found myself tossing and turning far less before sleep and feeling more rested when I awoke. Plenty of studies have linked time-restricted eating with better sleep. One theory is that it reinforces circadian rhythms, which manage a host of biological functions including appetite and our sleep-wake cycle. Sunlight is the main regulator but food, it turns out, is a powerful secondary cue.

Interestingly, studies have also shown people who practise intermittent fasting may have more energy and focus because the break in eating increases the production of orexin-A, a neurotransmitter tied to alertness during the day and more restful sleep. In another study, after just a week of intermittent fasting, healthy adults were less likely to wake during the night, moved less as they slept, and spent more time in REM sleep, the stage responsible for emotional and mental processing.

5. Give your mind a break

It’s not nice to lie in bed and envy your partner, but it’s hard not to when they fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. Why do some people fall asleep so quickly? According to Dr Harrington, everything we do during the day determines how well we sleep at night, which includes how fast we get there. And while most understand the link between sleep and regular exercise, as well as caffeine and alcohol, “stress levels also play a role in how quickly we can still our mind to allow sleep to come”.

One habit that can help you get into sleep mode is to deal with the issues of the day. “In the early evening, spend no more than 20 minutes writing down things that are of concern along with potential solutions. Then close the book and put it away,” says Dr Harrington. And this: a technique called Hummingbird Breathing, which has been shown in clinical studies to calm the body and prepare it for sleep. “This exercise is easy to do and very relaxing,” says Dr Harrington, noting that you can try it any time.

Here’s what to do: Sitting (or lying) in a comfortable position, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Place your thumbs on the cartilage between you cheek and ear, and press down lightly. Then place index fingers above your eyebrows and the rest of your fingers over your eyes. Next, with your little fingers, apply gentle pressure to the sides of your nose and focus on your brow area. Take a breath in and, keeping your mouth closed, breathe out slowly through your nose making a humming sound. Repeat the process five times. And hopefully sleep tight!

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