Optimal sleep helps prevent weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, with the magic number of hours being six to eight each night. We ask top mind-body health experts how to catch - and keep – those elusive zzzs.
1. Worry elsewhere
“Many people find their mind goes into overdrive with worries just as they're going to bed,” says therapist and recovery coach Beth Burgess (www.smyls.co.uk). “Set aside a special 10-minute ‘worrying time’ earlier in the day to give yourself space to work through problems. Then, just before bed, practise deep breathing and think of three things you're grateful for, to release calming chemicals in your brain.”
2. Check it out
“Sleep apnoea interferes with the quality of sleep, as well as increasing your risk of heart disease,” warns author Rebecca Harwin (www.ConquerYourPCOSNaturally.com). “If you or your partner notice you stop breathing at night, or if you wake up with a sore throat, snore, are low on energy, or fall asleep in the afternoon, it is worth a check-up with your doctor to investigate this possibility. Being overweight also significantly contributes to sleep apnoea.”
3. Can the clock
“Hide, or just don’t use, a bedside clock because it interferes with the sleep hormone melatonin,” say body confidence specialists Donna Richards and Tora Cullip (www.donnaandtora.com). “Research shows that the tiny luminous rays from a bedside clock can be enough to disrupt your sleep cycle, even if they don’t fully wake you. Instead, set an alarm on your phone and stash it out of sight or, if possible, wake with natural sunlight.”
4. Add magnesium
“This mineral is needed for many body functions and lack of it can cause muscle twitching, cramps and poor sleep,” says nutritionist Ravinder Lilly. “You can easily be low in magnesium if you take certain medicines, eat a highly refined white-flour diet (magnesium is lost when you discard the wholegrain), or consume too much alcohol, salt, caffeine and phosphoric acid (found in soft drinks). Plus, heavy sweating and ongoing intense stress increase body losses of magnesium.”
5. Eat sleepy foods
“Restless legs, cramps and muscle twitches are common reasons for sleep disturbance,” says naturopath Tasha Jennings (www.tashajenningsnutrition.com). “Increasing your intake of high-magnesium foods like pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, cashews, lentils, oats, spinach and bananas, or taking a good magnesium supplement in the form of magnesium amino acid chelate combined with vitamin B6, can reduce muscle spasms and improve relaxation to support sleep.”
6. Snack happy
"Sometimes we wake in the night because our blood sugar levels have dropped too low,” explains Emily Homes, creator of Conscious Foodie (www.conscious-foodie.com). “Before you go to sleep, eat a snack that contains a combination of healthy fats and a small amount of protein to ensure your blood sugar levels stay stable. Examples include celery topped with nut butter, activated nuts, or mashed avocado and cottage cheese on wholegrain toast."
7. Bathe blissfully
A scented bath is a well-known remedy for insomnia, and with good reason – it works! “Add organic pure essential oils like lavender and ylang ylang, which are well known for their calming effects,” suggests Michelle Vogrinec, creator of GAIA Skin Naturals (www.gaiaskinnnaturals.com). “Plus, give yourself a relaxing leg and arm massage before the bath.” If you add Epsom salts to a body temperature bath, your can create your own home flotation tank, which has a very relaxing, calming effect.
8. Follow a plan
“Create an area that you'll love to sleep in. Get rid of any clutter in the bedroom and under the bed,” says naturopath Laura Burton (www.burtonhealth.com.au). “Use soft lamps in the evening and get out in the sunlight during the day to help regulate your sleep/wake cycles. Eat dinner at least two hours before bed to give your body time to digest food properly. Herbal teas, especially chamomile, lavender and passionflower, relax the nervous system.”
9. Get toasty
Have you ever noticed how quickly you fall asleep after taking a late night warm bath? “If you are cold, your normal sleeping pattern can be disturbed,” explains Jaclyn Anderson, owner of Endless Spa (www.endlessspa.com.au). “But if you are comfortably warm, you tend to fall asleep quicker and stay asleep with fewer disruptions. To raise your body temperature, spend some time in a spa or warm bath before bed.”
10. Seek space
“Sometimes the only way to get to sleep and stay asleep is to sleep separately from your partner, if they are causing your sleeplessness,” says Jennifer Adams, author of Sleeping Apart, Not Falling Apart (www.sleepingapartnotfallingapart.com). “You might think this is a bit extreme, but many couples sleep separately to prioritise their health and wellbeing. If the thought of sleeping separately seems too much, remember it doesn't have to be every night – maybe just a few nights a week to catch up, and ensure you are reaching that deep sleep state needed for good health, at least some of the time.”
11. Hello, toes
“In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a bad night's sleep is related to your Liver qi (energy) not flowing properly,” explains acupuncturist and TCM practitioner Kim Gatenby (www.kimgatenby.com). “This can cause an over-active mind which prevents you falling asleep, and also wakes you up if you do manage to drop off. To get your qi flowing and calm an overactive mind, massage the top of your foot between your big toe and second toe, 2-3cm back from the web. This point is called Tai Chong and it works wonders!”
12. Use the correct pillow
“The truth is, common single-height pillows, including memory foam pillows, don’t offer the support required to switch from sleeping on your back to sleeping on your side,” says Darren Ross, co-inventor of the P3 Pillow (www.p3pillow.com.au). “Designed by Australian physiotherapists, the P3 Pillow is fully adjustable to provide correct sleeping positioning and an easy transition between back and side for sustained, deeper sleep.”
13. Try a guided meditation
"Guided relaxation and visualisation are great for slowing your body and mind down, and they are strongly supported by research as a treatment for sleep difficulties,” says founder of Dinosnores Sherene Alfreds (www.dinosnores.com). “It takes a great deal of skill and practice to do your own independent relaxation and visualisation, so I recommend relaxation sleep CDs for children and adults with sleeping problems. My own search for children’s sleep CDs for my sleep-challenged daughter resulted in the creation of my business - Dinosnores Sleepy Stories. The stories are designed to be fun and engaging while teaching relaxation and visualisation - once kids try out a story they are quick to pick up the techniques, and sleep well. Adults can do the same."
14. Skip sugar
“Avoid sugar, chocolate, dessert or anything sweet at night,” says Gabriela Rosa, author and natural fertility specialist (www.NaturalFertilityBreakthrough.com). “Sugar will make you hyper and keep you awake; it will also cause your blood sugar levels to drop during the night which wakes you and disturbs the quality of your sleep.”
15. Do a ‘mind-dump’
“Keep a notebook and a pen on your bedside table and, just before you go to bed, do a ‘mind-dump’,” adds Rosa. “Write down everything you need to do the next day, stuff that’s bugging you, your shopping list or to-do chore list. If it all goes down on paper, it’s not churning around in your head to keep you awake.”
16. Watch your weight
Seventy percent of people who are obese or even overweight have sleep apnoea. Losing just five to 10 kilos can make a significant difference. “Watch your portion sizes, decrease your intake of ‘treat foods’, and include some regular exercise,” suggests dietitian Melanie McGrice. “Alcohol is best avoided by people with sleep apnoea, as not only is it high in kilojoules, but it relaxes the throat muscles and hampers the brain’s reaction to disordered breathing.”
17. Decaf your life
“Only drink decaffeinated tea or coffee from early afternoon onwards,” says dietitian Kellie Bilinksi. “If you want something before bed, have a glass of warm low fat milk. It will help you go to sleep because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid used by the body to make serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter, and melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Other foods which are high in tryptophan are oats, dates, dairy foods, meat, chicken and fish, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas.”
18. Don’t overdo protein
“Don’t have large servings of protein close to bedtime,” advises dietitian Kara Landau. “Protein stimulates dopamine release which makes you more alert. Protein is also harder to digest, and so your body has to focus on your digestive system, rather than on resting and rejuvenating the rest of your body.”
19. Act 10 years old
“Milk and cookies actually do help you sleep – it’s true!” says dietitian Milena Katz. “Actually, any carbohydrate-rich snack is a good idea, because it will help to balance blood sugar and send you to sleep. Try a small bowl of your favourite cereal with low fat milk or poached pears. Raisin toast with a cup of milky tea is another option. Avoid large meals just before bedtime as you will feel bloated or experience indigestion.”
20. Moove along
Certain food choices can help to relax you before bed, especially dairy foods, if you can tolerate them. “A glass of milk or a tub of low-fat yoghurt contains tryptophan, calcium and carbohydrate - tryptophan is the starting point for serotonin and melatonin production, which the brain uses to help relax, plus calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan to make melatonin, and carbohydrate helps make tryptophan more available for the brain to use,” explains dietitian Natasha Murray.
21. Silence the stimuli
“An adult's natural sleep biorhythm runs in 90-minute cycles, meaning periods of sleepiness will occur every 90 minutes,” says naturopath Lidija Mustica (www.biorhythmnaturopathy.com.au). “It’s important to recognise these sleepy feelings and go to bed as soon as you get them, otherwise you perk up and you'll have to wait 90 minutes until the next bout of sleepiness occurs. Ensure that your pre-bedtime environment is calm, dark and quiet. Your body can only start to manufacture the 'sleep chemical' melatonin in the dark. So, dim the lights, turn off the TV and computer, and put the phone away well before you actually get into bed.” White chestnut, a Bach flower remedy, can be very helpful if you can’t switch off mentally.