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Sleep Hygiene: The Facts

Baby Sleeping

Statistics indicate that between 33-45% of adult Australians are struggling with sleep or, more specifically the unsatisfactory nature of that sleep[1]; the impact this has on performance, well-being and quality of life is far reaching. If you are one of those individuals having difficulties with sleep, you already understand the impact poor quality sleep can have on your existence and you may have potentially resigned yourself to the fact that you simply have a dysfunctional relationship with sleep.

Fortunately, science tells us there are a number of things that you can do to improve your dysfunctional relationship, which can even result in a shift to becoming a 'good sleeper'.

There are a host of sleep disturbances contributing to this evolving epidemic which include insomnias (difficulty getting to and maintaining sleep including sleep apneas and restless legs), disordered sleep-wake schedules, hypersomnias (excessive sleep) and parasomnias (sleep walking, sleep terrors). Controlling factors that contribute to these disturbances is something that can be done to help minimise and potentially eliminate them, in addition to reducing your risk of acquiring one of the many co-morbidities. Poor sleep is often linked with several psychological disorders including stress, anxiety and depression [2] in addition to an extensive number of medical conditions [3].

Sleep Hygiene Behaviours
  1. Create the right environment for sleep. This means keeping electronics out of the bedroom, block-out window coverings and a comfortable pillow and bed. We all have a different metabolic rate so the temperature of the room will be unique for each of us, but the experts say between 15-19 degrees celsius . If you're feeling particularly motivated, also have a diffuser with lavender oil burning.

  2. Establish an evening routine. Start with reducing any form of stimulation before bed such as working, exercising or surfing the net. Perhaps drink a relaxing, sleep inducing herbal tea or simply warm water with lemon. Have a warm bath to calm the nervous system and offer further relaxation for your muscles.

  3. Limit toxins including caffeine, alcohol and technology. Caffeine and alcohol can cause you to wake through the night, and can inhibit the deep and restful REM phase of sleep. The light technology emits can also limit the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm. Sending emails or scanning social media keeps your brain alert and releases stimulant-like hormones. Avoid eating anything at least two hours before bedtime as the digestive process will likely result in sleep disturbance.

  4. Deep breathing or meditation have been demonstrated to release neurotransmitters that offer a sense of relaxation and can also limit rumination or worry. Body scans are ideal meditations for inducing sleep, as is yoga nidra meditation.

  5. Keep a sleep journal beside your bed and write down anything that's on your mind prior to falling asleep. Too often we have an excessive number of 'tabs open' in our personal browsers (aka brains) and simply writing things down can close those tabs. Upon waking record your sleep experience each night as a 'sleep diary'. Aim to get between 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Stress & Sleep

If you're facing chronic levels of stress, addressing that stress will be imperative to you getting a good nights' sleep. Excessive stress leads to a further deterioration of sleep with accompanying detrimental effects on daytime functioning [4]. Stress can also lead to constant worry or rumination and getting these cognitive processes under control will definitely help with sleeping problems. Additionally, managing your physiological responses to stress and changing your perception of stress are two things that you can do to begin the process.

Our bodies are designed to minimise threat and maximise reward. As such, when experiencing stress our bodies respond by garnering the resources required to manage that stress (increasing heart rate and blood pressure, release of stress hormones). If we are experiencing chronic levels of stress, these proactive, protective reactions can become increasingly toxic, placing our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) into dominance (meaning it is always 'on'). SNS dominance results in unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which have detrimental effects on our entire body.

When you first notice the signs of stress in your body, take a few deep belly breathes. As you exhale, your vagus nerve will be activated and it will send a message to release acetylcholine ~ which among many functions, is a calming hormone. Next, think of your body's response as a good thing, it's being helpful and initiating the energy for you to take action. If you can't help yourself and have persistent, negative ruminations, try reframing them to something positive. For example, if someone has threatened you in some way (directly or to your autonomy or certainty), after taking a deep breath try getting curious about why they would feel the need to do that. Next ask yourself the 3 potent questions suggested by psychology professor Martin Seligman:

1. Is it personal?

2. Is it pervasive?

3. Is it permanent?

The last thing that may offer respite from both sleep disturbance and stress is getting active. If you're not sleeping there's a good chance your body may not be tired enough to sleep. Physical activity has a stress-buffering affect on health, and also contributes to getting a better nights sleep during periods of high stress [5].

At the end of the day if you apply all of these measures to prepare for adequate rest and your relationship with sleep remains problematic, it may be time to consult a sleep specialist. In as little as a few weeks they could have your problem sorted and at the end of the day, you really do need a good nights sleep to function at your best.

For more information on managing stress see previous articles Harnessing Stress for Good and Proactively Prepare for Stress.

References & Resources

[1] Adams, R. J., Appleton, S. L., Taylor, A. W., Gill, T. K., Lang, C., McEvoy, R. D., & Antic, N. A. (2017). Sleep health of Australian adults in 2016: results of the 2016 Sleep Health Foundation national survey. Sleep Health: Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, 3(1), 35-42.

[2] Alvaro, P. K., Roberts, R. M., & Harris, J. K. (2013). A systematic review assessing bidirectionality between sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression. Sleep, 36(7), 1059-1068.

[3] Dikeos, D., & Georgantopoulos, G. (2011). Medical comorbidity of sleep disorders. Current opinion in psychiatry, 24(4), 346-354.

[4] Braun, S. R., Walker, H. K., Hall, W. D., & Hurst, J. W. (1990). Clinical Methods, The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations; Chapter 77 Sleep Disturbances, Cormier, R.

[5] Wunsch, K., Kasten, N., & Fuchs, R. (2017). The effect of physical activity on sleep quality, well-being, and affect in academic stress periods. Nature and science of sleep, 9, 117.

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