Health Health Matters

Not sleeping well? Try this science-based advice

Frieda Paton

The world as we know it has been turned upside down and you, like many others, might be experiencing sleeping problems for the first time. Heightened emotions and stress are known to cause insomnia.

Our bodies use sleep for both physical and mental repair and recovery and that is why enough sleep is one of the pillars of health. Fatigue affects our ability to focus, to think, and to control our emotions. Reduced brain activity can be measured on brain scans. One study found that the effect of not sleeping for 24 hours was the same as a blood alcohol level of 0, 10% – way over the legal limit for driving.

Insufficient sleep also affects physiological processes, including our metabolism and immune system. Long-term sleep deprivation can contribute to chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression and dementia.

If you are having problems falling asleep or staying asleep you might want to try the following tips which are supported by scientific sleep research.

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. We have a sleep-wake cycle which is regulated by a variety of hormones and brain chemicals. When the natural pattern is disrupted it can cause insomnia so, whether you are an early bird or a night owl, find a schedule that works for you and stick to it.

Following a routine for at least an hour before bedtime sends a signal to your subconscious that it’s time to wind down. Stop work and other activities that stimulate the brain. Clear your mind and lessen anxiety by, for example, journaling, making your to-do list for the next day, meditation or other spiritual practices, and a relaxing hot bath.

Bright light, especially blue light from screens, affects the production of melatonin which is an essential hormone for sleep. Avoid television, the computer monitor, and your cell phone for at least an hour before bedtime.

Use your bedroom only for sleeping. Make sure that the room is neither too hot nor too cold. Your pillow and mattress should be comfortable to ensure that aches from a poor posture don’t interfere with your sleep. Fresh and clean bed linen helps you to relax. You can also try some lavender essential oil – on your temples, spritzing it on your pillow or in a diffuser. Studies found that it does promote relaxation, by reducing your heart rate and blood pressure, and increases the amount of deep sleep.

Avoid alcohol, coffee or a large meal for at least three hours before bedtime. While alcohol helps you to fall asleep it prevents you from getting enough deep sleep. You can also try a magnesium supplement as insomnia is often caused by a deficiency in this mineral which is necessary for the production of neurotransmitters responsible for relaxation and sleep.

Regular exercise reduces insomnia and improves sleep quality. It seems that the time of day during which you exercise doesn’t matter, although you should avoid exercising for an hour or two before bedtime.

These natural methods for improving sleep are preferable to sleep tablets which can leave you drowsy and may be addictive. However, a sleeping problem may be caused by an underlying physical or mental health problem, so consider seeing a medical practitioner if the problem persists.

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