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physical health

How to improve your sleep quality

Did you wake up this morning feeling refreshed? For many Aussies, a good night’s sleep is hard to come by – but there are ways to improve your sleep quality.

From her earliest years, Katherine has struggled to get to sleep. “I remember having a conversation with my mum when I was really young, maybe 7 or 8, about why I couldn’t fall asleep. She said it was best to stay in bed as I was still resting. But I’d lay there for hours, so frustrated at not being able to fall asleep.”

Now in her 40s, and a busy working mum of 2, Katherine still battles to drop off at night. “It’s a good night when it takes less than an hour. A bad night? Anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, or even longer.”

Poor sleep quality is a common issue, with the Sleep Health Foundation reporting that 40% of Aussies aren’t getting enough sleep. As if waking up feeling tired isn’t bad enough, a lack of quality sleep can also affect how our brains and bodies function, how susceptible we are to disease, and even how we store our memories.

While many of us will have a sleepless night every so often, a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found online searches for ‘insomnia’ surged between April and May 2020 worldwide, suggesting the pandemic’s negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. But it’s not just COVID-19 that’s been keeping us awake in recent times.

Why can’t I sleep?

If you’re having trouble sleeping, one reason could be an underlying sleep disorder. These are more common than you may think, says Steven Perlen, COO and Product Manager at Sleepfit Solutions.

Sleep apnoea, where people stop breathing in their sleep, is the most common sleep disorder, with overweight men being most at risk. Some people suffering with sleep apnoea can wake up to 50 times a night. You can imagine, with sleep that disrupted, how you’d feel the next day. Insomnia, where people have trouble either falling or staying asleep – and so don’t get that restorative sleep that’s so important – is also common, as is restless leg syndrome.”

There are many other factors aside from sleep disorders that could be stopping you from getting a good night’s sleep, including diet, exercise, stress and other lifestyle influences. “One of the most common issues these days is devices,” says Steven. “Often people are on their phones from the moment they wake up and it’s the last thing they do before they turn the light off at night. We know the light emitted from those devices actually stimulates the brain and that can make it more difficult to fall asleep.”

The trend of working from home may also be having an impact, with many of us having to work in our bedrooms. “Working from the bedroom starts to tell your mind that this is not a place for rest, that it’s actually a useful space for activity, making it harder to get to sleep.”

Other factors like too much noise or light, or an uncomfortable temperature, can all impact sleep.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia typically falls into 2 categories:

  • Sleep-onset insomnia, where you can’t fall asleep.
  • Sleep-maintenance insomnia, where you can’t stay asleep through the night.

For some people, insomnia is short-lived. It may be linked to a stressful life event and once the stress goes away, so does the sleep issue. For others, it can last much longer. If you’re having trouble sleeping at least 3 nights a week and for a period of months, this is what’s called ‘chronic insomnia’.

How much sleep do I need?

Between 7-9 hours of sleep is the sweet spot for most adults, but there are individual differences in sleep needs. The Sleep Health Foundation recommends 9-11 hours for school-aged children, for example, but 8-10 hours for teenagers.

However, focusing on the number of hours of sleep can be unhelpful and increase feelings of frustration and anxiety, making a good night’s sleep even harder to achieve. Experts like Steven recommend putting more emphasis on quality over quantity.

“This is a really important message for insomniacs,” says Steven. “An insomniac might only get 5 hours’ sleep, but 5 hours of good-quality, restful sleep is better than 9 or 10 hours in bed tossing and turning.”

If you don’t suffer from insomnia but start having trouble sleeping, it’s important to try and get to the root of the problem quickly. “Anyone can have a couple of nights of bad sleep and bounce back pretty quickly. What you don’t want is to build up a sleep deficit, which can lead to short- and long-term health issues.”

How does sleep affect health?

Ongoing sleep disturbances may affect your long-term physical health, including an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and cancer, and can also impact your mental health. Poor sleep quality can also impact the healthy functioning of your immune system.

“Sleep can be either a foundation for good health, or a pathway to a whole range of long-term issues [if you’re lacking sleep],” says Steven. “An example is if you're getting below 7.5 hours' sleep, there is a 5-fold increase in your likelihood of developing obesity. Additionally, if you’ve got really poor sleep, the chances of you having depression in the following year, or other mental health symptoms, is over 60%.”

How can I sleep better?

If your sleep isn’t up to scratch, check whether your bedtime routine is falling short. Fixed sleep and wake times, switching off electronics at least 1 hour before bed and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon, for example, are simple but important sleep habits to be aware of.

Making sure your bed is comfortable, your bedroom is quiet and neither too hot nor cold can also help to improve your sleep.

Other ways to improve sleep quality include:

  • avoiding alcohol, which can make you thirsty and need the bathroom during the night
  • having a good diet and regular exercise
  • keeping a notepad and pen next to your bed so you can write down any distracting thoughts to deal with the next day
  • keeping a sleep diary so you can track the quality of your sleep
  • meditating
  • setting a sleep goal, like waking up at the same time every day or cutting down on naps, and working towards achieving that goal. It’s important to keep these goals realistic.

One of the hardest things to do when experiencing sleep issues is to not stress about it, says Steven.

“Lying in bed, unable to fall asleep and worrying about how awful you’re going to feel tomorrow isn’t helpful. If you can’t get to sleep, get up, make a warm non-caffeinated drink, read – a book, not on a device – and try to relax. Eventually, your body will start to feel tired and you’ll be able to go back to bed.”

But if you think you may have an underlying sleep condition, get help from your GP. “You can have the comfiest bed in the world and the quietest bedroom, but if you have a condition like sleep apnoea, you’re still going to wake up,” says Steven.

Where to get help with sleep issues

For Katherine, a combination of meditation and an improved attitude to diet and exercise has helped bring her sleep issues under control. “I still suffer with the occasional bad night’s sleep, but I can mostly just relax and not stress about it, which used to be the worst part. Now I know if I stay calm, I’ll eventually fall asleep.”

At Sleepfit Solutions, Steven and his team offer an 8-week CBT program to help improve sleep quality. “It takes time to retrain your body. Your sleep patterns are very much governed by the way you think, your cognition and behaviours. CBT is all about giving you strategies for how to deal with the thoughts that are keeping you awake at night, how to put those things aside and give yourself the space to get rest.”

If you’re concerned, you should also make an appointment with your GP, who can help you come up with a plan of action for tackling your sleep issues.

Get a 20% discount on a 12-month Sleepfit subscription

We want to help you build better sleep habits and improve your overall wellbeing, so we’ve partnered with Sleepfit to bring you an app that can help you identify sleep issues, recommend improvements and give you access to personalised tools.

And, eligible HCF members with hospital or extras cover* can get a 20% discount on a 12-month Sleepfit subscription. Help for a better night’s sleep – that’s Uncommon Care.

Learn more
First published December 2021

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