HealthAgenda

Physical Health

Sleep problems? Here’s how to get better sleep

If you have sleep problems, you’re not alone. The good news is that there are plenty of simple sleep strategies to help you get more restorative shut-eye – all night long.

It’s late, you’re tired, you fall gratefully in bed… and then your thoughts begin to race. Instead of drifting peacefully off to sleep, you’re tossing and turning. This is a familiar feeling for many.

A study by the Sleep Health Foundation in 2019 found that 60% of people experience some kind of sleeping problem at least three times a week, including having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and being unable to fall back asleep. Approximately 15% of the people surveyed had difficulties that could potentially result in a diagnosis of clinical insomnia.

Sleep problems became even more troublesome during the pandemic, and it was more likely to affect women, according to a study published in the Behavioral Sciences journal. The most common issues were difficulty sleeping and sleeping less, while vivid dreams and nightmares increased for 12% of respondents.

Why sleep is so important

Sleep is incredibly important to our health and wellbeing, says Deirdre Brandner, a psychologist who works with teens and adults on the issue of poor sleep.

“I say to my clients that if there was a drug you could take that was free and would guarantee you felt better, smarter, fitter and stronger, it would be very popular,” she says. “And actually, it isn’t a drug: it’s sleep. It is so powerful.”

Not getting enough sleep can negatively affect our energy levels and mood, hamper our ability to concentrate on tasks and increase the risk of mental and physical health issues, like heart disease, obesity, diabetes and depression.

How can I get better sleep?

There are many simple ways to improve your sleep quality and duration. Understanding why you’re keeping awake is the first step. That’s why HCF has invested in an evidence-backed app called Sleepfit, which gives an immediate assessment of your sleep, as well as recommendations and tailored strategies for getting more zzzs.

Sleepfit CEO Melissa Webster says they have helped tens of thousands of people understand why they could potentially be facing sleep issues, whether it is due to behaviour or an underlying sleep disorder.

She adds that if you need extra help, Sleepfit prepares a letter to take to your GP explaining what’s been assessed, the risk of sleep problems and the suggested pathway to treatment.

How to stay asleep at night

People often think of insomnia as not being able to get to sleep, but the condition also covers other common issues, like not being able to stay asleep.

While it’s normal for an adult to wake once or twice during the night, if you drink too much liquid before bed, frequent trips to the toilet are virtually guaranteed, so try to cut down on your intake in the evening.

Where you can, create a sleep environment that’s quiet, dark and cool to avoid interrupting your body’s natural sleep process. You may also find it helpful to try a guided meditation before bed, or listening to calming sleep music or ambient sounds.

And, if you do wake up during the night, resist the temptation to check the clock – in Deirdre’s experience, it will only make you anxious.

Is sleep quality more important than quantity?

Quality of sleep is more important than quantity, says Deirdre.

“If you're getting 10 or 12 hours of fragmented sleep, it isn’t as beneficial as six hours of deep, restorative sleep,” she says.

So what is quality sleep, exactly? It means falling asleep within 30 minutes of getting into bed, and not waking up more than once or twice in the night. If it takes longer than 20 minutes to fall back asleep after waking, overall sleep quality begins to drop.

What is a circadian rhythm and can I change mine?

A circadian rhythm is your body’s sleep-wake pattern over the course of a 24-hour day. It helps control the daily schedule of sleep and wakefulness.

There are things that can be done to alter it both negatively and positively – for example, having a daytime nap will throw out your circadian rhythm and is not advised for people with sleep issues, says Deirdre.

She suggests getting some sun when you wake up, as that helps your body to produce melatonin, which makes us feel tired in the evening.

Tips for better sleep

  • Exercise. It can do wonders for sleep quality. This is because we tend to fall asleep faster when our body has used enough energy, and because outdoor exercise exposes us to vitamin D. “Low vitamin D is associated with poor sleep cycles,” says Deirdre.
  • Say no to that afternoon cuppa. Drinking coffee before bed can also wreak havoc on our sleep. “Some people are more caffeine-sensitive than others,” says Deirdre. “My suggestion is not to have any after 3pm or, if you have problems sleeping, no caffeine after noon. And remember that some herbal teas contain caffeine, as does chocolate.”
  • Avoid alcohol. While alcohol may help a person to fall asleep because of its sedative effect, it can lead to disrupted sleep cycles, meaning a less restful slumber.
  • Keep it light. Avoid eating a large meal before bed as it will hamper the body’s ability to rest. A moderate serving of carbs during the day is also essential for a good night’s sleep, says Deirdre, because it helps the brain produce serotonin, which is known as the ‘happy chemical’.
  • Set up a solid bedtime routine. Try going to bed and rising at the same time each day and ensure good sleep hygiene with comfortable pillows, a quality mattress, a room that isn’t too hot and avoiding screen time before bed.

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.

Words by Jessica Mudditt
Published July 2022

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IMPORTANT INFORMATION

* Eligible HCF members with hospital or extras cover. Excludes Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

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