Most researchers agree that adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night for proper cognitive and behavioural functions. Talk to people around you though and chances are many of them will identify sleep as something they struggle with. Like diet and exercise, sleep has a huge impact on our wellbeing. The good news is, we can actively work on our sleep habits and improve them. Sleep researcher, Dr Yu Sun Bin offers these 6 strategies for optimising your sleep.
#1 – Stick to a Sleep Schedule
Our circadian rhythm has a direct influence on when melatonin (the body’s sleep hormone) is released to help induce sleep. If your circadian rhythm is out of sync with the natural cycle of day and night, it can make it harder to fall asleep.
The circadian rhythm is influenced mainly by light and dark, but also by your daily activities. Sticking to a consistent sleep cycle can help you avoid what is referred to as social jet lag. Social jet lag occurs when the time you want to go to sleep as dictated by your internal body clock doesn’t align with your actual sleep patterns due to work or social commitments.
To ensure your circadian rhythm stays in sync, try to stick to a reasonable and consistent time you go to bed and wake up every day, including weekends.
#2 – Take That Nap!
Life has its ups and downs and sometimes not being able to get enough sleep is out of our control. The good news is that naps are science-approved. It’s important to understand though what constitutes a good nap, when to nap, and how long we should be napping to avoid waking up feeling groggy or having sleep inertia.
To increase alertness, the best time for most people to nap is between 2-4 pm, after your morning peak and as alertness is starting to decline. If you are sleep deprived, it’s generally good to get a nap earlier in the day. Science shows us that the ideal nap is generally short, between five to thirty minutes, with a ten-minute short nap having the best immediate benefit.
The key to napping is keeping it light. You don’t want to allow your body to fall into a deep sleep, so set an alarm to wake up.
#3 – Avoid Caffeine in the Afternoon
Caffeine presents in the brain as a molecule similar in structure to adenosine, a chemical that builds up in the brain when we’re awake and affects how sleepy we feel. When we consume caffeine it blocks the receptors in the brain that normally receive the adenosine molecule, making us feel more alert. Once the caffeine wears off, the adenosine molecule re-attaches to the receptors, putting a sudden break to brain activity and making you feel tired or sluggish.
Half the caffeine we consume is metabolised in about six hours. If you have a regular flat white at 2 pm, half of the caffeine will still be present in your system at 8 pm. This explains why drinking caffeine in the afternoon can disrupt your ability to fall asleep.
To optimise your sleep, try to avoid caffeine after 2 pm, and if you would like to cut back on your caffeine intake, do it gradually to avoid withdrawal symptoms such as headaches.
#4 – Reduce Alcohol Intake
Many of us get caught in the alcohol sleep paradox and don’t even realise the effect it is having on our bodies. What is the alcohol sleep paradox you ask? Drinking alcohol is known to help us fall asleep, but what most people don’t realise is that it also contributes to disturbed sleep patterns as it increases our waking throughout the night.
For the average adult who sleeps for eight hours a night, just four standard drinks can deprive you of ~50 minutes of quality sleep.
#5 – Exercise Outdoors & Synchronize your Circadian Rhythm to Daylight
We all know that exercise has numerous health benefits. Yet not everyone is aware of the relationship between exercise and sleep. For instance, exercising at night can delay your bedtime as your body needs to lower its core temperature after exercise in order to induce sleep.
Try fitting your higher intensity workouts in the morning when you first wake and stick to lower intensity workouts like light yoga in the evening to help you optimise your sleep.
#6 – Eat a Healthy Diet
Eating a healthy diet can help you optimise your sleep. Increase your intake of fish and whole foods that contain lots of protein and fibre. Protein and fibre contain an important amino acid called tryptophan which is used to produce melatonin, the human sleep hormone.
Try to eat your dinner more than three hours before bedtime to give your body enough time to register that it’s full and allow you to metabolise your food properly.
Dr Sun Bin is an epidemiologist and public health researcher. Her particular research interests are on sleep and circadian rhythms and how these biological systems are reflected in behaviour, health, and disease.