How to get better sleep at night

18 May 2021

Struggling to get a good night’s sleep? That loop of tossing and turning each night can cause much annoyance, whether it’s from the hours lost trying to fall asleep, or the poor mood you’re in when you wake up. To help keep you in the best shape for the waking hours of each day, we’ll dive into the major reasons of why people struggle to sleep, and more importantly, how to improve your quality of sleep starting tonight.

Why do we struggle to fall asleep?

The first question that often springs to our frustrated minds is why — why can’t we fall asleep? Although you may be concerned about whether you have insomnia or some form of sleep disorder, it is actually more likely to be much simpler reasons to your struggles. On a basic level, stimulation from a variety of sources at night, especially before your bedtime, is one of the most common factors behind difficulties falling asleep. Examples of this would be heavy exercise, watching media such as movies, and eating food; the list goes on. In general, you want to minimise the physical and mental stimulation you receive right before you sleep, so plan ahead by scheduling a relaxing activity before you sleep, such as taking a bath or reading a book.

What about other factors? You may be aware that caffeine is commonly attributed to sleeping difficulties, and you would be correct. Caffeine, found in drinks like coffee, tea, and soft drinks, has the effect of blocking adenosine receptors in your body, essentially preventing the actual adenosine substance from having an effect. Adenosine is the chemical compound responsible for making you ‘sleepy,’ decreasing your body’s activity and alertness to help you fall asleep. While you may think it’s okay to have tea in the afternoon, caffeine stays in the body for a long time. In general, avoid drinking caffeinated beverages for at least 5 hours before you sleep, but you may find that this needs to be extended to 10+ hours as your body may not filter out caffeine quick enough.  Another popularly discussed cause is ‘blue light,’ a wavelength of light that is present in sunlight, which is now found in artificial lighting as well. Common sources of blue light in daily life come from digital device screens such as phones or laptops, as well as LED lighting. Blue light has the effect of suppressing hormones such as melatonin, which is important for your sleep cycle in helping you fall asleep. The body is also very sensitive when it comes to what you drink or eat, meaning adjustments to how ‘full’ you are when you sleep can also help. A simple way to adjust is try having dinner earlier and eating less. On the other hand, your mental state is also important as part of relaxing and falling asleep. This is a lot easier to identify as compared to the other factors, as you have surely had nights where your mind is occupied with worries and concerns whilst in bed. Hormones associated with stress (cortisol) are known to affect many different body functions and sleeping is no exception. Being in a state of stress makes it difficult to relax and thus fall asleep, but also negatively impacts sleep quality and consequently leads to a poor mood as well as tiredness in the morning. 

Unfortunately, to this day sleep still isn’t an exact science; many of the factors and remedies related to poor sleep quality are not fully understood. Consequently, there is no guarantee that each and every aspect of popularly supported sleep theory will apply or be relevant to you. If you have persistent sleeping difficulties that cause severe effects on your life and health, it is in your best interest to be diagnosed by a medical professional for more serious underlying sleep disorders.

What else can I do to help fall asleep? 

The most effective changes you should make to help with your sleep is to have a proper sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene. This means you need to follow a strict sleep schedule, maintain a comfortable sleeping environment, and to practice good lifestyle habits to promote healthy sleeping. This includes sleeping and waking up at fixed times which gives a sense of regularity to your sleeping schedule and allowing your body to adjust. Additionally, try to have an evening routine that is kept constant before you sleep, such as what you do to relax immediately before sleeping as well as the order/time in which you brush your teeth and shower. These actions will eventually become associated with sleeping in your mind, helping you fall asleep quickly due to the expectation of what’s to come. Avoid doing anything in your bed apart from sleeping (or trying to sleep), to further calm your body and mind. Furthermore, you can create a more comfortable sleeping environment by removing disruptive stimulants and consider the temperature and scent of your bedroom as cooler temperatures and faint room scents can often help with falling asleep. Addressing causes of sleeping difficulties are also effective, but not always possible. Eliminating sources of stress will definitely help, but often are not within your control. Instead, try destressing during the day by meditating or exercise, alongside other calming activities you find helpful. Keep direct blue light out of your environment for the last hour before you sleep, and try to dim the lighting and reduce lighting intensity in the lead up to sleep as well. 

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