Sleep might be the single most effective thing we can do to reset our body and health, but it doesn’t start when we go to bed.
Rather good sleep starts with what we do during our waking hours. Why?
Although brain size, diet and metabolism are among the factors that affect how long different species sleep, how vulnerable an animal is matters too. So, prey animals typically sleep less than predators because the giraffe can’t afford to sleep for long periods like the lion.
“We factor in danger to our sleep,” explains Moira Junge, chief executive of the Sleep Health Foundation. Danger comes in many forms, but our body doesn’t know the difference between the stress it experiences because there is a predator near and the stress it experiences from work and life pressures.
“The same hormones are secreted when there’s a perception we’re in danger.” Junge says. “It doesn’t make sense to sleep if you’re in danger.”
Sometimes we are not even consciously aware of it and yet, our body has activated the cascade of stress hormones and physiological changes that is the stress response. Adrenaline courses through the bloodstream, causing our heart to beat faster and deliver more blood to our muscles so we can escape danger. Our breathing rate, blood sugar and blood pressure also all rise as “non-essential” functions like digestion slow.
The finely tuned mechanism that is the stress response is highly effective in helping us get through acute challenges, but if we are not managing our stress it can come back to haunt us when we’re trying to wind down for bed, and our body is still in danger-mode.
“I can give you the top five tips for a better night’s sleep, but it’s 24/7 as well – it’s related to your food, substances, stress levels, physical fitness, how much light you’re getting.”
Moira Junge, Sleep Health Foundation
“I can give you the top five tips for a better night’s sleep, but it’s 24/7 as well – it’s related to your food, substances, stress levels, physical fitness, how much light you’re getting,” Junge says: “Sometimes the half hour before bed is too little too late.”
Finding ways to bring those stress hormone levels back down throughout the day can make all the difference at night. Our exposure to bright light during the day and our intake of caffeine and alcohol are also significant factors in how well we do or do not sleep.
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Breathe it out
When you’re feeling stressed, straighten your back and pull your shoulders back, suggests University of Sydney sleep medicine researcher and clinician, Delwyn Bartlett.
“It opens up your chest and makes it easier to breathe,” she explains. “Do a stretch, do some breathing, pull your tummy muscles in – you can do that anywhere, any time. And the more you do these sorts of things, it helps us to deal with really uncomfortable feelings. It becomes that passive thing we can do at nighttime when you’re thinking or worrying about things.”
Practising a 4-7-8 breathing technique can be an effective way to switch off the stress response. Breathing through the nose, inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds and exhale completely to a count of eight. Try four rounds a couple of times a day.
And instead of telling yourself to “just relax”, which can make us feel more tense, Bartlett suggests repeating a mantra to “slow down, let it go.”
Junge adds that breathing, meditation or relaxation exercises intermittently throughout the day can have a potent effect on our ability to switch off at night, as does delegating at work and being kind to each other.
“What’s that got to do with sleep? The way we manage ourselves during the day has a lot to do with how well we sleep.”
Work it out
Even on days when exercise seems impossible, getting off the bus one stop earlier to give ourselves an extra hit of sunlight and a 10-minute walk to work makes a difference to our stress levels (not to mention our overall health).
On the days we can do more, every bit can help us sleep better at night. Exercise improves our daytime energy levels, our mood and lessens the likelihood of being overweight, which is related to about 60 per cent of sleep apnoea cases. It also tires us out and studies show people who regularly engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise report better quality sleep and better daytime functioning.
“Do the best you can with what you’ve got,” says Bartlett. “It has to be practical.”
When using exercise as a tool for better sleep, it’s worth keeping in mind that vigorous exercise within a couple of hours of going to bed can make sleep harder because it elevates body temperature (our core body temperature needs to drop about 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit to fall asleep) and it releases endorphins which give our brains a buzz.
“One of the things that is very useful is to get up at the same time each morning and do some exercise and have light.”
Delwyn Bartlett, University of Sydney
“If you do moderate exercise in the late afternoon, early evening it’s not a big deal,” assures Bartlett, who says that, when it’s possible, morning exercise is best for sleep. “One of the things that is very useful is to get up at the same time each morning and do some exercise and have light.”
Dose and timing of your drinks make the poison
We may drink alcohol to wind down and drink coffee to wind up, but when and how much we consume can have a significant impact on our sleep.
Some people argue that delaying your morning coffee for 30 to 90 minutes after waking up means it doesn’t interfere with your natural cortisol peak and leads to more sustained energy.
Bartlett and Junge say the proximity of our last cup of coffee to our bedtime is much more important. This is because caffeine blocks adenosine (the neurotransmitter which makes us sleepier). And although most of our caffeine is absorbed quickly, it has a long half life, meaning adenosine levels can be partially blocked for at least five hours after our last cup.
A morning coffee, however, can not only make us feel more alert, it can make us feel better generally.
“Coffee increases our sensitivity to light, so that morning light becomes much more rich when you have coffee,” Bartlett explains. “If you go out, and it’s a sunny day, you feel good, you feel optimistic. There’s a physiological reason for that: special cells [that perceive light] project to areas of the brain involved in mood regulation. The reason we say ‘looking on the bright side of things’ is because it has this physiological effect. Coffee helps with that.”
A couple of coffees a day, or up to five cups of tea, is OK, adds Junge, “but make sure it’s at least seven hours before you sleep.”
As for alcohol, though it makes us feel sleepier, even one or two glasses of wine within an hour before bed can reduce REM sleep time. As our body absorbs alcohol, and it is no longer simulating GABA, a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect, we get a rebound effect as our brains try to rebalance themselves chemically. This can make us restless, anxious even and lead to fragmented sleep. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so sleep can be disrupted simply because we have to get up more to go to the bathroom.
“If you have alcohol it’s often easier to go to sleep, but tends to disrupt your sleep in the second half of the night and the second half of the night is when we’re more likely to have longer dream periods,” Bartlett says. Dreaming is when we do a lot of our subconscious problem-solving, emotional regulation and shore up our creativity.
As long as we limit alcohol intake to no more than two with dinner and have a three-to-four hour buffer before sleep, Junge says, “there would be no negative effect on your sleep.”
Sleep take home: We can make a big difference to our sleep by changing what we do during the day. Stress management, breathing exercises, physical activity and considering how much caffeine and alcohol we consume and when are all factors that affect our ability to switch off at night.
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