Mind

How to beat insomnia for a better sleep - tonight!

These six sleep-well solutions will reboot your body clock and help you wake up feeling wonderful.

By Mark Brook
How to beat insomnia for a better sleep

We're all supposed to have enough sleep every night that we can meet the joys and challenges of the day ahead.

But for one in three Aussies who suffer with insomnia, sleep is a constant battle.

Psychologist Dr Moira Junge from the Sleep Health Foundation says while most people will experience sleeplessness at some point in their life, insomnia is far more common among women than men, and your chances of being affected increase after menopause.

Sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington says insomnia disrupts your natural sleep cycles, and then you struggle.

"These cycles play a major role in whether you wake up feeling refreshed or fatigued," she tells us.

While you sleep, your body goes through a series of states. The first is a light sleep, followed by a much deeper sleep, and then a dream state – often referred to as REM (rapid eye movement). If you dream, this proves you've been asleep for at least 90 minutes, which is the usual length of one full sleep cycle.

"Adults normally need five complete sleep cycles a night, but if you're too stressed or not winding down before going to bed, you may wake up after two cycles and find it difficult to get back to sleep," Dr Harrington explains.

While treatment options will vary depending on the cause of the issue, Dr Junge says there are some simple steps you can take to help get your sleep cycles back on track.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is the term for having trouble falling asleep or maintaining sleep, or a combination of both.

It's often caused by psychological or medical conditions, but can also be triggered by unhealthy sleep habits, certain drugs and bodily functions, such as digestion. According to Dr Junge, stress can also contribute.

"Life transitions, such as menopause and retirement, can put additional strain on the process," she says.

1. Start your sleep diary

Keep track of how long and how well you sleep each night to pinpoint any activities that might be preventing you from getting the rest you so desperately need.

"It only takes a few minutes each day to complete a sleep diary," Dr Harrington explains. "Record the times you go to bed and wake up, how much caffeine and alcohol you drink, any emotional stress you have, what exercise you do, and list the medications you take – along with when you take them."

Review your diary at the end of the week to see if anything stands out as being something you might be able to change for better-quality rest.

2. Book in for a check-up with your doctor

Sometimes insomnia can be related to an underlying medical condition. In addition to diseases that can cause chronic pain, such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, breathing problems such as asthma, emphysema and sleep apnoea may be to blame.

"We know sleep apnoea is three times more common after menopause, so it should be investigated as part of a complete medical exam in your fifties," Dr Harrington adds.

Other conditions linked with insomnia include anxiety and depression, reflux, restless legs syndrome and abnormal thyroid function.

3. Stick to your schedule

If you've been battling insomnia for years, it may take weeks or even months to reset your overall sleep cycle. But you can help it along by making one small change every couple of days.

"Shift your sleep cycle by about 15 minutes a day and then maintain it for about three days before shifting it again," Dr Harrington advises. You can do this by going to bed earlier and waking earlier, as long as it's for the same length of time.

"Eventually, you'll find you can go to sleep more easily and wake up on time naturally – provided you're not doing anything to keep you awake," she says.

4. Try napping

While long naps during the day can damage your overall sleep cycle, the occasional short siesta can actually be beneficial.

"Taking short naps between midday and 4pm can help improve alertness, productivity and overall rest, but it shouldn't last more for than 20 to 30 minutes," Dr Junge says.

An afternoon nap can be especially useful to manage any short-term fatigue while you're in the process of adjusting your sleep cycle by 15-minute increments.

"We're all naturally programmed to sleep that way, but most of us don't get the opportunity to nap due to daytime commitments," Dr Junge reveals.

5. Create a calm bedroom

To foster quality sleep, you must keep your bedroom dark and cool.

"This will help increase production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which is triggered by darkness," Dr Harrington says. "The ideal temperature for drifting off is around 18°C, but if you don't have airconditioning, a fan will do."

Even in winter it can be soothing to have a fan on because it produces white noise which, according to America's Harvard Medical School, can help you get a more restful sleep by drowning out sounds that could otherwise prevent you from drifting off or staying there.

Next, swap your doona for a blanket, which can help you stay cool and dry while you rest. Replace heavy bedding with sheets made of natural, breathable fibres, such as cotton or linen.

6. Unwind after dark

Use relaxation techniques to help your body get ready for sleep. This may include listening to calming music, burning essential oils, watching a movie (stay away from tense thrillers or horror, though!), stretching gently or mindfulness exercises.

"The more relaxed you are, the more likely you'll be able to doze off and stay asleep at night," Dr Harrington says.

The rapid cool-down after a hot bath can also help to induce sleep.

"It works by lowering your body temperature so you drift off quicker," Dr Harrington explains.

"Ordinarily, your body is at its hottest about 7pm, so if you take a bath at 9pm it can help you fall asleep easier when you climb into your bed."

What are some natural sleep remedies?

Magnesium
Magnesium is a muscle relaxant that helps ease anxiety and induces sleep. "It can lower high levels of the stress hormone cortisol so you drift off easier," naturopath Karina Francois reveals. You can get it from leafy greens, nuts and pumpkin seeds, or take a supplement.

Warm milk
Warm milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, which can help boost melatonin and serotonin production. "Put a tasty spin on the remedy by using almond or cashew milk, which is rich in magnesium," Karina says.

Valerian root
Valerian root is an ancient herb that's used to treat insomnia. "It acts like a sedative on the brain and nervous system, but you need to take it two hours before bed," Karina says. "A combination of valerian and magnesium can be particularly helpful."

Hops
Hops isn't just an ingredient in beer; the flower is also used to treat sleep disorders. "It can help you relax and is very effective for treating tension," Karina says.

Lavender
Lavender and its aromatic oil is proven to assist sleep. "It works by reducing muscle tension," Karina says. "Rub a few drops on your neck, chest or temples."