Woman in bed

How sweet are your dreams?

Do you often slip between the sheets only to struggle with issues such as being unable to nod off, having restless dreams or waking too early? Don’t ignore your sleep hiccups as they could compromise your current and future health. Restful slumber is essential: it is the foundation of good health. During shut-eye, millions of your cells repair and renew themselves and your body produces chemicals that boost your immunity. That means that losing too much sleep could put you on a fast track to all manner of ailments.

Getting the balance right

Sleeping fewer than seven hours a night triples your risk of succumbing to a cold, according to research at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. In the long-term, too little slumber can also put you in the frontline for health problems, such as weight gain and heart disease. Research shows that going for 24 hours without sleep leads to reduced hand-eye co-ordination similar to having a blood alcohol level of 0.1. Unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation can increase the risk of accidents and also affect how fast you react when driving a car.

During shut-eye, millions of your cells repair and renew themselves and your body produces chemicals that boost your immunity.

Most sleep experts agree that the optimal amount of sleep is between seven and eight hours a night. That doesn’t mean you should overdo it. People who sleep more than eight hours die younger, according to a University of California study involving more than 1 million people. It’s not yet clear why. On the flipside, research at the University of Chicago has found that sleeping less than six hours a night causes a 40 per cent drop in sensitivity to insulin, increasing your risk for weight gain, obesity and type 2 diabetes. This is concerning, given that chronic sleep deficit is a growing and common problem in our modern world.

The increase in food cravings you may feel when sleep deprived is not simply caused by your body’s need for more energy. Too little sleep can cause a resistance to leptin, a hormone that helps signal that your tummy is full. It can also increase your body’s level of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and hunger. In turn, this domino effect can increase your desire for carbohydrates like sweet foods, which may lead to weight gain.

In addition, studies clearly show that getting too little sleep can increase blood pressure and lower mood, sex drive and cognition (such as thinking clearly, concentrating and calling things to mind). Brain scans conducted at the University of California show that the areas that deal with emotions become 60 per cent more activated after sleep loss, making you more likely to have bigger emotional reactions when lacking sleep.

Too little sleep may also increase risk for cancer, particularly of the colon and breast. Stroke risk jumps by as much as four times and there may be permanent brain impacts from sleep deprivation. One small study published in the journal Sleep found that losing just one night of sleep appears to cause some damage to brain tissue, which researchers measured by detecting two molecules in the blood that are usually released only after brain damage. Skimp on sleep regularly and there could be long-term implications that might predispose you to issues such as dementia down the track.

 Boosting your sleep quality

If you rise and retire at the same time of day, your body clock will better synchronise with light and dark. This helps to ensure that your body temperature is dropping around bedtime (making it easier to fall asleep) and rising again at the right time in the morning (when you need energy to face the day). Beyond establishing this routine, it’s important to give your sleep hygiene and quality as much attention as you give your diet and exercise routine.

Addressing the following common sleep issues can help boost your sleep quality substantially, so that you wake feeling energetic and refreshed.


Midnight: you’re counting sheep. 1am: you’re wrestling with the bedclothes. 2am: you’re writing your shopping list in your head. Though around 30 per cent of Australians experience nights where they can’t nod off, chronic insomnia affects about 15 per cent of people. It may be due to causes like chronic pain and asthma or simply an overactive mind that won’t switch off.

Sleep savers

  • Minimise screen use at night. If you must text or check emails, use a low brightness/contrast setting and maximise the distance of the screen from your eyes. Aim to avoid computer use several hours before bed: the bright light may interfere with the hormone melatonin, which rises at night, readying your body for sleep.
  • Avoid late exercise. Aim to work out two to three hours before bedtime. For most people, working out later elevates body temperature, which delays sleep onset.
  • Eat dinner by 7pm or earlier. A late evening meal can also raise your body temperature or cause issues such as indigestion, because you are lying down with a full stomach and that will keep you awake.
  • Soak in a warm bath close to bedtime. The warmth actually causes a temperature drop, which can help you fall asleep faster.
  • Try natural sleep boosters. There are many formulas of tea and tablets available that include sleep-inducing herbs such as valerian, skullcap and passionflower. You can also try sipping on a soothing camomile tea half an hour before bed. Alternatively, slip on light cotton socks for 10 minutes. Swiss research has shown that warming your feet before bed promotes faster sleep onset.
  • Seek morning light. Open your curtains on waking so you are enjoying some morning sunlight exposure. If you don’t usually fall asleep until 3am, aim to get your bright light exposure around 10am for a few days, then 9.30am for a few days and so on to help set your body clock back to the right rhythm.
  • Stop battling yourself. There’s no point lying in bed wide awake feeling frustrated. If this has become a pattern, work on changing it. For a few days or weeks, restrict your time in bed to the hours that you know you normally sleep. Doing this helps reduce “conditioned insomnia”, where wakefulness has become an anxious habit and the actual worry that you won’t fall asleep is the biggest reason why you are staying awake.
  • Cut back on naps and sleep-ins. These can put your body clock out of synch with your usual routine so you only start to feel tired in the early hours of the morning.
  • Steer clear of chemical helpers. Sleeping pills can be highly addictive and may increase risk for some cancers. Alcohol can interrupt your sleep through dehydration or a need to visit the toilet later in the night.
  • Avoid sleep distractions. These may include phones or pets in your room, or a radio clock with a bright light. Invest in good-quality earplugs if you have noise issues like traffic, a neighbour who plays loud music or a snoring partner.
  • Eat jasmine rice with dinner. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in rice. Your brain uses it to create “feel-good” chemicals, which help you feel happier and more relaxed. Though tryptophan is produced by all varieties of rice, research at the University of Sydney has found that eating a meal with jasmine rice sent people to sleep more quickly than eating long- or short-grain varieties.
  • Reduce stimulants. Cut back on caffeine, chocolate and energy drinks, which can overstimulate your metabolism and mind.
  • Embrace calm. Practise yoga by day and meditation at night: both can help lower body temperature and reduce stress.
  • Enjoy soothing scents. Use an oil burner to enjoy the calming fragrance of aromatherapy oils such as chamomile, vanilla and jasmine. Lavender has been shown in studies to be particularly beneficial so, as well as a warming some lavender oil in a diffuser, sprinkle a little on your bedclothes.

Morning wakefulness

Though problems like asthma could be to blame, the most likely cause of late-morning waking is anxiety or low mood. This is a particular problem for people who have busy, demanding lives or a tendency to worry, or both.

Sleep savers

  • Rule out health problems. These may include issues such as food or environmental allergies, oesophageal reflux (often triggered by large meals, spicy foods, alcohol or coffee), a weak pelvic floor (causing the need to go to the toilet) or issues such as restless legs, hot flushes or joint pain.
  • Install dark curtains or shutters. Darkness signals your brain to suppress chemicals that cause alertness and to release chemicals that promote rest and relaxation. These chemicals also lower your body temperature, which contributes to drowsiness. They can be upset by any lights in your room — even from digital alarms — so ensure your bedroom is light-free.
  • Watch your sleep position. If you fall asleep curled, this flexed position puts pressure on the back wall of the discs in the lumbar spine and may lead you to wake with pain later in the morning.
  • Drink cherry juice. Research at Northumbria University in the UK has found that cherry juice naturally raises levels of melatonin, which is one of the major hormones that help induce sleep. In people with insomnia, research has shown that cherry juice fosters faster sleep onset, better sleep quality and lengthier duration of sleep (by as much as 40 minutes). The research found improvements when people drank 30mL of concentrated Montmorency cherry juice half an hour after waking and half an hour before sleeping.
  • Try light therapy. Ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep disorders centre for a course of evening bright-light stimulation using a hired light box between nine and midnight for repeated nights until you reset your body clock.
  • Take magnesium. This important mineral is a natural muscle relaxant and studies suggest it may be a wonder supplement for sleep. Research shows it can help improve sleep time, reduce early-morning waking and support faster sleep onset, too.

 Restless sleep

There’s nothing worse than tossing and turning all night long. This interrupts your sleep cycle, which means you don’t get sufficient rest and, in the morning when you wake, you feel wired rather than refreshed.

Sleep savers

  • Assess triggers. Wakefulness can have a number of causes, both physical and emotional. Identify whether the cause is an issue such as your relationship or your intake of caffeine late in the evening, and address the trigger.
  • Employ visualisation. Imagine an appealing scene such as a Japanese Garden or a rainforest. The calming scene will help you to slow your breathing and your thoughts.
  • Exercise daily. People who exercise regularly have better-quality sleep, often enjoy faster sleep onset and are more alert during the day, according to research.
  • Avoid overheating. When you sleep, your core body temperature lowers to help sleep onset and rises again in the early morning to energise you for the day ahead. If you sleep in a hot environment, your body temperature increases, which may cause more awakenings during the night. To avoid overheating, never sleep with an electric blanket on (and use a hot water bottle in preference to heating up the whole bed). Keep blankets to a minimum and wear light pyjamas in a breathable fabric such as silk or cotton.
  • Pay attention to dreams. Restless sleep can be due to vivid or excessive dreaming, which can be a sign of a low mood or chronic stress. Studies indicate that some depressed people have more rapid eye movement (REM or dream) sleep and their dreams are more intense. This can contribute to more broken sleep and morning tiredness. Medications like antidepressants, as well as supplements such as vitamin B6 in excess, can also lead to more vivid dreams. Try to remedy any of the causes of broken rest so your sleep settles into a healthier cycle.

Loud snoring

Snoring occurs due to vibrations from the throat, tonsils, adenoids and soft palate, which relax and may partly or completely close the airway during sleep. Studies show loud snoring may lead to higher risk of diabetes, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. This risk increases if you have obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA): micro-pauses in breathing that deprive your body of oxygen. These pauses can occur between five and 30 times or more each hour, all night long, leading to repeated arousals of your sympathetic nervous system.

Signs of apnoea include loud breathing during sleep along with recurrent snorting or gasping sounds; excessive daytime sleepiness; and morning headaches. Sleep apnoea can increase production of adrenal hormones such as cortisol and lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease as well as an increased risk of developing diabetes type 2. Though OSA can be due to issues such as a large tongue/Adam’s apple, weight gain is the most common culprit.

Sleep savers

  • Book a sleep apnoea check. If you are a chronic snorer, see your GP for referral to a sleep clinic for an overnight sleep study. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnoea, you may need a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which uses a mask worn over your nose and mouth to deliver oxygen all night. Or you may choose to address the issue via breathing training in disciplines such as buteyko and the Alexander technique.
  • Lose weight. Exercising and eating well to maintain a healthy weight can cause a complete remission from OSA and put an end to snoring.
  • Quit smoking. Apart from the health dangers, smoking also increases the risk of snoring.
  • See your dentist. Ask about being fitted for a mouth guard or mandibular advancement device to hold your lower jaw forward.
  • Cut the chardonnay. Reduce your alcohol intake and try not to use sleeping pills. These can both relax the soft palate, worsening snoring.

The healthy bed

You spend one-third of your life in slumber, so it’s important that your bed is comfortable and good for your health. Pay attention to your:

  • Mattress. This should be replaced every 10 years. Your choice of mattress will depend on your gait, size, weight and issues such as back problems or past back injuries. Choose one that is certified low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, solvents and flame-retardants, which have been linked to allergy and disease. Good options include a futon or natural latex mattress with ticking made from a natural material such as organic cotton or wool. Can’t stretch to a new mattress? Then turn your older mattress over every few months to ensure evenness of wear and put firm slats under the lumbar region (where the spine curves in towards the tummy) for support.
  • Pillows. Choose pillows that are hypoallergenic and made from natural, not synthetic, materials. Use only one flat pillow: piling up pillows can cause excessive flexion of your muscles, which strains your neck and upper back when they should be relaxed during sleep.
  • Sheets. Opt for good-quality 100 per cent cotton sheets with a high thread count, as these won’t cause you to overheat. Choose a calming colour such as white or grey and minimise patterns, as these can prompt your mind to be alert when you want it to be signalling rest the moment you sink into bed.

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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