Imagine yourself preparing for sleep.  

You are nestled under the doona, head melting into the pillow, your body is going completely soft, cuddled by the mattress beneath you. You are calm, your breath has slowed down and your heart beat has started to find a slower rhythm as you drift off to sleep.

Sleeping is an important time for your brain to make connections which help with creativity, learning and increased memory.

As our lives get busier, working hours get longer leaving less time for us to enjoy life outside of the workplace. Now more than ever it seems harder to get our recommended 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

With the average Australian spending more than 46 hours per week looking at a screen and over 8 hours working per day there are fewer hours for us to fit in time for sleep.

Research has shown that sleep deprivation is costing us more than we realise. This week the Deloitte Access Economics and the Sleep Health Foundation estimated that Australia’s inadequate sleep is costing over $66 billion dollars a year in lost productivity.

A survey conducted by the Sleep Health Foundation has found that 20% of people found it difficult to fall asleep several nights a week and 35% wake up feeling unrefreshed.  Our lack of sleep is also causing us to become irritated and moody, having a negative impact on our daily activities and work productivity.   

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is fundamental for the regulation of biological human health.  Sleep helps our bodies recalibrate, conserve energy, thermoregulate and repair tissue. It is also important for cognitive performance and synthesising memory.

Without sufficient sleep our bodies are constantly active and operating in the sympathetic nervous system. This is the system that activates our body’s ‘flight mode’, meaning it keeps our our blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels elevated. This can hinder our immune response, making us more susceptible to sickness or taking on metabolic changes such as insulin resistance.

Studies have also shown that sleep deprivation reduces cognitive function and impacts mood. The longer we are awake, the more we start to see a reduction in reaction speed, short term and long term memory, decreased decision making ability, cognitive speed and a diminished ability to focus.

Lack of sleep is also being linked to the increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes in western societies as a result of the change in appetite regulatory hormones.  Individuals that have little sleep are more likely to have reduced leptin and elevated ghrelin hormones. So if you are currently working towards a weight loss goal, it’s important to make sure sure you get some zzz’s to complement your balanced diet and exercise routine!

Melatonin is the main hormone that controls sleep.  It is a hormone made in the pineal gland in the brain from amino acids consumed through your diet. It is the key to regulating our circadian rhythm, aka, our internal clock. This hormone is synthesized from serotonin, another neurotransmitter produced from the amino acid tryptophan, and with the assistance of vitamin B9, B6, B5, iron, magnesium and zinc. Melatonin production is triggered by darkness and that’s why it is called the ‘hormone of the dark’.

So what can you do to get more (or better!) sleep?

  1. Set yourself a wind down/bedtime.  Try getting into bed around 10-10.30pm, even if you don’t feel tired. This will send a signal to your body that you are ready for R’n’R and sleep.

  2. Take 10 deep breaths before getting into bed. Count 5 breaths in and 5 breaths out.

  3. Engage the parasympathetic nervous system by putting your legs up against the wall for 10 to 15 minutes, closing your eyes and letting the body come to a complete stop. After a while you’ll start to feel the blood rush down out of your feet.

  4. Dim the lights at home to assist with the production of melatonin. If you don’t have a dimmer, change your bedside lamps to a lower lumen light, which is easier on the eyes and the body. Harvard research has shown that exposure to blue light suppresses the production of melatonin and shifted circadian rhythms.

  5. If you are a night owl and night worker, you could invest in blue-blocking glasses or install apps that filter blue/green wavelength at night.  

  6. Try your best (and I know it is really hard) to put your phone down to stop stimulating the brain with too much social media at least 30 minutes before bed. If you are going to do this, make sure the light on your phone is on dim night light.

  7. Try eating some of these melatonin containing foods at night: rice, ginger, bananas, barley, tomatoes, and one glass of red wine.

  8. Throughout the day, eat foods that contain tryptophan such as eggs, sesame seeds (tahini and hummus!), nuts, whole grains, seafood, rice, beans and turkey.

  9. Take magnesium powder or pills with your dinner, or have a magnesium salt bath a couple of hours before bed.

  10. Cuddle a loved one or a friend... Cuddling releases oxytocin, the feel good hormone that helps us relax.  When we are relaxed we can sleep better.

  11. Try not to turn your alarm on at the weekend and catch up on sleep. Let the body sleep as much as it needs. It is a smart machine, so listen to it.

Now let’s get some sleep so we can be stronger, smarter, happier and healthier!