Getting those ZZZs may just be a matter of ditching old habits.
We need between seven and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night to function at our best, say doctors. Though we know how important it is to get a good night’s rest, many of us are still not sleeping well. One in three Singaporeans is sleep deficient, according to Professor Michael Chee of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School.
Dr Lim Li Ling, medical director of the Singapore Neurology & Sleep Centre at Gleneagles Medical Centre, says lack of sleep has been linked to health problems such as depression, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Sleep deprivation can also lead to weight gain. “When you lack sleep, your metabolism slows down as your body is trying to conserve its energy stores to carry you through the longer period of wakefulness,” explains Dr Michael Breus, a sleep disorder expert in the US. That slowdown triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that is secreted by the body in response to stress and that also boosts your appetite.
The right amount of sleep can improve our mood, focus, energy level and even immune system. Dr Diwakar Balachandran, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, says: “A lot of studies show that our T-cells (which help our body fight infections) go down if we are sleep-deprived. And inflammatory cytokines go up… This could potentially increase the risk of developing a cold or flu.”
But experts warn that regularly sleeping too much – about 9 to 11 hours a night – has been linked to ailments like diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
HOW TO SLEEP BETTER
Dr Breus says the first and easiest step to ensuring you get adequate sleep is to “count back the number of hours from the time you need to wake up and set yourself the task to be in bed by that time, ready to sleep.” Here are a few easy tweaks to your routine to help you sleep better.
1. Plan Ahead
Don’t leave everything till the morning. Set aside your work clothes, prepare snacks, fruits and food for your kids’ lunch boxes the night before, so you’ll only have to prepare their breakfast in the morning. This means less scrambling around and stressing yourself out. Before heading to bed, make a note of the things you need to do the next day, like morning meetings and other errands.
2. Break a Sweat
Exercise is a catalyst to getting a good night’s rest. According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation in the US, people who performed some form of light exercise, like meditation, yoga or even walking the dog in the evening, are more likely to sleep well. You can also try short relaxation exercises before bed.
Dr Lim suggests getting a bedtime routine going – this may include reading, meditation, prayer or any activity that can be done in a restful, quiet and dim environment that is conducive to sleep. So no surfing the web or watching TV.
3. Use a Soothing Scent
Lavender is known to have sedative properties, and the ability to decrease heart rate and blood pressure. Set a lavender-scented diff user or candle in the bedroom to help you fall asleep.
4. Dim the Lights, and Turn Off the TV and Digital Devices
Do this an hour before bed. An area in your brain called the pineal gland releases melatonin, a hormone that controls the body’s sleep-wake cycles, and prepares the body for sleep.
5. Know Your Meds
Besides caffeine, some prescription medicine can also disrupt sleep. Painkillers have stimulants that can keep you up while some anti-depressants increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that can suppress deep sleep. If these are affecting you, check with your doctor about alternatives to your current medication.
6. Have More of These Foods
Start your day with a boost of omega-3 by adding chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts to your breakfast. Healthy fats reduce anxiety and help your body produce the hormones needed for a good night’s rest. Or add spices like turmeric, nutmeg, cardamom and dill – which have sleep-enhancing abilities – to your dinner.
A recent study by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that foods that have a high Glycaemic Index (GI) can help you fall asleep faster. Compared with low-GI foods, rice, potatoes and whole wheat bread were found to make you ready for bed 49 per cent faster. They increased the body’s levels of tryptophan, which is needed to manufacture serotonin or the brain chemicals that regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
Another option for the sleep-deprived is a Mediterranean diet that is primarily plant-based. According to the European Respiratory Journal, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fish can help you sleep better and improve your energy levels.
7. Foods to Avoid
Stay away from foods that are hard to digest, like chilli, tomatoes and citrus fruits. “These foods can cause acid reflux in the stomach, which disrupts sleep by causing heartburn or coughing at night,” says Dr Lim. Limit high-protein, high-fat and fried foods for dinner as they are digested slowly and may interfere with restful sleep.
Alcohol can also be a sleep-buster: While it may make you drowsy, it reduces Rapid Eye Movement sleep that is mentally restorative. If you want to have a glass or beer or red wine with your dinner, Dr Breus recommends drinking at least three hours before bedtime so the alcohol in your system has time to metabolise. And avoid caffeinated beverages after 2pm so they don’t disrupt your sleep pattern.
8. Sleep on Your Side
Your sleeping position can also affect the quality of your sleep. According to the Better Sleep Council in the US, stomach sleepers are the most likely to report restlessness. Sleeping on your side – to keep the airways open – is recommended for those with sleep apnoea, which has a higher incidence among back sleepers. Sleep apnoea is a common sleep disorder marked by snoring and interrupted breathing.
9. Pick the Right Pillow
If you’re a back sleeper, it’s best to pick a medium support or firm pillow that is not too high. Make sure it fills the space between your neck and mattress so it offers enough support for your head in a neutral position.
If you sleep on your stomach, a slim pillow is perfect. Pick a soft one that absorbs the weight of your head, and eases neck strain and stress on your lower back. If you are a side sleeper, you’ll need a firm pillow that offers adequate support for the head, neck and shoulders. And ensure that it keeps your head aligned with the spine.
10. Keep Cool
Research shows that light sleepers have a warmer core body temperature, so to help you sleep better, keep your room temperature between 20 and 22 deg C.
In case you needed more evidence you need sleep…
By Michelle Tchea, Simply Her, July 2015