woman yawning while lying in bed

Sue tries to get in bed by 11.30 pm every night to get her seven hours of sleep. She then struggles to fall asleep for the next hour or so. She often wakes up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet. At 6.30 am, the alarm goes off and she hits the snooze button. By 7 am, she’s made herself a big cup of coffee—the first of many for the day. She gets through the day constantly battling yawns and refilling her coffee mug. The cycle repeats.

If this scenario is familiar to you then you may not be getting the quality sleep that you need. Experts tell us that the long-term effects of sleep deprivation can affect us negatively in several ways. From being prone to accidents to impaired memory function, and from early ageing to weight gain, the list goes on.

Related: Sleep Deprivation

Stages of Sleep

stages of sleep

There are several stages in your sleep cycle, alternating between NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each complete sleep cycle lasts around 90 minutes[1] and repeats several times through the night.

NREM sleep is split into four stages. In stage 1, you experience light sleep and can be woken easily. In stage 2, you start becoming disengaged from your surroundings and your body temperature begins to drop. In stages 3 and 4, you enter deep sleep, whereby your blood pressure falls, your breathing slows down and your muscles relax. During REM sleep, your brain is most active. This is also when dreams occur.

It is during REM sleep and the latter stages of NREM sleep that most of the restorative work is done[2]. In stages 3 and 4 of NREM, most of the physical repair work is done. While during REM sleep, the brain synthesises memories and emotions, which is an important part for learning and higher-level thought. Studies have shown that a lack of REM sleep can result in slower cognitive processing, memory problems and difficulty in concentrating.

Having stressed the importance of sleep, here are some natural sleep remedies which you can incorporate to hopefully achieve more restful sleep.

Related: The Importance of Sleep

Making Lifestyle Changes

making lifestyle changes

One of the most effective changes you can make to improve your slumber is to sleep at regular timings. Try to maintain this even during the weekends. After a while, your body clock or circadian rhythm will get accustomed to these timings. This will help you to fall asleep at night and make it easier for you to wake up in the mornings. As your body starts to get used to these new timings, you will automatically wake up—even without an alarm clock. You should also avoid using the snooze function on your alarm clock, as these extra minutes may not be the most restful.

It is a good idea to make this change slowly. If you want to move your sleep time from 11 pm to 10 pm, try moving in 15-minute intervals every three to four days, until you reach your desired sleep time. Your body will have an easier time coping if you work in gradual increments.

You should also stop using your mobile phone, computer or TV at least an hour before bedtime. Your eyes are sensitive to the blue light from electronic screens, which will invariably affect your ability to fall asleep. In addition, the stimulation from reading or watching any sort of content makes it harder for the brain to relax, thereby hampering your slip into slumber.

If you’re not already exercising regularly, it may be a good idea to start. Physical activity can help you to fall asleep faster and enjoy deeper sleep. Try and aim for 150 minutes of physical activity per week and 10,000 steps daily for a healthier you. Do however try to program and plan your exercise earlier in the day rather than later, if not, you may find yourself too energised to fall asleep. Morning sun is also great for regulating your circadian rhythm.

If you have a lot on your plate, it is likely that your brain is too active and you will find difficulty sleeping. Besides the basics of getting organised, delegating work and setting priorities, as well as knowing when to cut down on your responsibilities, you can also try some simple relaxation techniques[3].

Related: Snooze

Creating a Conducive Sleeping Environment

creating a conducive sleep environment

Do not underestimate the benefits that a comfortable environment can do for your sleep. Try to shield all sources of artificial light emanating from electronic devices, including alarm clocks. If your surroundings are noisy, play white noise, nature sounds or calming music to mask the noise. Shades, eye masks, fans and earplugs are other things you can use to help achieve a cool, dark and quiet environment.

It might also be a good idea to start a bedtime ritual to get yourself ready for bed. Try winding down by dimming the lights, listening to soft music, reading a book or taking a warm bath. If you still can’t fall asleep, try listening to soothing music—or noise—such as white noise, nature sounds, or soft human voices. Try each of these and see which you respond to the best. Also, take note of the climate of your bedroom. You tend to fall asleep faster in a quiet, cool and dark environment.

Related: Catch Your Zzzs: Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep

Diet Changes

bowl of chicken salad

Finally, making some changes to your diet may help to improve your sleep. Instead of relying on sleeping pills, which can become addictive and may not provide restful sleep, try increasing your intake of foods that contain the amino acid—tryptophan. Tryptophan helps in the production of sleep-inducing brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin and can be found in chicken, eggs, fish and nuts. Take your last meal of the day no later than two to three hours before bedtime.

Also cut down on your caffeine and alcohol intake. Caffeine, which can be found in chocolates and coffee is a stimulant, and alcohol dehydrates you and disrupts your sleep by making you wake up in the middle of the night to get a drink.

For more on dietary tips to improve sleep, check out this article.


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References

  1. National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). What Happens When You Sleep? [National Sleep Foundation].
    Retrieved June 2016 from https://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep

  2. Field, A. (2009, Jan 14). Why Sleep Is So Important [Harvard Business Review].
    Retrieved June 2016 from https://hbr.org/2009/01/why-sleep-is-so-important.html

  3. National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). No need to go on a yoga retreat: Beat stress with some easy techniques. [Sleep].
    Retrieved June 2016 from https://sleep.org/articles/learning-relax/