Sleep tight

Have trouble tossing up zeds? It’s time to sleep easy – understanding which sleep stages are most important and developing healthy sleep habits can make all the difference.

Dr Jacinta Halloran

If you’re one of those lucky people who routinely get an unbroken eight hours’ sleep, spare a thought for those many Australians who toss and turn half the night. Insomnia is a common problem, with research suggesting that more than one-third of people experience difficulty with sleep from time to time1.

What causes insomnia?

Some medical conditions, such as pain, respiratory problems or restless legs syndrome, may cause poor sleep. Some medications, as well as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, may either trigger insomnia or make it worse. Depression and anxiety can interfere with sleep – anxiety often leads to difficulty falling asleep while depression can cause early morning wakening. Insomnia can also be triggered by a stressful life event, such as illness, the death of a family member, financial stress or problems with work or relationships. 

The trouble is, even when such stresses are reduced or resolved, the worry about not sleeping can remain and therefore perpetuate the problem.

The ins and outs of sleep

During sleep, we go through many and varied stages of consciousness. Generally, the brain moves from light sleep to deeper sleep and eventually to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep occurs regularly, about once every 90 to 120 minutes, and is associated with dreaming and stimulation of the parts of the brain used for learning. Body growth and repair tends to happen during non-REM sleep.

Good quality sleep doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping for eight or more hours each night. What’s more important is that we get the right mix of REM and non-REM sleep. As most deep sleep occurs during the first five hours after falling asleep, a five-hour sleep will still provide almost as much deep sleep as someone who sleeps for longer.

Tips for improving your sleep

When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, it’s helpful to develop healthy sleep habits and stick to them. Here are some suggestions:

  • Try to get up and go to bed at around the same time each day. It’s recommended that you go to bed around 10–10.30pm and get up at 7–7.30am.
  • Do some physical activity during the day. This relieves stress and makes you more physically tired. Research (involving school-aged children) has shown that physical activity helped reduce the time it took to fall asleep, while those who did little or no exercise took longer 2.
  • Don’t nap during the day.
  • Avoid drinking caffeine after 4pm and try not to drink more than two cups of caffeinated drinks each day.
  • Allow yourself time to wind down before going to bed. Have a warm bath or read.
  • Don’t smoke or exercise strenuously just before bed. 
  • Alcohol might initially make you drowsy but it affects the sleep cycle, causing you to sleep less deeply and wake more often, so limit alcohol or stop it entirely.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet and dark and avoid overheating.

References: 1. betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Sleep_problems_insomnia
2. Nixon GM, Thompson JM, Han DY et al. ‘Falling asleep: the determinants of sleep latency’. Arch Dis Child. 2009;94(9):686-9. 

Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this article. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.