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How to sleep better

Dr Carmel Harrington

How you can get a better night’s sleep

A man wearing glasses sits upright in bed reading as his French bulldog sits on him
A man wearing glasses sits upright in bed reading as his French bulldog sits on him

Can you remember the last time you had a fantastic night’s sleep and woke up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated? If that feels like a distant memory, you’re not alone.

Surprisingly, 20% of Australians suffer from regular sleep problems, and while the Sleep Health Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep a night, the average adult only gets between six and seven.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is essential for physical and mental health, memory, learning and mood as well as supporting brain development, cardiac function and our metabolism. Without good quality sleep, we’re more likely to have trouble thinking, concentrating and reacting during the day – and interestingly, it’s what we do in the daytime that impacts most on our nightly rest.
How can I get a better night’s sleep?

We asked sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington, author of The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, for advice on how to sleep better. Here are her seven top tips.

1. Staying active during the day

When we exercise regularly, our body rewards us with a deeper sleep to repair and restore the muscles we’ve used during the day, explains Carmel. Simply going for a daily walk can have a beneficial effect.

“The idea is that you increase your cardiovascular output. You don’t have to end up hot and sweaty,” she says.

Avoid exercising within three hours of bedtime, though, as our bodies need time to relax and cool down after a workout.

Related: Easy ways to reach 10,000 steps a day

2. Avoiding eating heavy meals before sleeping

Our food choices also influence sleep quality.

“Lots of people have a really processed diet, so we’re not getting the vitamins and minerals we need to produce the serotonin and melatonin hormones that we need for our sleep,” Carmel says. “We need whole foods and we also need to be careful about what we eat within three hours of bedtime – a large meal will keep us awake.”

A senior woman sit upright in bed reading, with a lamp on next to her

3. Addressing stress and worry

Ever feel tired after a full-on day but when your head hits the pillow – or when you wake at 3am – your brain won’t stop going over your to-do list? Take 10 to 15 minutes at the end of your workday to note all the things you haven’t dealt with that day along with some possible solutions, suggests Carmel. Then close the book and put it away.

“I call it a worry diary,” she explains. “Remarkably, when you actually take the stuff out of your brain, put it in a book and close it up, the brain goes, ‘I don’t have to deal with it anymore.’”

4. Exploring home remedies

A mug of hot milk? Lavender oil on the pillow? You may have come across these methods in your search for how to sleep better and they have merit, says Carmel.

“Tryptophan is an amino acid in milk and is a precursor to serotonin – which is our feel-good hormone – and melatonin. When it’s connected to a simple carbohydrate like lactose – the sugar in milk – it will cross the blood-brain barrier,” she says. “If we have a nice amount of tryptophan, we’re much more likely to be able to produce a nice amount of melatonin. And it doesn’t have to be warm!”

“There is research to indicate that essential oils can actually improve your time to get to sleep,” she reveals, with several studies noting that lavender has anti-anxiety, mood stabilising, sedative and pain-relieving properties. Other research suggests a direct link between lavender oil and better sleep.

Lavender can be even more effective if it’s part of your regular sleep routine, Carmel says.

“If you put a bit of lavender on your pillow, the brain starts to connect that smell with sleep,” she explains.

5. Following a routine

A sleep routine consists of regular relaxation habits you do each evening, around the same time, which tell your body it’s time to wind down for sleep.

“Dim the lights, have a warm-to-hot shower, depending on the weather. Doing a relaxation or yoga exercise calms the body and the mind, and tells the brain very clearly that this is a time for me to be nurtured and nourished,” Carmel suggests.

Going to bed and waking the same time each day is also an important part of a healthy sleep routine.

If you have difficulty sleeping, changing your evening technology habits can make a huge difference

6. Limiting the use of technology before bedtime

If you’re having difficulty sleeping, changing your evening technology habits can make a huge difference. Exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin and the blue light emitted by most screens has an inhibiting effect on this vital sleep hormone.

Studies suggest that those of us who use bright screens (such as tablets, laptops and smartphones) at night report feeling more tired, perform worse on mental tasks and their brainwaves suggest decreased alertness. This means technological devices should be put away at least an hour before bedtime.

7. Seeking professional treatment

If you’ve tried everything and still can’t get a solid night’s sleep, it might be time to turn to the pros – but Carmel recommends you try keeping a ‘sleep diary’ first. This involves writing down what you’re doing during the day and into the evening, she adds, so you can see the patterns preventing you from sleeping – if you’re exercising until 8pm, for example and then having trouble nodding off.

There are, of course, cases where interventions can be helpful. Cognitive behavioural therapy, medication and hypnosis are sometimes used. See your GP or a sleep specialist if you are concerned.

Looking for other ways to increase your chances of a good night’s sleep? Check out The Check Up’s dedicated sleep section for more tips and advice.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Dr Carmel Harrington

Dr Carmel Harrington is a sleep scientist who, over the past 25 years, has extensively researched the processes and functions of sleep. Good sleep is a fundamental need that underpins physical and mental health, without it we suffer significant consequences. She believes it is time to wake up to the wonders of sleep.