Sleepless in Sydney: How to Optimise Sleep – Part 1

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BY JESSICA INMAN-HISLOP

Sleep – comforting, aversive, elusive, or a waste of time? It can represent very different things for different people, and scientists don’t yet fully understand sleep. We do know it is critical for our brain to develop early on in life, it gives our brain a break to process, organise and consolidate the information we have taken in throughout the day, and it helps to restore us physically, but the exact mechanisms through which sleep does this are still being researched. One thing is for certain though: despite how we might feel about sleep, we can’t live without it!

The quality and quantity of our sleep can have a huge impact on our day to day functioning; it impacts how well we deal with stress, our decision making, mood, concentration and memory, our ability to engage in complex activities such as driving, and a lack of sleep can lead to us feeling more irritability, more impulsive, lower in motivation, and less able to complete our daily tasks and responsibilities. It can also increase our risk of experiencing more significant mental health difficulties, such as depression, particularly if we have already experienced such difficulties in the past. Having a regular sleep routine and engaging in healthy sleep habits therefore provides a solid foundation for our long-term emotional and psychological wellbeing.

What makes us sleepy?

There are two processes that lead to us feeling the subjective state of sleepiness:

  • the duration of time that we have been awake since sleeping last (“sleep pressure”); and
  • our body clock (“circadian rhythms”): the natural processes in our body that operate in a 24 hour timeframe, increasing and deceasing at regular times. For example, at night, our body temperature decreases and the level of the sleep hormone melatonin increases, which makes us feel sleepy.

As diurnal animals, humans are designed to sleep at night, and our melatonin level is at its highest in the evening, peaking around 10pm. Additionally, the longer we are awake, the greater our sleep pressure. This means that sleep is more likely when our sleep pressure and our melatonin levels are high. The goal of a good sleep routine is therefore to align our sleep pressure with our body clock as much as possible.

Sleep Routine

In order to align our sleep pressure and our body clock, we need to make sure we are sleeping and waking up at the same time every day.

First, start by working out how many hours of sleep you need. As adults, we need roughly 6-9 hours, and this decreases as we age. The best rule of thumb is to ask yourself: how am I functioning? If you have been functioning very well at 6 hours for a long time, that may be all you need. But if you’re noticing that you’re feeling lethargic or napping during the day, you may need to test out a longer period of sleep.

Next, work out your bedtime. Start by deciding when you need to wake up, and work backwards from there. For example, if we need to wake up at 6:30am, we would set our bedtime at 10:30pm.

If you need to adjust your bedtime, do this gradually. It is easier to move our bedtime later rather than earlier, because our sleep pressure will be greater. So if you need to move your bedtime earlier, start by getting up earlier to increase your sleep pressure. We can’t force sleep when we’re not tired! Make sure you test your new routine for a few weeks, as it can take up to a month for our body clock to reset.

Stay tuned for more tips on optimising your sleep in Part 2, coming soon.

Jessica is a clinical psychologist registrar with experience working in private practice, inpatient and outpatient mental health care, and university settings. She provides individual and group therapy for adults and adolescents presenting with a wide range of mental health difficulties including depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, and difficulties with emotion regulation, stress management, social skills, and school stress. Jessica completed her clinical psychology training at the University of Technology Sydney, and has presented research at national conferences.


 

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