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Getting a good night's sleep

There are many reasons why life in the 21st century can make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. There are more things competing for our time after dark — like around-the-clock shopping and entertainment, the internet, longer working hours and the juggling act of family and work.

But if you’re finding it hard to get enough sleep, changing a few habits may be all it takes to get you sleeping soundly again.

1. Get the light right

The part of your brain that controls sleep/wake time is regulated by light and darkness. Waking up at the same time each morning prompts your brain to release sleep/wake hormones at the right time. This is more important than having a regular bedtime. Once you’re awake, getting outside into daylight (without sunglasses or a hat) for 30 minutes helps too. This is because light, especially daylight, suppresses melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’ that makes you drowsy. Suppressing this hormone at the same time each morning makes it easier for melatonin to turn itself on again at night when you need to feel sleepy.

At night you need to switch your sleep hormone melatonin back on. That means dimming the lights, because melatonin needs decreasing levels of light to kick in. Bright light will delay its effects — so watching TV or looking at your laptop just before bed may make it more difficult for you to get to sleep.

2. Wind down before bedtime

After a busy day, allow yourself at least an hour’s down time before bed — otherwise your brain may still be racing with things to do and remember. If you have a lot to do the next day, sometimes writing down a list on paper can help get the things out of your head, allowing you to relax and sleep.

3. Have a warm bath

Besides its relaxing effect, a warm bath about two hours before bedtime can improve sleep for another reason. Your core temperature needs to drop in order to sleep and the cooling down that occurs after a bath can help.

4. Go to bed when you’re really tired

Lying in bed struggling to sleep teaches your brain to associate your bed with sleeplessness. If you’re not asleep after 20 minutes, go to another room and read in dim light until you feel tired. You may need to repeat this process more than once each night and over a few nights before your sleep pattern improves.

5. Watch what you drink

Drinks containing caffeine — coffee, tea, cocoa, green tea — can keep you awake. Although caffeine’s stimulant effect is strongest in the first hour after taking it, it can still be in your system eight hours later. Alcohol can make you sleepy, but its effects can wake you up in the early hours and reduce the amount of deeper restorative REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Try to keep a gap of three hours between your last drink and sleep.

6. Avoid nicotine

Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that smokers have less restful sleep than non-smokers. This may be because nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant which may make it hard for the smoker to get to sleep. Withdrawal from nicotine can also wake you up in the night and disturb your sleeping patterns.

7. Tame sleep anxiety

Waking up occasionally through the night is a normal part of sleep. But if you start worrying about getting back to sleep, the anxiety itself can keep you wide awake, according to sleep psychologists. Accepting that waking is normal and learning to reframe your thinking helps lower sleep anxiety. Instead of thinking “I won’t be able to function tomorrow unless I get back to sleep”, try “I’ve functioned on less sleep before and I’ll manage again tomorrow”. Relaxation exercises may help too. You can find out more about these in the Further Information section below.

8. Turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary

  • Keep lights in the bedroom low before sleep. Make sure the room is really dark once you turn them out — even tiny sources of light can disturb some people.
  • Keep TVs and computers out of the bedroom
  • Keep the sound down. Noise doesn’t have to be loud to keep you awake — the sound of a ticking clock can be enough. If you’re disturbed by noise you can’t control — rain, traffic or the neighbours — shut it out with foam ear plugs and/or some form of ‘white noise’ such as a fan that creates a neutral sound.
  • If you look at the clock at night, turn it away from you so you can’t read the time and fret over it.

9. Get the temperature right

Temperatures that are too hot or too cold — but especially too hot — can disrupt sleep. Most sleep scientists believe that a slightly cool room contributes to good sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation in the US. That's because it mimics what occurs in the body when its internal temperature drops during the night to its lowest level. A fan can help keep the temperature down, as does replacing a doona with blankets so you can always remove a layer to lower the heat.

10. Go to bed and wake up the same time each day

Sleeping in on weekends doesn’t really make up for your lack of sleep during the week, and it only makes it harder for you to get up early on Monday morning. By keeping to a habit, your body won’t be stressed by having to adjust to constantly changing sleep patterns.

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What if nothing seems to help?

See your doctor who can refer you for expert help. Although medication is often prescribed for insomnia, some sleep clinics may also offer cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) with a sleep psychologist who may be able to treat the underlying problems causing your insomnia without the need for medications.

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For more information:

The Australasian Sleep Association
www.sleep.org.au/

University of Maryland Medical Centre: Relaxation techniques for sleep disorders
www.umm.edu/sleep/relax_tech.htm

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Sources

Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Sleep and disease risk. [online] Boston, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College. 2007 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/consequences/sleep-and-disease-risk

National Sleep Foundation. Sleep-wake cycle — its physiology and impact on health. [online] Washington DC: National Sleep Foundation. 2006 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/SleepWakeCycle.pdf (PDF, 2.6Mb)

Patlak M. Your guide to healthy sleep. Bethseda, MD: National Heart Lung Blood Institute. 2005.

Saint-Mleux B Eggermann E Bisetti A et al. Nicotinic Enhancement of the Noradrenergic Inhibition of Sleep-Promoting Neurons in the Ventrolateral Preoptic Area. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2004; 24(1): 63–67.

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010