7 surprising ways to get a better night's sleep

Sleep is one of those things we don’t really think about until we’re not getting enough. But once you’re exhausted, it can feel like that’s all you think about.

By Carolyn Tate

Sleep becomes more elusive as we get older. 

This can be partly because our circadian rhythms change as we age, and also because our bodies produce less melatonin, the hormone that helps us go to sleep and stay asleep.

At Citro, we’ve talked before about making sure you have good sleep habits - things like sticking to a sleep schedule, avoiding stimulants, and creating a soothing space to sleep - but did you know there are some surprising things you can do that can contribute to a better night’s sleep?

Try some of these simple actions and see if they help you.

1. Ditch the evening chocolate (sorry)

A good choccy after dinner is a wonderful treat! But avoiding chocolate after 4pm can make a big difference to your sleep quality because chocolate contains theobromine, a natural stimulant similar to caffeine, which can disrupt your body's ability to wind down in the evenings

Eating chocolate in the late afternoon or evening can delay the production of melatonin in your body, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles. 

Theobromine can also increase your heart rate and alertness, making it harder to relax and fall asleep. So, by all means, enjoy that chocolate treat, but have it earlier in the day.

Read more about natural therapies that can get you a better night’s sleep.

2. Delay your morning coffee

Is making a strong cup of coffee one of the first things you do in the morning? You might want to rethink that because morning caffeine can be a false friend, and actually make you more sleepy. 

In his book 4 Weeks to Better Sleep, Dr Michael Mosely explains that our brains naturally build up adenosine during the day, which helps us to feel sleepy when it’s time to go to bed. 

When we wake in the morning, some residual adenosine hangs around for an hour or so, allowing us to wake gradually. Having coffee first thing means caffeine binds to the sleep-inducing receptors in your brain, which blocks your brain from getting rid of the adenosine, and also meaning that once the caffeine wears off, you feel tired again, thus wanting to repeat the cycle of more coffee.

By delaying your coffee intake, you allow your body the time to naturally metabolise and get rid of the adenosine, ensuring that when you do have your coffee, it gives you the caffeine buzz but doesn’t affect your adenosine levels. 

You might even find you want fewer coffees during the day because you feel more naturally energised, and then at night you will feel more naturally sleepy.

3. Get out of bed if you wake up during the night

I know it can seem counterintuitive when you’re not getting enough sleep to get out of bed, but hear me out.

 Lying in bed awake for longer than 20 minutes or so can lead you to feel frustrated and anxious, which further disrupts your ability to relax and drift off. 

Getting up and engaging in a quiet, relaxing activity, such as reading a book (the more boring the better), listening to calming music, or practising gentle stretching or meditation, can help distract your mind from racing thoughts and ease tension in your body. 

Be sure to avoid bright screens, which are not an insomniac’s friend.

4. Be kind to yourself

This idea might sound a bit airy-fairy, but it’s backed by science. Studies have found that people who practise more self-compassion have better sleep, including less trouble falling asleep after a stressful day. 

People in that particular study who were more self-compassionate also woke up in a better mood, and felt more alert. How can you practise self-compassion? 

Expert Krisin Neff suggests paying attention to your internal and external experiences, recognising when you’re suffering, and sending kind messages to yourself - also keeping in mind your connection to a common humanity where nobody is perfect and everyone deserves compassion.

5. Schedule your worry time

Anyone who has lain awake in bed will know that worry almost always comes into play. Experts say there’s nothing wrong with worry - in fact, it’s healthy to think about potential problems and come up with solutions - but worrying at bedtime is not helpful. 

 Wendy Troxel, author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep, suggests scheduling your worry time.

“I think of it as a worry download,” she says. “It involves spending 15 minutes, several hours before bedtime, in which you allow your brain to go hog wild on all the worries and thoughts that come to mind.”

After those 15 minutes are done, it’s time to close the book on that worry exercise and leave it behind until tomorrow. 

6. Embrace the nanna nap

Forget what you’ve heard about an afternoon siesta being the enemy of ‘proper’ sleep. Napping can actually be beneficial if you’re suffering from a sleep deficit. There’s evidence to suggest that getting a solid eight hours is a relatively modern invention that arrived around the time of the industrial revolution, and we used to sleep in two shifts: a ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’. While it can be tricky to live this way in today’s society, if your lifestyle allows, a nap can do wonders for your alertness and mood.

7. Try melatonin

If sleep still proves elusive, a melatonin supplement can be helpful for improving your sleep quality - and the bonus is: Australians over the age of 55 can buy melatonin over the counter without a prescription for short-term use. 

Melatonin is a hormone that naturally occurs in our brains, but the amount we produce can decline as we age, which seems incredibly unfair.

Taking a supplement about 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime allows enough time for it to be absorbed and begin its sleep-inducing effects. 

It's important to remember that melatonin shouldn’t be used for long-term sleep issues, and you should talk to a healthcare professional before you start taking any new supplement, particularly if you have underlying health conditions or are taking other medications.

Read more about supplements for a good night’s sleep.

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