Ok, so what’s the big deal with sleep? ‘My 96-year-old grandma has spent 32 years of her life asleep in bed,’ says sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows. ‘She’s not infirm or lazy, it’s just that humans need to spend a third of their lives sleeping.’
Sleep also perks up our immune system and regulates the hormones that control appetite and boost our mood, helping us combat stress, anxiety and depression. So what are some of the most common sleep problems and what can we do about them?
Problem: Waking up in the middle of the night
You often wake up around 3am, mind racing and panic setting in as you count down the hours left until you have to get up.
Sort it: Don’t struggle with sleeplessness
Guy suggests trying acceptance and commitment therapy (also known as ACT; see therapist-directory.co.za for a list of therapists in your area), which works for those of you who can’t get to sleep and those who wake up in the middle of the night.
It’s all about accepting and acknowledging the negative thoughts that go through your mind when you can’t sleep, instead of battling with them and trying to block them, which can be exhausting. ‘Say, “I notice my mind telling me that I’m not going to cope if I don’t get to sleep now.” Then let that thought go and practise a mindful activity, such as noticing the feel of the duvet on your feet, or the rise and fall of your breath,’ explains Guy.
Many sleep experts may advise getting out of bed if you can’t sleep, but Guy believes this won’t solve the problem, and you should stay in bed. ‘You need to learn how to be OK with being awake and feeling anxious. Avoiding the problem won’t resolve it,’ he says.
Problem: Can’t get to sleep
Despite having a tiring day, when you get into bed you feel wide awake; your brain is whirring and you can’t drop off.
Sort it: Wind down for 30 minutes before you actually get into bed.Checking your Facebook feed just before you turn your light off may be stopping you from falling asleep and affecting your sleep quality. ‘This is because blue light from screens can interrupt your melatonin production (which helps control your sleep/wake cycles),’ explains Guy.
‘So rather dim the lights, close your laptop, and switch off the TV and your phone. Instead, do calming activities, such as packing your bag for the next day and brushing your teeth, to allow your body and mind to transition from being awake to being prepared to fall asleep.
Try this: Pukka Night Time Tea (R99 for 20 teabags; faithful-to-nature.co.za) is a blend of calming camomile, lavender and valerian root; it will induce a Zen-like tranquillity before lights out.
Problem: A restless night
You think you’ve slept well but don’t actually feel rested when you get up.
Sort it: Improve sleep quality.
Snoring, and the more severe condition sleep apnoea, can impact your quality of sleep. Sleep apnoea occurs when your airway becomes restricted or obstructed at night. Oxygen decreases and CO2 increases, causing a sharp intake of breath, which wakes you up, fragmenting your sleep. You’re often not aware of this, so you’ll feel exhausted the next day without even knowing why.
- Shift the fat
If your neck is thicker than 40cm, your risk increases, as the weight presses down on your windpipe and narrows or blocks your airway.
- Lie on your side
This will reduce the pressure on your windpipe.
- Be allergy aware
Dairy intolerances can make you produce excessive mucus that can coat your airway and reduce oxygen flow.
- Read the label
Certain medicines (like antihistamines), as well as alcohol, can cause your muscles to relax and allow snoring to set in.
Problem: Feeling groggy in the morning
Never mind – hitting that snooze button six times should be OK, right?
Sort it: Wake up at the right time
Sleep cycles last around 90 minutes, and waking up mid one can make you feel groggy first thing. It’s ideal to get in at least five full 90-minute cycles each night. ‘Calculate the best time to set your alarm, depending on when you go to sleep,’ says Guy.
So, for example, if you hit the hay at 11:30pm, set your wake-up time for 7am. Plus, a great night’s sleep begins the moment you wake up, as the amount of sunlight you get during the day can affect your sleep/wake cycle.
‘Get plenty of light first thing,’ says Guy. It’ll trigger the production of serotonin (which regulates your mood and body clock) and cortisol, for that raring-to-go feeling. And, it will help your body count down to when it’s time for some shut-eye again.
Try this: Say night-night to snoozing. ‘When the alarm goes off, get out of bed,’ says Guy. ‘Snoozing fragments your sleep and could undo all the good work after a restful night’s sleep.’ Rather set your alarm for the later time.