Health / Wellbeing

We asked a sleep psychologist how to get the best sleep of your life

We asked a sleep psychologist how to get the best sleep of your life

Lately, I am in the process of sleep training… not a baby though, just myself.

It’s easy to get into bad habits around bedtime and the routines I try to stand by. Just one more episode, or scroll, or email late in the evening have repercussions well into the night - and can have you begging for that extra hour of sleep. For whatever reason, sometimes I feel most creative when everyone else is asleep.

This creates a flow on effect reminiscent of Groundhog Day with a sprinkling of Fight Club. I can only imagine the complexity of coupling my “routine” with that of caring for one or several babies on top of this, so have huge admiration for those in parenting roles trying to manage sleep. It is also for that reason I want to curb these trends before that day might come. Doctor Hailey Meaklim is a Sleep Psychologist and Researcher working with Sealy on their Posturepedic Sleep Census, which surveyed over 20,000 participants across the globe about sleep health and wellness.

Alarmingly – although, maybe unsurprisingly – findings from this survey concluded that only 8% of people wake up refreshed every morning.  


What are some common misconceptions you have encountered in your work relating to sleep?

One common misconception I have seen since the rise of sleep trackers is the desire for sleep to be “perfect”. Many people monitor their sleep very intensely, which can increase anxiety and worry if sleep is not "perfect". It is actually really normal to wake up for a short period of time once or twice per night. The recent Sealy Posturepedic Sleep Census found that 60% of Aussies wake up at least once during the night, which is really consistent with our normal sleep physiology. However, if we are waking up multiple times per night and spending a lot of time awake and frustrated, this can really impact our daytime functioning. In fact, 87% of people surveyed in the Sleep Census thought their personal lives would improve with better sleep, highlighting the connection between good sleep, and the impact it has on our day to day life.


What are some key tips for regulating circadian rhythm during waking hours that can set you up for a restful sleep?

Light is the key timekeeper for our body clock, also known as our circadian rhythms. Understanding this can help us make better choices about our light exposure. Our circadian rhythms coordinate our daily cycles of sleep, alertness, behaviour, and physiology across the 24 hour day/night cycle. The timing of light exposure helps to regulate your circadian rhythms. Get as much bright light as possible during the day (ideally outdoor light if you can!) but avoid bright light (especially indoor white LEDs) at night. To help you remember this, follow the light and dark pattern of the sun.


My key tips to help regulate your circadian rhythms are:

  • Get as much bright light as you can across the daylight hours. One study conducted in around half a million people in the UK found that for each additional hour of time spent in outdoor light, people found it easier to get up in the morning and had fewer symptoms of depression and insomnia.
  • To help you get more bright light, creating a daily routine of movement outdoors can really help. Even simply going outside for a walk outside at lunchtime can do wonders. According to the Sealy Posturepedic Sleep Census, 54% of those who exercise every day wake up feeling well rested most nights, compared to just 36% of those who exercise just 1-2 times per week. By going outside daily for some movement, you can help to regulate your circadian rhythms, get some exercise, and improve your sleep quality!
  • If possible, avoid bright light at night. In other words, try not to turn on overhead LEDs at night. Keep your indoor lighting warmer (more orange in colour), as this doesn’t impact your circadian rhythms as much as white/blue light.


Do you believe in melatonin and magnesium use as a tool for guiding oneself into a good sleep?

Melatonin is a hormone that our own body produces that signals to our body clock that it is dark and time for sleep. Whilst many people use it for insomnia (where someone regularly struggles to fall and stay asleep), the research mainly supports its use for insomnia in older adults (55 years+). Melatonin is more helpful if people have a timing issue with their sleep, e.g. if they are experiencing jet lag or have a very delayed sleep-wake pattern (e.g., going to bed at 3am and waking up at 11am). Magnesium supplements have some limited research support for insomnia too; however, if someone regularly struggles to fall or stay asleep and it is impacting their daytime functioning, it is best to seek advice from your healthcare professional. The most effective treatment for insomnia is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), and it helps people to strengthen their circadian rhythms and increase their drive for sleep naturally. There are hundreds of studies worldwide showing that CBT-I is the most effective treatment for insomnia over melatonin and magnesium.


What is an appropriate lifecycle for a mattress?

How long a mattress lasts depends on several factors, such as the quality of the materials it is made from and how well it is cared for. Ideally, a good-quality mattress should remain in good condition for 7-10 years. The Sealy Posturepedic Sleep Census found that 16% of Australians are sleeping on a mattress over 10 years old.

If you notice yourself waking up with pain in the morning (like hip, shoulder or back pain) or your mattress is sagging and impacting your sleep quality, that might be a sign to explore if your mattress has come to the end of its lifecycle.


Do you think there has been a rise in sleep related disorders such as insomnia since the invention of smart phones? What are some good routines to adapt to in that regard to foster good sleep hygiene?

In the recent Sealy Posturepedic Sleep Census that surveyed over 5000 people, 1/3 of adults regularly reported experiencing insomnia. This is consistent with population-based studies in Australia and other Western countries. Whilst insomnia existed before mobile phones were invented, rates of insomnia do seem to be more prevalent with the rise of technology. Smartphones keep us ‘hooked’ at night; we often keep scrolling on Instagram instead of going to bed, or we look at our work emails before we go to sleep, which can increase our stress and make it harder to fall asleep. The Sealy Posturepedic Sleep Census found that 1 in 2 Australians use their phones before bed and never wake feeling refreshed. These devices also emit “blue light” which can impact our circadian rhythms. In the Sealy Posturepedic Sleep Census, it was also found that individuals who used their electronic devices before bed (39%) were less likely to wake up feeling refreshed.

While smartphones are not the only cause of sleep issues, we recommend having some boundaries in place with them to look after your sleep. For example, you may like to experiment with charging your phone overnight outside your bedroom so you aren’t tempted to keep scrolling and delay going to sleep. If you are worried about waking up for work on time, you can use an old-school alarm clock to help keep a consistent wake-up time. In addition, turn on “NightShift” mode and make it as orange as you can so it doesn’t impact your circadian rhythms as much.


Do you recommend breathing exercises in your work combating trouble sleeping? If so, what are some tips to remember?

Breathing exercises and other relaxation practices (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation) can be helpful for sleep in times of stress. Many people use them before bed as part of a nightly wind-down routine. We also recommend that people practice breathing and other relaxation exercises during the day to keep their stress levels down. Using them throughout the day helps you to learn relaxation skills rather than putting a lot of pressure on it to “work” at night when you really want to sleep. Beyond breathing exercises, if people experience ongoing problems with sleep like insomnia, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia is a more comprehensive treatment that includes relaxation practices and specific sleep strategies to help improve sleep for the long term.


What are some thoughts and tips on fighting jet lag?

Planning ahead is really important for managing jet lag. Working out the light-dark cycle in your upcoming destination and how to shift to that time zone can be really helpful. There are tools out there that can help you adjust to a new time zone quicker, such as light therapy. One type of light therapy device called Re-Timer, which has extensive research conducted on it, has a jet-lag calculator that can help you figure out a light-dark schedule that will help you adapt quicker.


What is the most interesting fact you have encountered in your work researching sleep?

Many famous people have had sleep problems like insomnia. John Lennon wrote his famous song “I’m so tired” after a bout of insomnia. Jennifer Anniston has reported difficulties with insomnia and sleepwalking. Experiencing sleep difficulties every now and then is a sign of being human. Take some time to focus on your health and wellbeing and reduce stress where you can. For most people, sleep problems will settle down in a few weeks. But if the sleep problem continues and impacts your daily functioning or causes you distress, seek help from your healthcare provider. There is really good evidence-based help out there now to get you sleeping better, such as CBT-I.


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