Is your sleep wrecked? You need to ask yourself three questions

By Dr Damon Ashworth|

Sleep is the third pillar of health, alongside nutrition and exercise. Yet, despite being a core human experience common to all, many of us prioritise anything other than sleep!

It's no secret that insufficient or poor-quality sleep increases our risk of developing a whole host of health problems – from mental health issues to cardiovascular disease, weight gain and accidents, as well as reducing our overall productivity and functioning.

Most people you talk to say they have the solution for a better night's sleep. However, no one size fits all. Despite trying these often 'well-publicised' solutions, at least 30% of people still have sleep problems.

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sleep expert shares tips for world sleep day
'Most people you talk to say they have the solution for a better night's sleep.' (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Unfortunately, earplugs and eye masks don't make much difference if you have insomnia. Likewise, buying a new pillow or an expensive bed isn't the solution. Nor are vitamins or over-the-counter sleep aids.

It's much better to first understand the dynamics of sleep. There are three questions you need to ask about your sleep:

Is my sleep pressure high enough when I go to bed at night?

Am I going to bed at the right time for my body clock?

Is my arousal (or chronic stress) level low enough when I am in bed at night and trying to sleep?

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Sad woman sitting on bed
Dr Ashworth says it's much better to first understand the dynamics of sleep. (Getty)

Sleep pressure

To determine if your sleep pressure is high enough, see if you can fall asleep relatively quickly at the start of the night. If it generally takes you less than 15 minutes to fall asleep once you get into bed, your sleep pressure may be high enough.

How to increase your sleep pressure

Aim to be out of bed for 16 hours daily to make your sleep pressure high enough. For example, if you go to bed at 11pm each night, try to get up at 7am.

If you get up at 8am, try not to sleep until midnight. If you want to sleep at 10pm, you may want to try getting up consistently at 6am. You get the picture.

sleep expert shares tips for world sleep day
'Aim to be out of bed for 16 hours daily to make your sleep pressure high enough.' (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Caffeine can also reduce your sleep pressure, so try not to consume too much of it during the day and not too late at night. Caffeine has a half-life of about 4.5 hours, so you will still have 25 per cent of it in your system nine hours later.

Napping can also reduce your sleep pressure, especially if you nap more than 30 minutes. If you nap, try to keep it short and before 4pm if possible so that it doesn't disrupt your sleep the next night.

Lastly, engaging in physically or cognitively demanding tasks during the day can improve your sleep pressure for that night. However, these tasks can also stress your brain and body, so try not to do too much in the three hours before bed.

sleep expert shares tips for world sleep day
'Caffeine can also reduce your sleep pressure, so try not to consume too much of it.' (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Body clock

Everyone has a natural internal body clock or circadian rhythm. It helps us feel alert and function well when awake during the day. Circadian rhythms also allow us to feel sleepy and rest when we need to sleep and recover at night.

Some people are morning people or 'larks', whose brain and body want to help them sleep early at night (say 9pm) and wake up early in the morning (say 5am). Others are night 'owls', whose body helps them function well until they sleep late (say 1am) and sleep late the next day (say 9am). Most of us fall somewhere in between.

How to work with your internal body clock

The easiest and best thing to do is recognise your natural circadian rhythms or body patterns. Then begin sleeping and waking up at the optimal times for your body clock.

If you're a morning person, get up when you usually wake up in the morning and enjoy the more gradual start to your day. If you are an evening person, try to wait until you feel sleepy before going to bed. Then aim to get up 8 hours after that. Regardless of who you are, you will sleep better if it is at a more natural time for you.

sleep expert shares tips for world sleep day
'Regardless of who you are, you will sleep better if it is at a more natural time for you.' (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

You can bring your body clock forward if you are more of an evening person and can't sleep at your natural times during the week because of your school or work schedule. You can advance your circadian rhythms by having a consistent wake-up time, getting some morning sunlight, not eating your dinner too late, and minimising how much bright light you expose your eyes to in the evening. If you need to use a computer in the two hours before bed, f.lux is a free plug-in that can help. Night shift or similar programs on your phone or tablet can also make them look more orange or red, which might help if you are on these before bed. Or you could try some blue-light-blocking glasses pre-sleep to see if they help you feel sleepy earlier.

Stress arousal levels

Occasionally, a little bit of stress is fine and can even help us be more productive and achieve better results. However, suppose that stress becomes chronic and doesn't go away. In that case, it can negatively impact your brain and body and disrupt sleep.

If you'd like to determine your arousal level, imagine it on a scale from zero to 10, where zero is none, and 10 is full-blown panic and feeling completely overwhelmed. During the day, between four and six is probably optimal. Between two and four may be better for falling and staying asleep at night.

Common sleep problems are leaving Australians restless.
Stress arousal levels can interfere with sleep. (Getty)

How to lower your stress arousal levels

There are several things you can do to lower your arousal levels. First, you can try to focus only on things that are under your control or that you can do. The more you worry about things out of your control, the more you will likely feel stress and anxiety.

Noticing whenever your mind wanders to unimportant things or things out of your control is a skill that can improve and become quicker and easier over time. You can also take more breaks at work, do less during the day, and engage in activities that give you a sense of fun, play, awe, beauty, gratitude, pleasure, mastery or achievement.

book about sleep by dr damon ashworth
Dr Ashworth's book about sleep is out now. (Booktopia)

Having a consistent wind-down or relaxation routine before bed can also be helpful, as is not forcing yourself to sleep when you are in bed. Instead, try having a good anchor point to focus on and bring your attention back to it if you begin worrying. This can be thinking about things you're grateful for, an imagery exercise of a peaceful place, focusing on your breath and keeping it slow and deep. Sometimes people listen to white noise, a podcast or an audiobook with a timer.

One of my favourites is to listen to stand-up comedy. I'm not hating being awake, enjoying what I am listening to, and occasionally smiling and chuckling. Before I know it, I am generally asleep and don't make it to the show's end.


If your sleep pressure is high enough each night, you are going to bed at the right time for your internal body clock, and your arousal levels are low, you'll likely sleep much better.

Dr Damon Ashworth is a Clinical Psychologist and the author of Deliberately Better Sleep, available now from Booktopia.

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