Sleep is essential for our mental and physical health, yet many of us struggle to get a good night’s sleep.
You may be following all the usual sleep hygiene rules – putting screens away before bed, limiting caffeine, and so on. But what happens when these tactics fail? If you’re still waking up tired and low on energy, what’s the next step?
Dr Carmel Harrington has the answers if you’re battling to get a good night’s rest. She holds a PhD in sleep medicine from Sydney University and runs a sleep clinic called Sleep For Health. After 28 years of sleep research, Dr Carmel has some fantastic advice on how to sleep better.
Read on to discover the expert sleep hacks you need to try.
What Does ‘Quality Sleep’ Mean?
Dr Harrington defines ‘optimum sleep’ as the sleep that helps us thrive! Quality sleep should leave you energised, focused and able to manage the day’s stress.
The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, but everyone’s ideal sleep length will be different, and quality matters too.
Deep sleep and REM (dream) sleep are critical for our brain and body to recuperate. Deep sleep also prompts the release of human growth hormone to repair, restore and build muscle while we rest. There’s a strong link between hormones and our energy levels, meaning that any imbalance leaves us even more fatigued.
Many people claim they’ve ‘trained themselves’ to need less sleep – but there’s a difference between thriving and just getting through the day.
“I think that’s probably the difference,” adds Dr Harrington. “With ‘adequate sleep’, we can get by, but we’ve lost the joy in our life. With ‘optimal sleep’, we’re looking for those joyful events.”
5 Signs You’re Not Getting Optimum Sleep
Dr Harrington shares five signs you need to sleep better:
- Always Needing an Alarm: If you can’t wake up without an alarm (or three) set, that can indicate your body needs more rest than it’s getting, with a regular sleep and wake cycle.
- Overuse of Caffeine: Coffee and tea aren’t inherently bad for you, but they may be masking a sleep deficit if you can’t get through the day without them.
- Cognitive Difficulties: Sleep is critical to learning and memory, so you’ll struggle to focus or forget things frequently if you sleep poorly.
- Mood Swings: If your mood is being affected by a lack of sleep, you may be feeling irritable, overwhelmed, pessimistic, or lacking motivation.
- Falling Asleep Accidentally: If you accidentally nap in the afternoon, on public transport, or as soon as you sit on the couch at night, it’s time to look at your sleep habits.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, there’s a good chance your sleep quality needs improvement.
Improving the quality of our sleep is a powerful way to naturally increase our energy levels – and you can find 8 secrets to better sleep below. Keep reading to find out more!
How to Get More Quality Sleep Naturally
Are you looking for ways to get more quality sleep naturally? If so, then look no further!
Let’s dive into Dr Carmel Harrington’s eight secrets to sleeping better.
1. Stimulate the Body & Brain
“We can manipulate our body so our body will give us back what we need,” explains Dr Harrington. Cardio exercise prompts more deep sleep to repair and recuperate, so exercise is an excellent ‘sleep hack’.
However, did you know that the same applies to the brain? Giving yourself a mental challenge (like learning a language or an instrument) prompts more dream sleep that night.
Studies on elderly people and patients with mood disorders have shown that tango dancing lessons improved sleep quality. Dr Harrington explains that dancing ticks both boxes: it provides mild-to-moderate physical activity, and learning the steps challenges the brain.
2. Avoid Sleep Anxiety
Anxiety stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing ‘awake’ hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart and breathing rates increase, and drifting off is harder.
If you wake up during the night, stay calm and focus on relaxing rather than worrying about sleep.
Dr Harrington recommends hummingbird breathing to calm the body, but other techniques, like box breathing, can also be effective. We’ll cover these in more detail below!
If you’re tossing and turning, it’s better to get up for a while so your brain doesn’t associate bed with wakefulness. Instead, choose a safe and nurturing place to cosy up with a book or magazine (no screens or TV). Once you start to feel sleepy, head back to bed again.
3. Stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and relaxation. If you can’t fall asleep, several techniques can help:
- Hummingbird (or Bee) Breathing: Use your thumbs to block your ears and place your index fingers on your eyebrows. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly, making a buzzing or humming noise for about two minutes. For more, see a video demonstration.
- Box Breathing: Box breathing is one of my favourite relaxation techniques! To do it, inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold again for 4 seconds.
- Progressive Relaxation: Start this mindfulness exercise by squeezing your toes for a count of ten, then relax them. Move up through the body – ankles, legs, and so on – squeezing and relaxing all the way to the top of your head.
- Yoga Nidra: This type of yogic meditation takes about twenty minutes and can be done lying down. The goal is to relax the body and prepare for sleep. A great way to get started is to listen to a yoga nidra guided audio.
- Apollo Neuro: This innovative device uses low-frequency vibrations to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Dr Harrington emphasises these devices have a dual function: the psychological impact can be just as helpful!
However, you don’t have to spend big to get better sleep. Classic breathing techniques for relaxation can be just as effective without the price tag.
4. Journal in the Evening
Struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep? Dr Harrington recommends writing your worries down well before bed. Journaling even for 10 minutes helps you unload your concerns or plans for the next day so you’re not bringing them into bed with you.
Dr Harrington cautions against journalling right before bed, though – it’s better to get those thoughts off your mind before wind-down time. If you wake up during the night, journalling can also be too stimulating. However, if thought loops are keeping you awake at 3 am, you can try jotting things down.
5. Adjust Your Circadian Rhythm
If it takes hours to fall asleep, your circadian rhythm may be the culprit. “As we wake up around about 9 am, we have a peak of alertness,” explains Dr Harrington. It can be a bit earlier or later, depending on if you’re a lark or an owl.
“And then we have another peak at around about 9 pm.” That’s why we get a ‘second wind’ right when we want to get to bed early!
Dr Harrington says the answer is to change your wake-up time first. Instead of going to bed earlier tonight, wake up earlier tomorrow morning – that will set your biological clock for the next 24 hours.
Over time, this technique can gradually shift your circadian rhythm in the right direction.
6. Reconsider Sleep Tracking
I’m a big fan of sleep tracking with my Apple Watch, but Dr Harrington has a few caveats. Sleep tracking can actually heighten sleep anxiety, especially when we’re ‘competing’ with the rest of the household.
Wearable devices aren’t all that accurate, either. “Sleep staging – which is how we look at REM, non-REM, deep sleep – that’s only about 60% accurate,” she confirms.
Studies show that sleep scores have a placebo effect. People who sleep poorly but are told they slept well feel better (and vice versa). ‘Placebo sleep’ even affects our cognitive performance!
Sleep tracking can increase our awareness, but if it’s stressing you out, try ditching the device – you might even sleep better!
7. Reduce Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol can make us feel drowsy, but it actually reduces our sleep quality. Fragmented sleep means we don’t get the restorative benefits and feel worse the next day.
Personally, sleep tracking helped me detect the effects of alcohol on my rest. My average heart rate for the night sits in the low 50s, but when I drink, it will be in the high 50s to 60s – and I get less deep sleep that night.
“If you have alcohol, it will affect your body’s ability to secrete that growth hormone,” says Dr Harrington. “That’s relatively new information that’s just coming out now.”
8. Check for Sleep Disorders
If you’ve tried all the tips and tricks but still can’t get to sleep, it might be time to see a sleep specialist.
Women often develop sleep disorders during perimenopause and menopause, explains Dr Harrington. 1 in 5 women develop sleep apnoea during menopause, and around 50% will have insomnia.
Sleep apnoea is a common condition where you stop breathing for short periods while sleeping, disrupting your rest. If you don’t have a sleep partner who can pick up on apnoea events, consider recording your sleep with a voice app.
The good news is that most sleep disorders can be managed with lifestyle changes and medical intervention. “Anyone who’s been having troubles with sleep since they hit menopause, I urge you to talk to your GP and maybe have a sleep study,” says Dr Harrington.
Getting better sleep can feel like a daunting task. When workaholic habits are everywhere, it’s hard to make time for optimum sleep. However, Dr Harrington emphasises it shouldn’t feel like a punishment. In fact, getting the rest we need lets us function at our best.
“We have to stop looking at sleep as a waste of time,” she explains. “Look at it with joy, thinking that the more of this I get, the better I will be.”
Don’t battle through sleep deprivation – it’s time to optimise your sleep!
Listen to the full interview with sleep scientist Dr Carmel Harrington on my Healthy Her podcast.