Dr Libby: How Can You Encourage A Restful Night’s Sleep?

By Dr Libby Weaver
Is sleep evading you? Dr Libby has solutions. Photo / Babiche Martens

In this special series, guest writer Dr Libby Weaver shares her health insights.

Sleep, that essential yet often elusive element of our daily lives, has become more challenging for too many people as they navigate the complexities of modern living. Once a haven of rest and rejuvenation, perhaps your bed

In today’s fast-paced world, myriad factors can disrupt our sleep patterns. Each factor, often intertwined with others, contributes to a cycle of sleeplessness that can leave you feeling perpetually exhausted. And this ultimately just makes the days seem longer and harder. Thankfully, small changes can often make a world of difference — let that empower you. Let’s explore why sleep might be eluding you lately and what you can do to reclaim it.

What causes poor sleep?

At the top of the list is stress, or more correctly, the persistent elevation of stress hormones. Whether it’s our perception of work-related pressures, personal responsibilities, or the constant buzz of our digital lives, stress keeps our minds in overdrive. When the brain is focused on situations and thoughts that worry you, it sends signals to the rest of the body that it needs to remain alert, so you will struggle to enter the calm state required for restful sleep or stay there for long. Adrenaline is designed to keep you awake so you can defend yourself from the perceived “threat”. If you find your mind buzzing when you lay your head on the pillow or wake up with thoughts kicking into overdrive preventing you from getting back to sleep, it’s highly likely stress hormones are the culprit.

Getting to the heart of what drives our stress can be tricky. We think that we’re stressed and overwhelmed by all the things we have to do in a day, and I’m not denying that for many of us, our lives and responsibilities feel overflowing. But these aren’t the cause of our stress; it’s our thoughts about those things in relation to ourself that cause it. If it were the things that happen, everyone would experience stress about the same things, and that’s not the case. So, unpicking the strands of our stress often lies in reflecting on our perceptions and reactions to understand how our interpretation of events is driving a stress response. When you learn how to save your perception of pressure and urgency for when you really need it (such as in times of genuine and immediate danger), you will slow down the production of stress hormones in your body and this will have a flow on effect to the quality of your sleep.

How does coffee affect sleep?

If you love your coffee, you might want to momentarily shut your eyes and block your ears to what I’m about to say … considering and potentially making changes to our caffeine intake and/or timing, is often an essential element to achieving more restorative sleep. Caffeine is a potent stimulant that can significantly disrupt your sleep patterns by blocking the action of adenosine, a brain chemical involved in calmness and sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of about eight hours so its effects can be in action for much longer than we tend to realise, potentially disrupting the quality and duration of sleep. Plus, caffeine signals to the body to produce adrenaline, which often just adds to the load of stress hormones circulating. Reducing or eliminating caffeine intake, especially after midday, can greatly improve your chances of enjoying a deep, restful sleep. If sleep is persistently elusive, consider taking a break for a few months to see if it makes any difference for you.

How does alcohol affect sleep?

Another common sleep disruptor is alcohol. While you may find that it helps you to drift off, research shows that any amount of alcohol interferes with your sleep cycles. It disrupts the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage, which is essential for restorative sleep and cognitive function. Alcohol can also cause fragmented sleep, leading to frequent awakenings and a reduction in overall sleep quality, frequently exacerbating issues such as snoring and sleep apnoea. Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption, particularly in the hours leading up to bedtime, can significantly enhance the depth and quality of your sleep.

The importance of an important sleep routine

One thing we don’t often consider with our round-the-clock schedules is that our body actually thrives on routine. An irregular sleep schedule can confuse your internal clock as it can’t keep track of when to start preparing you for sleep by producing melatonin (our sleep hormone). Light too, disrupts its production. Late nights followed by early mornings or simply going to bed and getting up at vastly different times disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm resulting in difficulty falling asleep or regularly waking up groggy. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day — even on weekends — helps to regulate your circadian rhythm and will likely improve the quality of your sleep.

Our bodies are also incredibly sensitive to light and dark. Artificial lights — particularly light in the blue spectrum such as those in backlit devices — can suppress melatonin production. To mitigate these effects, try to limit screen time in the hours (ideally at least two) leading up to bedtime. Incorporate dim, warm lighting in your evening routine to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down.

Can magnesium help you sleep?

Magnesium is also essential to good quality sleep. This mineral helps to maintain normal muscle and nerve function, supports a healthy immune system, and helps regulate melatonin production. Incorporate magnesium-rich foods into your diet, such as leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds. You might also consider a magnesium supplement, or taking a warm bath with Epsom salts, which are high in magnesium, to promote relaxation and improve sleep quality.

Like it or not, restful sleep is vital for our wellbeing and a foundational pillar of great health. If you are regularly getting poor quality or disrupted sleep (and this is not the result of the season of your life — parents of young children, I’m feeling for you), I cannot encourage you enough to get to the heart of what is driving this for you. Any small step you take to improve your sleep will have a significant impact on your energy, vitality and health — both now and into the future.

Dr Libby Weaver.
Dr Libby Weaver.

Nutritional biochemist, Dr Libby Weaver PhD, is a 13-times bestselling author and international speaker and founder of the plant-based supplement range, Bio Blends. www.drlibby.com

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