Karen Falloon's seven tips to get a better night's sleep

Sleep is a vital factor in our overall well-being. Dr Karen Falloon has seven tips to improve your chance of getting a good night’s sleep.

Dr Karen Falloon is an academic GP and senior lecturer in the Centre for Medical and Health Sciences Education, at the University of Auckland. She is a member of the Australasian Sleep Association and the World Sleep Society. Here she offers seven tips to sleep better. 

1. Prioritise sleep

Sufficient sleep is vital to our well-being. How we sleep influences how we live and experience life – our disease risk, brain health, immune function, how we feel, memory and learning, our productivity, creativity, emotions and relationships. But in our busy lives, how can we prioritise sleep? It may help to consider what’s important to you and how better sleep connects with that. For example, I’m a happier, calmer, more energetic and playful māmā when I’ve slept well, so I make it a priority.

2. Follow a routine

Our brain and body love routine so wake at a regular time and sleep at a regular time. Give yourself enough opportunity to sleep so that you feel refreshed the next day (most healthy adults need seven to nine hours).

Eat meals around the same time each day, especially breakfast. Exercising daily for at least 30 minutes can also increase deep, restorative sleep. Create a consistent evening routine. One to two hours before bedtime, try a ‘brain download’. This could involve journalling, writing a ‘to do’ list or a constructive worry list with any concerns you have and the next step you could take to address these. Put the list aside until the morning. In the hour before bedtime, avoid using computers, your phone and social media as the stimulation increases alertness. Then start your personal wind-down routine e.g. a shower, gentle stretches, then reading a book.

3. Calm your nervous system

Incorporate a relaxation practice in your daily routine so you are more likely to transition into an easeful sleep at bedtime. Choose whatever resonates and stick with it, such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, walking in nature.

Be conscious of the dose and timing of any caffeine. Even five to six hours after consuming it, half of the caffeine can still be in your body. It can fragment sleep and reduce deep sleep (even if you ‘fall asleep fine’ after caffeine), leaving you feeling unrefreshed in the morning. Beware of alcohol. While some might find it relaxing, alcohol can lead to fragmented, poorer quality sleep. It can also cause snoring in those who don’t usually snore and possibly obstructive sleep apnoea (brief pauses in breathing) in those who already snore. (Read the Sleep Foundation factsheets.)

Dr Karen Falloon's PhD investigated the effectiveness of a behavioural treatment for insomnia.
Dr Karen Falloon's PhD investigated the effectiveness of a behavioural treatment for insomnia. Photo: Elise Manahan

4. Let there be light … but not at night

Have natural light exposure and be active during the day, dim light and quieter activity in evenings, and darkness in the bedroom. Morning bright light, when received by our brain at around the same time every day after waking, is a powerful time signal for our body clock/circadian rhythm. Exposure to daytime light can also help our energy and mood.

5. Be clear what bed is for

Using the bed only for sleep creates a powerful association that that’s what your bed is for. That association is lost if you also think, watch, do work, or become irritated in bed. The consequence is that you may get into bed and feel alert. You can support this bed-sleep association by getting out of bed if you are not asleep in 20 minutes or so, and moving to a comfortable, dimly lit space to do something low-key such as reading. Only go back to bed when feeling ‘sleepy-tired’. If you wake overnight, follow the same steps (avoid checking your phone or clock). Also make sure you get up and out of bed in the morning, once you have woken.

6. Get your timing right

Falling asleep is not like flicking off a light switch. It’s more like catching a wave – we need to do some preparation and then it’s all about timing. It involves the synchronisation of both the build-up of enough sleep pressure due to daytime wakefulness, and the timing of the circadian rhythm. Waking at a consistent time each day and going to bed at a regular time that is appropriate for your circadian rhythm is important to help catch the ‘wave’ of sleep when it comes. Getting into bed before your brain is ready to sleep means lying in bed awake. This can lead to thinking, ruminating, or being anxious about not sleeping. When it comes to weekends, sleeping in tends to make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning, so stick as close to your consistent wake time/bedtime as possible to make this easier.

7. Seek help if you need it

If you have persistent or frequent difficulty sleeping, regular or loud snoring, restlessness in bed, or are frequently tired or sleepy during the day (despite reasonable opportunity to sleep), seek assessment from your GP.

This story is from the University of Auckland's alumni and friends publication Ingenio, spring 2022 issue.