12.04.2021

Dr Carmel Harrington reveals the sleep mistakes we’re all making

A blissful and restorative night’s slumber can leave you feeling as though you can take on the world.

But not everyone is so lucky. In fact, as many as 70 per cent of Australians report they don’t get enough sleep, as a result, their performance is affected.

Australian sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington said if you want the most restful night’s sleep possible you need to make sure your body, and mind, is properly primed.

From why you should avoid late-night workouts to which foods will keep you awake FEMAIL takes a look at the mistakes people make and some simple ways to overcome these.

Australian sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington (pictured) if you want to get the most restful night's slumber you need to make sure your body, and mind, is primed for sleep

Australian sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington (pictured) if you want to get the most restful night’s slumber you need to make sure your body, and mind, is primed for sleep

Don’t ignore your body’s natural rhythms

Sleeping and waking are part of our circadian rhythms – our biological clocks that regulate when we wake and when we sleep.

Dr Harrington explained these clocks are set to a 24 hour cycle and each day they are reset through exposure to sunlight.

‘With all things being equal we should be ready to fall asleep 16 hours after we first ‘set’ our internal clock,’ she said.

However, as people are working longer hours, and in artificial light, this can play havoc with our natural cycle and tip things out of balance.

‘If you are working right up until 10pm at night, and you are being exposed to bright light you won’t be able to get to sleep, or when you do fall asleep it will be later and you will wake later as a result.’

Dr Harrington suggests one way of managing this it to make sure you expose yourself to darkness or fading light an hour before bed time – and make sure you stay away from brightly-lit screens.

The sleep/wake cycle is affected by a range of factors including melatonin (a hormone which helps us to fall asleep) and most importantly light (stock image)

The sleep/wake cycle is affected by a range of factors including melatonin (a hormone which helps us to fall asleep) and most importantly light (stock image)

Avoid late night workouts

While working out during the day can help improve quality of your sleep, exercising late in the evening or just before going to bed can have the reverse effect.

According to the sleep expert studies have shown exercising later in the day, especially after 4 or 5pm, can make it much harder to fall asleep.

She said exercise puts the body in a state where it’s ‘ready for action’ through the production of hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

‘Cortisol – the hormone that gives us energy to face the day – should naturally start to drop in the evening.

‘And melatonin – a hormone that tells the body it’s time to go to sleep should rise.  Extra cortisol can upset the natural rhythm of the hormones.’

If this time is the only time you have to exercise, then make it light exercise. It is best to exercise three to six hours before bedtime to get the maximum sleep benefits.

While working out during the day can help improve quality of your sleep, exercising late in the evening or just before going to bed can have the reverse effect (stock image)

While working out during the day can help improve quality of your sleep, exercising late in the evening or just before going to bed can have the reverse effect (stock image)

Watch what you eat before going to bed

What you eat before you go to bed can impact on the quality of your sleep, said the sleep scientist.

According to a recent study, diets low in fibre and high in saturated fat and sugar led to less restorative sleep and more instances of waking during the night.

These problems were even more noticeable when these foods were eaten later in the day.

Dr Harrington said the body treats food as fuel so if you have a large meal later in the night, your body will naturally want to be more active.

Her advice is to eat at least three hours before your bedtime and that if you are eating out to try to make sure you don’t eat past 9pm.

Spending too much time on screens before bed

Watching just one more episode of your favourite Netflix show is always so tempting, as is just one final scroll through your social media feeds.

But spending too long in front of a screen – and just before bed – could see your night’s sleep disrupted.

Spending too long in front of a screen - and just before bed - could see your night's sleep disturbed (stock image)

Spending too long in front of a screen – and just before bed – could see your night’s sleep disturbed (stock image)

The light emitted from devices can impact on the body’s natural circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion, she explained.

‘What research has found is that blue light, that part of the white light that we get actually stops the production of melatonin,’ she said.

‘If the brain doesn’t get a message of fading light or darkness, it won’t produce melatonin, which is our sleep hormone.’

Worrying yourself awake

You may be exhausted from the end of a long day but once you lie down and attempt to fall asleep this is nearly impossible as your brain starts to endless chatter.

Dr Harrington said those with insomnia often face this problem, and often had a hard time turning their minds away from their worries.

‘One of the issues is we don’t prepare ourselves enough before bed so even though we may be tired we fall into bed, all of a sudden we’re alert.’

Dr Harrington excessive worrying at bedtime can set up a pattern of insomnia (stock image)

Dr Harrington excessive worrying at bedtime can set up a pattern of insomnia (stock image)

She said one of the most important things you could do was to pay attention to the state you are in at least an hour before you go to bed and give yourself time to wind down.

‘If you find you’re really not falling asleep after 30 or 40 minutes, you need to get up, go to a comfortable room, read a book under dim light until you start to feel sleepy again.

‘The worst thing you can do is lie there and worry, because not only will you not fall asleep, you may set up a pattern where the brain is triggered into worry when it should be trying to fall asleep.’

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