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Sleep: time to learn your A to Zzz

Medical & health articles 29 Jan 2018
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When you think about our busy modern lives, it's no wonder so many of us have issues with sleep and fatigue – our quality of sleep is under threat by longer working hours, more screen time and pressing day-to-day worries that can keep us up at night.

Low iron levels (particularly in women with heavy periods) and not moving enough during the day can also leave us feeling tired.

So why are you tired? And importantly, what can you do about it? Here are some facts, stats and research-based tips to guide you through, from A to Zzz.

Fast facts on sleep

  • A recent study by Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre found that, on average, women need about 20 minutes more sleep than men a night, due mainly to changes in levels of the hormones oestrogen and testosterone
  • Women also face different challenges to men when it comes to sleep – those shifting hormones (again!), caring for babies and children and being more prone to mental health issues can all play a part in why women are more likely than men to have insomnia
  • Poor sleep and lowered energy levels are commonly reported by women whenever oestrogen levels are low, such as before and during a period, during breastfeeding and around menopause
  • Menopause is a time many women experience insomnia and sleep disorders. Insomnia, snoring and obstructive sleep disorder become more frequent but may be under-recognised
  • Studies have shown an increase of sleep apnoea in women around perimenopause – regardless of their age or weight
  • In women of reproductive age, a lack of sleep can lead to an increase in total fat and total carbohydrate intake as well as reduced micronutrient intake
  • Sleep issues don't just cause next-day grumps; they can have far-reaching consequences. The Loughborough University study also found poor sleep in women was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

So as you can see, getting a good night's sleep isn't a luxury – it's a necessity for our long-term wellbeing.

Watch the short animation below on how to get a better night's rest.

What can you do to get a better night's rest?

Don't chop and change. It's important to have a good routine of going to bed and getting up around the same time – even on weekends. It helps to settle your sleep patterns.

There is no magic number when it comes to sleep duration, but most women should aim for 7-9 hours a night. Try keeping a sleep diary or tracking your sleep hours with an app.

The bite of the blue. Most screens project blue light, and smaller screens especially so. Researchers at Harvard University found that blue light is particularly bad for blocking the sleep hormone melatonin, affecting sleeping patterns. So turn off those screens at least two hours before bedtime.

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Easy fixes to cut down your screen time. Keep your phone out of your bedroom and choose good old-fashioned books over e-readers.

The catch-22 of caffeine. Australians who consume more caffeine sleep less, and those that sleep less, consume more caffeine. Help stop the cycle by being aware of your caffeine intake. Why not try a relaxing herbal tea near bedtime? Our naturopath Sandra Villella has some suggestions.

Fatigue-fighters: exercise vs coffee. A small study found that 10 minutes of brisk exercise was more energising for young women than caffeine. So next time you're craving that mid-afternoon coffee, go for a quick power-walk instead.

You can't catch up on sleep. So don't try by putting yourself to bed early. Your clever brain is wired to seek quality over quantity, so will catch you up by making you sleep deeper rather than longer.

What changes are you going to make today?

  • If you have an abandoned alarm clock sitting in a drawer, why not bring it out of retirement and give your phone alarm a miss tonight? See how you sleep – you might find you don't miss the phone in your room at all. If your kids also sleep with their phones, why not ask them to try a screen-free night too? If you're short on alarm clocks, you may need to promise to wake them, though!
  • ​Are you prone to snacking instead of eating proper meals? Eating irregularly, especially eating high-fat snacks, is associated with shorter and poorer sleep. So tonight, try to make sure you have a nutritious sit-down dinner, at least two hours before bedtime. Eating late at night, especially a heavy meal, can adversely affect your sleep.
  • Are you worried about a sleep disturbance you or your partner might have? Do either of you notice the other stopping breathing occasionally during the night? Make an appointment with your GP today to have it investigated. Many sleep tests can be done at home now.

If you have problems with sleep or ongoing tiredness, choose a few of these tips and start reaping the rewards. The time is now!

This content originally appeared as a part of Women's Health Week 2017. Sign up for Women's Health Week to receive five days of content like this in September and don't miss the action.