Better Sleep for a Better You

Many of us take a good night’s sleep for granted, waking up refreshed and rested every day. For around 20% to 35% of Australian children, teenagers and adults though, getting a good night’s sleep is a real problem. The quality of your sleep can affect the way you look, feel and behave so it’s important to get a good night’s sleep for a better you!

Impact of sleep disorders

You spend around one third of your life sleeping, and if there are problems with your sleep, this one third can have a detrimental impact on the other two thirds of your life. Even after one night of disrupted sleep, you can look and feel tired, become irritable and emotional, have difficulty focussing and concentrating and even feel hungrier than normal. Chronic sleep disorders can lead to serious long-term health consequences by affecting your mind, body, relationships, productivity and safety.

Sleep disorders cost Australia around $5.1 billion each year; $800 million in health care costs and $4.3 billion in productivity losses and sleep loss-related accidents.

Different types of sleep disorders

There are a number of different sleep disorders, ranging from the most common, insomnia and obstructive sleep apnoea, to delayed sleep phase in teenagers and shift work disorder in shift workers. Sleep disorders typically involve difficulty initiating sleep, getting to sleep but then waking up and staying awake, broken sleep and difficulty maintaining sleep. Sleep disorders may occur due to reduced melatonin (your main sleep hormone) levels, high levels of stress leading to high levels of cortisol at night, restless leg syndrome, menopausal night sweats, getting up to go to the bathroom frequently, narcolepsy, pregnancy or pain.

The science of sleep -  REM vs NREM

Even though you are asleep and resting, sleep is known to be a highly active process where your day’s events are processed and your energy is restored. So while getting enough sleep is important, the different stages of sleep are equally important. Sleep follows a set pattern, alternating between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep.

The majority of your sleep (75%) occurs in NREM while the remaining 25% occurs in REM. You enter NREM as you fall asleep which occurs in four stages:

•    Stage 1 - the period between being awake and falling asleep.

•    Stage 2 - sleep onset; a light sleep where your breathing and heart rate are regular and your body temperature begins to drop.

•    Stages 3 and 4 - the deepest and most restorative sleep stages, particularly stage 4, where your blood pressure drops, your breathing becomes slower, your muscles start to relax, new tissue growth and repair occurs, energy is restored and various hormones released.

REM sleep first occurs around 90 minutes after falling asleep; it’s a time where your brain is quite active and dreams occur, your eyes dart back and forward (hence the rapid eye movement reference) while your body becomes immobile and relaxed. REM sleep provides energy to your brain and body to help support your daytime performance.

Neurotransmitter imbalances and sleep disturbances

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that control many aspects of sleep. A neurotransmitter imbalance can result in difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or getting enough REM sleep. Excitatory neurotransmitters, glutamate and adrenalin, are usually high during the day and serve to energise your body, while inhibitory neurotransmitters, serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), start to rise during the evening and help to calm and relax your body. As glutamate and adrenalin levels begin to drop towards the end of the day, serotonin and GABA levels begin to rise. This shift in neurotransmitter levels signals the production of melatonin, your main sleep hormone, which is derived from serotonin.

So, how much sleep do you really need?

Newborns                        12-18 hours

Infants                             14-15 hours

Toddlers                          12-14 hours

Preschoolers                   11-13 hours

School age children        10-11 hours

Teens                               8.5-9.5 hours

Adults                              7-9 hours

Better sleep for a Better you

There are many healthy lifestyle choices you can make to help improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep. Addressing low serotonin levels, elevated levels of one or more excitatory neurotransmitters or hormonal imbalances related to low melatonin and high cortisol levels are all associated with sleep disturbances, so should form part of the solution.

Healthy lifestyle choices for better sleep include

•    Remove technology from your bedroom; blue light suppresses melatonin production

•    Eliminate stimulating activities one hour before bed

•    Manage your stress levels and practice relaxation techniques

•    Stop worrying about going to sleep – it only makes it worse

•    Avoid dietary stimulants; coffee, tea, cola drinks or alcohol around four hours before bed

•    Consume sleep friendly foods; almonds and oatmeal (high in magnesium for relaxation), cherries (increases melatonin), bananas (provides tryptophan, the precursor for serotonin and melatonin)

•    Avoid sugar as it rapidly depletes neurotransmitters

•    Cognitive behaviour therapy

•    Maintain regular bed times each night

•    Avoid large meals before going to bed

•    If you’re not asleep within 20 minutes, go to another room until you feel tired, then go back to bed

•    Try not to nap during the day

•    Increase sunlight exposure during the day

•    Consuming good quality proteins which provide the base for healthy neurotransmitter production

•    Exercise helps to increase serotonin levels

Traditional herbs for a great night’s sleep


Ziziphus is traditionally used in Chinese medicine as a sedative for the relief of insomnia. Studies show that Ziziphus exerts an inhibitory effect on glutamate signalling pathways in the hippocampus of the brain, so assists sleep and relaxation.


Magnolia bark is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for the symptomatic relief of sleep-related problems, nervous tension, stress and mild anxiety. Stress tends to worsen insomnia and the active components of Magnolia bark contribute to the anti-stress and cortisol lowering effects by interacting with GABA to induce relaxation. High cortisol levels at night contribute to sleep disturbances.


Passionflower has traditionally been used for insomnia which results from mental worry, overwork or nervous stress, wakefulness, restlessness and nervous irritability. Passionflower strengthens the effectiveness of GABA, promoting a state of relaxation.

Californian Poppy

Californian poppy is traditionally used as a sedative to relieve insomnia and relax the central nervous system by inhibiting the production of adrenalin and improving GABA binding to receptors to induce a calming sensation that helps reduce anxiety.

Written by Kay Bellingham

Kay Bellingham is a practicing Naturopath with over 14 years’ experience in natural medicine, with a special interest in herbs and nutrients for health and wellbeing.


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