Good sleep is incredibly important. It helps you feel good and makes your body and brain function properly. Some people have no problem falling asleep. However, many others have severe difficulty falling and staying asleep through the night. Poor sleep can have negative effects on many parts of your body and brain, including learning, memory, mood, emotions and various biological functions.

If your inability to sleep has continued for over 4 weeks or is beginning to affect your ability to function during the day, make an appointment to see your Silverstream Health Centre GP.

How we sleep

Healthy sleep is divided into four-stage cycles. As we progress through stages 1 and 2, we become increasingly unplugged from the world until we reach the deep sleep that happens in stage 3. In deep sleep, both brain and body activity drop to their lowest point during the cycle, and blood is redirected from the brain to muscles.

The fourth and final stage is named for the rapid eye movement — REM — that is its defining characteristic. Our brains become busily active in REM sleep, too, even more so than when we are awake. Dreaming happens during this stage.

In a full night’s sleep, we experience three or four such cycles, each lasting 60 to 90 minutes.

Different yet equally important restorative work happens during deep sleep (stage 3) and REM sleep (stage 4).

Deep sleep is crucial for physical renewal, hormonal regulation, and growth. Without deep sleep, you’re more likely to get sick, feel depressed, and gain an unhealthy amount of weight. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2008 Sleep in America poll, those who sleep less than 6 hours per night on workdays are significantly more likely to be obese than those who sleep 8 hours or more (41% vs. 28%).

In REM sleep — stage 4 in the sleep cycle — the brain processes and synthesizes memories and emotions, activity that is crucial for learning and higher-level thought. A lack of REM sleep results in slower cognitive and social processing, problems with memory, and difficulty concentrating. The same 2008 sleep poll found that people who sleep less than 6 hours per night during the workweek are twice as likely as their better-rested colleagues to report difficulty in concentrating.

“Sleep is the best meditation.”

Dalai Lama

Common sleep problems


This is a condition where you are having trouble sleeping or staying asleep for long enough.
It generally includes difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep (poor sleep quality) or waking much too early.

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)

This is a condition in which you stop breathing while you are asleep. The usual symptoms are snoring, not feeling refreshed on waking, day-time sleepiness, altered mood and morning headaches.


This is where you make a snorting or rattling noise when you breathe during sleep.
The noise comes from the vibrating of the soft palate and tissue in your mouth, nose or throat.
Some people snore occasionally and the sound they make isn’t too loud, while others may snore every night, loud enough to be heard in the next room.

Sleep deprivation

This is a condition that develops if you don’t get enough sleep, or you sleep at the wrong time of day (that is, you’re out of sync with your body’s natural clock).
It also includes not sleeping well or not getting all of the different types of sleep that your body needs.

Restless legs syndrome

This a sleep disorder that causes an intense, often irresistible urge to move your legs. This sensation is brought on by resting, for example lying down in bed or sitting for prolonged periods, such as when you are driving or watching a movie. It typically occurs in the evening, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. It can lead to daytime sleepiness, irritability and your concentration can ebb effected.

Natural vs drug induced sleep

Natural sleep is a memory builder, whilst drug induced sleep is a memory eraser. Drug induced sleep is not natural. You do not get the healing benefits of sleep. Drugs cause sedation, hangover effects, risk of addiction and increased risk of falls in the elderly. Studies have shown that, on average, you only fall asleep 20 minutes earlier with these medications.

A note on sleeping medicines

Sleeping tablets or medicines that encourage sleep are not used often because they have the potential to cause harm. Using sleeping tablets on an ongoing basis can lead to you developing a dependency on them, as well as an increased risk of falls, confusion, dementia and difficulties with driving.

Taking sleeping tablets for more than a few nights in a row can make sleeping difficulties worse. If you’re taking sleeping tablets on a regular basis, ask your doctor about ways to help you stop taking them. You may need to stop taking them gradually over several weeks to months before stopping completely.

Tips for better sleep

  1. Stick to a sleep routine – go to bed and wake at the same time every day – including weekends. Trying to make up for sleep you lost in the week at the weekend doesn’t work. It also makes it much harder to wake up on Monday. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF ADVICE.
  2. Exercise – exercise is great but not within 2-3 hours of bedtime. Otherwise try to do 30 mins of aerobic exercise on most days.
  3. Avoid caffeine and nicotine – caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, coke, tea, chocolate etc. Its effects last up to 8 hours – so avoid after midday! Decaffeinated products are low caff not no caff! Nicotine is a stimulant that causes light sleep – smokers often wake up early due to nicotine withdrawal.
  4. Avoid alcohol – heavy alcohol use robs you of REM sleep. Loss of REM sleep results in a 50% drop in memory retention. It may also impair your breathing during your sleep causing you to wake frequently. Often people wake in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
  5. Avoid large meals and drinks late at night – can cause indigestion and getting up in the night to urinate. Steer away from carbohydrates late at night – especially sugar.
  6. Medications – some Blood pressure or asthma medications can disrupt sleep – check with your pharmacist if you are concerned. Over the counter use of cough medicine, decongestants, antihistamines etc. may also disrupt sleep patterns.
  7. Don’t take any naps after 3pm – short early naps can help make up for lost sleep, but long and late will make it harder to fall asleep the next night.
  8. Relax before bed – give yourself time to unwind, relax, read or listen to music before bed.
  9. Take a hot bath before bed – the drop in body temperature when you get out of the bath may help you feel sleepy.
  10. Dark, cool, gadget-free bedroom – get rid of anything distracting such as noises, bright lights or an uncomfortable bed. You sleep better if your bedroom is cool, about 18 degrees is ideal.
  11. Have the right amount of sun exposure – daylight is the key to regulating sleep patterns. Ensure you have at least 30 mins of natural sunlight, outside every day. Try to wake up to sunlight or very bright lights and in the evening turn the lights down before bedtime.
  12. Don’t lie in bed awake – if you are still lying in bed awake after 20 mins, or are starting to get anxious, get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy. Getting anxious about not sleeping makes it harder to drop off. Try mindfulness techniques, Yoga etc.