How to Sleep Well

In this post I will do three things:

1. Explain why and how we sleep;

2. Debunk some myths concerning sleep, and

3. Provide some practical suggestions on how you can sleep well.

Why and How We Sleep

A new day begins one second after midnight. Even while we sleep the brain is going through a process of restoration that will equip us to face a new round of challenges when we awake.

Consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg as far as neuronal activity is concerned. Sleep is a temporary reduction of consciousness in which the brain actively enters altered states of processing involving different wave patterns and neurochemicals.

Emus sleep, so do grizzly bears and even reptiles. No one knows why we sleep – but we certainly get grumpy without it and it can impact on our sleep levels.

Everyone needs good, recuperative sleep. Without it, concentration will lapse, performance will diminish and the quality of decisions will suffer. People deprived of sleep tend to hallucinate and experience increasing levels of anxiety, paranoia and irritability.

The brain’s control centre for sleep is the raphe nuclei which is situated in the brain stem. The neurotransmitter that plays an active role in the onset of sleep is called SEROTONIN.

Serotonin levels are high in people who feel safe and secure. A person contentedly lying in the sun on a holiday in the Bahamas probably has high levels of brain serotonin!

Serotonin assists you to rest and conserve energy.

Serotonin, like other neurotransmitters in the brain, serves more than one function. Apart from making us feel relaxed it is also involved in temperature regulation in the body and sensory perception.

Serotonin levels increase at the onset of sleep preparing us for a comfortable nights rest.

The English poet, John Keats, was once an apprentice surgeon but it is almost certain that he knew nothing about neurotransmitters. Despite never having heard of serotonin he intuitively expresses its function in a memorable few lines from his epic work Endymion:

0 magic sleep! 0 comfortable bird,
That broodest o’er the troubled sea of mind
Till it is hush ‘d and smooth!

(Keats 1854, p. 21)

There are many myths concerning sleep and I propose to debunk a number of these in this post.

Myth One: Everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night.

There are considerable differences in the amount of sleep that an individual requires. Some people feel refreshed after only four hours sleep a night while others wake groggy and grizzly after ten hours. All things being equal if you are having sufficient sleep then you should wake and feel reasonably alert after a short period of time.

If you find it enormously difficult to wake up and find yourself constantly yawning throughout the day then it could be that you are sleep-starved. Some experimentation with amounts of sleep should assist you to reach a satisfactory level. If you need ten hours a night then try to get that amount. If you can get by on four hours then half your luck!

Myth Two: Alcohol gives you a sounder, deeper sleep.

This is certainly an illusion. Alcohol reduces the quality of sleep by suppressing REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep.

People deprived of REM sleep tend to become irritable and anxious. Eventually they become psychotic! An alcohol-induced sleep may produce a grumpy, snappy person the next morning. A sleep-deprived person could be quite dangerous particularly if they are driving or flying.

Dr. Ian Oswald, a world authority on sleep, describes alcohol as “…the thief of sleep”.

Ironically Oswald also notes that “…much of the behaviour of sleep-deprived persons resembles that of drunkenness: sheer incompetence during drowsiness. Mumbling, slurred, rambling speech with repetitions and mispronunciations; diplopia, falling up or down steps or curbs which do not exist, walking into walls or bushes with eyes open.” (Oswald 1962, p.185)

Myth Three: Sleeping pills are the best was to deal with insomnia?

Sleeping pills can provide useful medication during times of great stress but they are not the best way to deal with insomnia. Sedatives and tranquilizers tend to be overused by people who see them as a quick fix.

During the period 2005-2008 a staggering 4.5% of the USA population reported using anxiolytics, sedatives, and hypnotics at least once in the previous month during the reporting period. (Health, United States 2010).

Over half a million prescriptions were issued in Australia for hypnotics and sedatives during the 2008 calendar year. An enormous percentage of the population in developed countries needs help to get to sleep.

The famous French psychiatrist, René Dubos once described sleep as a dove which has gently landed near one’s hand and it stays there if one does not deliberately attend to it or attempt to grab it. (Frankl 1985, p. 253).

Inability to sleep is often brought on by anxiety that we will be unable to sleep. Lying in bed and saying to yourself Go to sleep you fool! does not help. It has the reverse effect in that we then start to chastise ourselves for staying awake. Plug into this imagery of a tired and fatigued day ahead and you have a recipe for a sleepless night.

Myth Four: A person’s level of sleep will remain constant throughout the night.

Workaholic readers will be pleased to learn that there is a condition in sleep called active sleep. This stage is also known as paradoxical sleep or, more commonly, rapid eye movement sleep (REM).

During active sleep we dream and during dreams we can be both inspired or terrorised.

Active sleep has been noted in most mammals and birds but is not blatantly obvious in goannas or death adders sunning themselves in the Simpson Desert! Sleep researchers have studied it intensely in humans and have observed that it is essential to good physical and mental health.

Active sleep is thought to be regulated by a set of neurons which are identified by the alarmingly complex name ponto-geniculo-occipital system. Some bright neuroscientist recently suggested that the name dream-producing neurons would be more to the point. (Young, 1978, p. 207).

Myth Five: We need more sleep as we get older.

The quantity of sleep required by individuals tends to vary throughout life. Depending on our age and lifestyle we may need more or less as we age. More important than the quantity of sleep is the quality. Sleep disruption can occur with age particularly if illness disrupts normal routine.

Daytime sleeping can increase with ageing, sometimes brought on by boredom, tedium or depression. An increase of daytime somnolence can then make it difficult to sleep well at night.

Myth Six: Most of the brain stops functioning during sleep.

If it did you would probably not wake. The brain is an enormously complex organism with multiple tasks many of which take place without any conscious awareness. During sleep the brain still regulates activities such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion of food and so on.

The brain is also active during sleep consolidating memories and experiences. Interesting this activity takes place during Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM). An excellent graph showing the activity of the brain during REM Sleep can be seen here (scroll halfway down the article).

Practical Things You Can Do to Improve Your Sleep

Let me share with you a few tips that will help you to sleep well.

1. Avoid drinks or foods contains central nervous stimulants such as caffeine.

Caffeine is found in tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, soft drinks and in many over-the-counter medications such as pain killers and common cold remedies.

Carefully controlled studies have shown that caffeine will disturb sleep. One study showed that a 150 mg dose of caffeine (about 2 cups of instant coffee) taken half an hour before bedtime had a marked effect on the quality of sleep including a reduction in total sleep time and a decrease in the amount of dreaming (Okuma et al. 1982).

In another study that looked at how caffeine affected sleep in middle-aged people it was found that four cups of coffee before bedtime reduced sleep time by approximately two hours (Brezinova, 1974).

The brain has its own natural anti-caffeine chemical called adenosine. Adenosine helps us sleep by shutting off large numbers of neurons. Caffeine blocks the receptors on the neurons that respond to adenosine so you become more alert and less sleepy.

2. Take a relaxation break during the day.

When I first began to spend fifteen minutes a day practicing relaxation I didn’t notice any major changes in my sleeping habits. However, after a few months of practise it occurred to me that I was sleeping much better than I had prior to learning relaxation.

After a while I noticed significant improvements in my sleep, and in particular, the fact that I would have an unbroken night’s sleep even though my work involves lots of travel and lots of strange beds.

You can sample and download the Relaxation MP3 here.

3. Try to avoid excessive food or drink before retiring.

If you have a large meal before retiring then sleep will be difficult. Digestion is an active process. A large meal before retiring means that the body will be doing a fair amount of work while you are trying to drop off to sleep.

Watch your eating and drinking before sleep … it may do a lot more than just add a little colour to your dreams.

4. Read a book or listen to quiet music.

The body has its own natural rhythms and when these are disturbed through travel or illness we feel out of tune with ourselves and our environment. You can also use these natural rhythms to your advantage. If you go to sleep at the same time each night then your body will naturally slow down in preparation for sleep … it may even put you to sleep!

Listening to relaxing music or reading a book (not a heavy one … in terms of content or weight) should soon find you drifting off to dreamtime. If you want to read and lie down then reading an e-book on a Smartphone can be a good option.

I recommend to people who have trouble sleeping that they actually try to stay awake and methodically work through the telephone directory. If that doesn’t quickly move you to a soporific state then you are probably a marathon insomniac.

5. Take a warm bath or spa before getting into bed.

People actually pay to spend time in a float tank, apparently because it very relaxing and they usually don’t have telephones! You don’t need to buy a float tank to relax. Just use your bath or spa.

6. If you wake up during the night don’t be anxious.

Many people who think they are insomniacs actually drift off to sleep many times during the night. It is only because they wake up frequently that they feel they haven’t slept. Most people overestimate the amount of sleep they need, and underestimate the amount of sleep they’ve had during a restless night.

If you wake up during the night be content to just lay and rest. Alternatively you could get up and do some reading or other intellectually satisfying activity. If your head is full of creative ideas then have a piece of paper or smartphone near the bed to capture them. You may find after reading for an hour that you feel tired and can return to bed to sleep without too much difficulty.

7. Make sure the room is well ventilated.

The body constantly monitors temperature. If significant changes occur during the night then your brain will rouse you from sleep to make adjustments. Most people find that a room temperature of 15-18C makes for good sleep. One of the most unpleasant nights sleep that I spent was in Surabaya in Indonesia. The night temperature was about 40C and I also had to contend with the odd mosquito or two!

Good ventilation also means adequate oxygen. If you don’t believe me then spend a night above 3,500 metres. Sleeping at or above this altitude is very difficult unless you have become acclimatised. The body senses oxygen deprivation and you are jolted into wakefulness to ensure that you are still breathing. (I haven’t heard of any mountaineers who have woken to find that they have died!).

8. Avoid strenuous exercise routines near bedtime.

Although exercise is good for the body it shouldn’t be undertaken within a couple of hours of bedtime.

Exercise releases adrenalin and increases body temperature and arousal. Physiological arousal following vigorous exercise will gradually abate but it takes time. If you go for a jog or a swim before bed then your heart rate will increase and the body will be wound up just at the time when you want to wind down. This won’t help you get to sleep.

Is mental performance impaired by inadequate sleep?

Yes, but only if the poor sleep patterns persist. Research by Dr. L. A. Horne, published in the journal, Sleep, showed that poor sleep undermines creative thinking and the ability to cope with unfamiliar situations. Many people have a job that requires them to undertake difficult and challenging tasks. Good performance demands mental agility. You can easily lose your professional edge if you regularly suffer from poor sleep.

lf you have the occasional restless night then don’t be too alarmed. It’s perfectly normal. Dr. Horne’s research also showed that “…the loss of one night’s sleep was found to have little effect on less creative endeavours, such as the ability to answer multiple-choice questions, draw up balance sheets, or deal with familiar types of problems using well-established skills.” (University of California, p.5).


Brezinova, V. (1974). Effect of caffeine on sleep: EEG study in late middle age. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 1: 203-208.

Frankl, V.E. (1985). The Doctor and the Soul. Vintage.

Keats, J (1854) The Illustrated Poetry of Keats. London. Chancellor Press.

Okuma, T., Matsuoka, H., Matsue. Y., and Toyomura, K. (1982). Model insomnia by methyiphenidate and caffeine and use in the evaluation of temazeparn. Psychopharmacology. 76. 201 -208.

Oswald, I. (1962). Sleeping and Waking. Amsterdam. Elsevier.

Young, J.Z. (1978). Programs of the Brain. London. Oxford University Press.

University of California. Berkeley Wellness Letter. Vol. 1 . No. 6.

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