In my last article, we discussed the importance of maximising sleep for health benefits. Today, we will focus on how to drop off to sleep as swiftly as possible.

But first, in order to have a greater respect for sleep, we need to better understand what goes on when the lights go out.

Understanding sleep

Here are some interesting sleep facts:

• Did you know that sleep has five stages? These stages progress cyclically from 1-2-3-4 through to REM, then repeat again with stage 1.

• A complete sleep cycle takes an average of 90 to 110 minutes.

• The first two sleep cycles each night have relatively short REM sleeps, but longer periods of deep sleep. Later in the night, REM periods lengthen and deep sleep time decreases.

• This 90 to 110 minute cycle is called the ultradian rhythm, and for optimum sleep recovery, we need to complete this cycle five times, which is why experts have always suggested we get seven to eight hours of sleep.

Stage 1 is light sleep where you drift in and out of sleep, and can be awakened easily. In this stage, the eyes move slowly and muscle acti- vity slows.

During this stage, many people experience sudden muscle contractions preceded by a sensation of falling.

In stage 2, eye movement stops and brain waves become slower as the brain prepares for deeper levels of sleep.

Stages 3 and 4 are referred to as deep sleep (or delta sleep), and it is very difficult to wake someone during this stage. Deep sleep is when the body focuses on physical repair.

If we sleep after midnight or drink alcohol before, this restoration process becomes compromised, meaning we wake up feeling physically tired and looking awful.

New parents typically don’t get a deep uninterrupted sleep as they are on high alert for the sound of crying, and need to manage their sleep by taking turns on baby duty. This is why young parents age so rapidly when they have a baby.

The REM stage is the dream stage and the time when the brain is most active as the subconscious mind backs up information learned during the previous day.

This stage is also a time for problem-solving, hence the phrase “let me sleep on it and get back to you in the morning”.

REM sleep can also be compromised by late nights and mental stress, so ensure you get to bed in the best possible mindset you can.

As we age, the periods of REM sleep get shorter, which is why we become forgetful, so if you find yourself forgetting appointments, where you left your keys or your wedding anniversary, then read up and follow the guidelines on how you can boost REM sleep.

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How to sleep easily

Ok, so now that we have a full appreciation of the processes at work while we sleep, let’s focus on some tips for passing swiftly into stage 1 of the sleep cycle.

Sleep is such a natural process that there should be no reason why we can’t drift off into blissful slumber within minutes of trying.

In fact, before the advent of street lamps in Paris in the 1870s, there were no recorded cases of insomnia. Now, there are millions of people around the world seeking medical help for the 11 different categories of sleep problems.

There is only one reason why the elixir of deep sleep eludes us, and even though the factors can be broken up into physical and mental, the underlying cause is the same: either the body or the mind is over-stimulated or under-tired!

Let’s start with preparing the body for sleep:

Exercise daily – Starting your day with physical activity “corrects” the endocrine system and ensures that your body is ready for rest and repair later in the day.

Don’t work out too late in the evening as rigorous activity may increase cortisol levels, speeding up your circulation. After your evening meal, you may go for a walk or do relaxing, low impact exercises like tai chi or yoga.

Have a hot bath – Heating the body lowers blood pressure by opening the blood vessels to the skin. Magnesium supplements work in the same way, which is why hot chocolate has always been a popular pre-bed drink (cocoa is high in magnesium) and magnesium oil sprays are all the rage for preparing the body for sleep.

Breathing! – Through breathing, we can control biorhythms and lower the heart rate to enable sleep. Try focusing on breathing in through the nose for a count of four to five seconds; hold for two exhalations; breathe through the nose for five to six seconds; hold for two exhalations; and repeat.

After you build a suitable rhythm and feel the pull of sleep, continue to breathe normally without focusing on counting until you drift off.

Avoid stimulants after 2pm – Coffee can have a half-life of six to eight hours for some people, so if you have trouble sleeping, then make sure you pass on the caffeine and other stimulants well before bedtime.

That includes ginger, green tea, aspartame and other sweeteners. If you crave a hot drink after dinner, then try a soothing tea like chamomile, lemon or lavender.

Dinner should preferably be eaten between 6pm and 7pm – Eating a balanced lean protein- based meal with brown rice and vegetables for dinner may provide you with the L-tryptophan needed for the production of melatonin and serotonin, providing the right mood for faster sleep.

The mind

If sleep is what you crave, then don’t bring any electrical equipment to bed. Text messaging, Facebooking and the exchange of any information will release cortisol, keeping you from the state you most desire, sleep!

This also includes chatting with your spouse. Getting into bed and bringing up the state of the family finances or any other topic is a huge no-no!

Instead, read a book, say a prayer or tell your spouse all the things that you were grateful for that day. Learn how to focus the mind to wind the body down into it’s most restful state.

The mind loves rituals and routine, so build your own winding- down routine for sleep and stick to it religiously. After a week or two of practice, your mind will get the message and understand that each and every time you take the first step of your routine, you are programming for sleep.

Start by organising your schedule for the following day at a set time like 10pm. It is super-relaxing for the control freak in us to have tomorrow prepared, so that we can hit the pillows feeling satisfied.

Ahhh, isn’t that a load off your mind?

The mind is like a TV, you can only watch one channel at a time, so focus your mind on something or someone that increases a sense of relaxation, and breathe!

In the UK, we were taught to count sheep – warm fluffy innocuous animals. How much sleep would we have missed if they had taught us to count spiders?

Yet, many of us are lying in bed thinking about people or events that create the same levels as stress as spiders have on children!

The room

This is where we can make or break our sleep patterns, so make some notes and try these tips out:

Sight – The room should be pitch black, so if you don’t sleep easily, get an eye mask and sleep in complete darkness. Even the faintest light from an alarm clock has been shown to stimulate cortisol in sensitive sleepers.

Smell – Try a soothing essential oil like lavender or vetiver, and run it in a diffuser to add humidity in dry climates.

Sound – This is a totally personal choice, and I have tried everything from whale song to crystal-healing bowl meditations. Experiment on this one, but make sure you leave the run time to an hour, with an auto switch-off.

Touch – Sleep position, number of pillows and Egyptian cotton sheets! Again, this is down to personal choice. I sleep on an earthing or grounding sheet with one pillow and highly recommend the earthing sheets to all my patients with sleep disorders or inflammation-based conditions like high blood pressure or muscle aches.

Temperature – Sleep experts recommend a room air temperature between 19-23°C, with a window open to ensure good oxygen flow during the entire night. Oxygen content is crucial to waking up feeling refreshed, so make sure you sleep in a well-aired room, even if that means investing in a good set of mosquito nets.

The bottom line

The hormone that induces sleep is called melatonin, and it works in opposition to cortisol. When one is high, the other is low, and that is why falling asleep is often an issue of cortisol or stress management.

Natural melatonin levels deplete with age and by age 40, many of us will be producing only about 50% of the levels we enjoyed as teenagers.

Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, which itself can become calcified by ingestion of toxins such as fluoride found in water and toothpaste. If you have searched in vain for the ultimate soporific but still find slumber hard to come by, then research the following:

• How to decalcify the pineal gland

• How to boost melatonin levels naturally

• Melatonin and valerian root supplements

Thank you for reading, and please do write in and let me know your own tips on how to get to sleep in 60 seconds. See you again in a fortnight where we will look at a day in the life of a health coach.


Liam Harkness is a qualified sports therapist with certificates in Active Isolated Stretching and Strength-ening (AIS), visceral manipulation and holistic lifestyle coaching. His two current goals are to help Malaysian athletes beat Singapore and help combat the rise of non- communicable diseases in the country. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my.