How To Sleep Better: Naturopath Jen Cox Answers All Our Questions
Sleep. Just the word might make you feel tired. In our always-on culture, many of us are not getting enough. In the recent The Australia Talks National Survey 2021, about a third of Australians said they were getting less than the minimum recommended amount of seven hours of sleep a night.
So how much do we need? How can we try to get more? How do we make sure it’s good quality? What do we eat? Drink? Consume? The questions, it seems, are unlimited.
Thankfully, there are experts at hand, ready to answer our every query. We spoke to Jen Cox, a qualified naturopath and self-confessed sleep obsessive, who delivered all this and more. For example, if we wake at 2am, what’s our body telling us? How can we set good night-time routines? And how can we make every well-deserved second count?
Read on for tips, and get ready to enjoy your best night of sleep yet …
Jen Cox is a qualified naturopath and western herbalist, who also works with the brilliant team helping us all to sleep at The Goodnight Co.
Can you talk us through the stages of sleep?
Sleep is a complex process. The human brain (not missing an opportunity to overcomplicate things) gives us 5 unique stages of sleep when we break them all the way down. On the numbers front, the average sleep cycle is 90 -110 mins long and we roll through those babies 4 or 5 times per night. When it comes to the stages, sleep is either Rapid Eye Movement or it’s not. We tend to call these REM or Non-REM (NREM for short) and they look like this:
NREM Stage 1: A bit more of a wannabe snooze fest than anything – consider this a drowsy state that’s easy to wake from. Your brain and muscles are winding down.
NREM Stage 2: Congrats, you're officially asleep. The brain and body slow down further, creating space for some housekeeping on the memory front. You can still wake up, but there are some measures that get put in place in the hope of avoiding this.
NREM Stage 3 + 4 (Deep Sleep): Welcome to the restorative stage. It’s where all that luscious healing and growth go down and is packed with Delta Waves, our slow brain wave activity. Stage 3 is less than half Delta, while stage 4 is more than half, though these two are often bundled up together. You’re unlikely to wake and you’re also not dreaming so deep sleep is a pretty mysterious place to be. It’s also where most of the weird things that happen to sleepers occur – think sleepwalking, talking or night terrors.
REM: It’s dream time, people. Your eyes are busy doing their rapid movement, but the rest of your body’s kept still while your dreams play out – paralysed, even. Whether you recall them or not, most people dream 4-6 times per night.
What are your thoughts on sleeping aids such as melatonin tablets or sleeping pills?
There may be a time and a place for medication in the short term, but ideally we shouldn’t rely on it – us naturopaths always like looking deeper for the why behind your sleep struggle. An insane amount of sleep success can be driven by simple things such as lifestyle, routine and diet which means education and understanding your triggers is often more of an empowering option long term.
Our key sleepy hormone melatonin starts from 9pm onwards – what is the ideal time to go to bed and why?
There are a few things at play when it comes to setting a bedtime. The body clock, like you, is unique – so it works in more of a range than at super specific times (whether you’re a morning or evening person can impact this). Settling on a bedtime between 10-11pm fits best with where your melatonin and digestion will likely be at, as this should maximise your ability to cycle through those sleep steps the right number of times before hormone levels drop in the morning. It’s important to stick to your bedtime if you plan to get the most from this process. Your body loves routine!
What about women who work late on their computer or look at their screen right before bed – how does this impact sleep?
Melatonin production is triggered by light, so when we’re constantly exposed to screens at a time that is traditionally dark, we trick the body. This means less melatonin, so less of those body processes and triggers that are needed for deep, restful sleep. Wearing blue blocking glasses will help with this problem, however, dedicated screen-free wind down time for an hour or two before bed is definitely the best approach – it’s also good for stress relief and work-life balance.
What is the ideal time to rise in the morning?
We’re all different so the ideal wake up time can vary. As your blood pressure increases naturally around 6:45am and melatonin production stops completely by 7:30am – depending on your bedtime and chronotype (if you’re a night owl or a morning lark) – the right wake up time for you will likely sit in the range of 6-7am. As long as this allows you to get between 7 and 9 hours quality sleep and it’s something you can stick to (even on weekends) it’s a good fit.
What are some healthy night-time rituals we can all practice?
This can be anything that helps you to wind down screen-free. There’s some great research around taking a bath 1-2 hours before bed, while adding magnesium salts to your soak will up the ante. Diffusing essential oils that calm and relax you, or doing a guided meditation/breathing techniques help too. Or maybe you just want to read a book. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s simple, calming and enjoyable.
What role does magnesium play in sleep?
Magnesium features in literally hundreds of enzyme systems. On the highlight reel for sleep: your adrenal stress response as well as the ability to calm your nervous system both require magnesium to do their thing. It’s a water-soluble mineral, which means we need to replenish it every day. We also tend to churn through more when stressed, anxious or overworked and it’s found in foods that typically get overlooked when we are time poor or under pressure. All these bits and pieces combined mean the impact of depletion is quite layered and- as a nation – Aussies are chronically magnesium deficient.
What are some foods you’d recommend for sleep?
A balanced, whole food diet will cover most of your bases, though 4 out of 5 Australians don’t meet the minimum requirements for fruit and vegetables, so this is actually more difficult than it looks. Daily inclusions that help you to build lovely sleep hormones should be things like leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fresh or frozen fruit, whole grains and good fats.
How much time should we aim to leave after eating before going to sleep?
It takes 2-3 hours for your stomach to empty after eating, so allowing this space before hitting the sack will avoid things like heartburn ruining your z’s. Making sure you properly chew your food, skipping anything too spicy and allocating higher fat/protein meals for lunch rather than dinner will also smooth the process.
What about drinks?
Drink choices can be sleep game changers and not only because a full bladder can wake you up. General dehydration, high sugar soft drinks, caffeine and alcohol all have their own negative interaction with sleep. In general, it pays to stick to water more often than not and clock the majority of your intake earlier in the day.
What role does sugar play in sleep?
There is some evidence that suggests the more sugar intake we have throughout the day increases how often we wake at night. The energy roller coaster that’s associated with a high sugar diet can also impact when you feel tired, making you more susceptible to fatigue than if you ate lower glycaemic index foods. Chronic sleep disturbance is even associated with developing type 2 diabetes, so sticking to naturally occurring sugars and lower glycaemic index (GI) options where possible is your best bet for a good night’s rest as well as overall health.
What about alcohol – how does alcohol impact sleep?
While a few drinks regularly feature in the ad-hoc wind down routines of so many of us, they’re unfortunately not a successful replacement for adequate, proven forms of stress management. Alcohol reduces your REM stage of sleep. You may also find you wake to visit the bathroom or that you feel dehydrated at night after drinking alcohol. If you’re into Traditional Chinese Medicine – waking between 1 and 3am (when you should be getting your best sleep) can suggest your liver is struggling, so if this is you, it’s best to avoid alcohol altogether for a while and see how you feel.
What about coffee – can you talk us through how coffee impacts our adrenal glands?
When we use caffeine as a short-term solution to gain the energy that diet, hydration or proper rest should provide, the adrenals are forced to assume that you’ve got a great reason. To avoid whatever danger may be imminent they pump stress hormones out to keep you going, which is not sustainable and can lead to adrenal fatigue over time. Things like grabbing a coffee on the go without having eaten a proper breakfast, or choosing a second coffee over adequate hydration, will worsen this. Stick to caffeine before midday and only one cup (without sugar and with a good source of fat included like coconut milk) if you know you’re sensitive to overstimulation.
What if you’re on different schedules to your partner - how do you not disturb each other’s sleep schedule?
This will be unique for each couple but understanding what may trigger each of you to wake is enlightening – these are not the same for everyone. After your heart to heart, work out a plan that suits you both and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to include sleep support tools like eye masks, ear plugs and blackout blinds if you need.
Many new mothers have to wake every couple of hours to feed their baby – what do you recommend here when it’s not possible to get long periods of sleep?
This is so tough to manage… I understand and have been there! Say yes to assistance and do not feel guilty accepting help. If you have a partner or family member who lives in the same house, working in shifts is a great approach. The goal here is to try and get as much rest in one block as you can, so that your body can cycle through those sleep stages properly and reap the benefit. Both parents win with this process as you’ll both achieve longer blocks of sleep. It can also help us avoid fatigue fuelled arguments at 3am… I have also been there.
What are your thoughts on napping?
Do it! If you can get through a full sleep cycle – spectacular – but even 20-30 mins of meditation or a quick nap will be great for alertness and mood.
Many people prioritise watching Netflix until late over going to bed early – what’s your advice here on changing this habit?
There are lots of ways to reign in your viewing time if cold turkey just isn’t for you and knowing what your gaining is a crucial component to success, as is understanding exactly how much time you’ve been spending on Netflix or screens the first place. Some steps that may help are:
- Set the rules: Allocate a strict screen switch off time per night that is 2 hours before you plan to sleep. You can also set a limit to the number of episodes you’re prepared to invest your precious time into per night/week and keep track of it.
- Fill the space well: Replace those Netflix sessions with something you enjoy! There’s no need to dedicate this time to emptying the bins or filing paperwork. You’ve just created more space for music, books, connecting with loved ones or get more much needed alone time. This is always a good thing.
- Know your why: Write down the list of benefits you get from more sleep. Include those that matter most to you – maybe anxiety management, weight loss, glowing skin, stress relief or more energy will appear, but there are so many benefits the list can go on. Stick this in an obvious place as a daily reminder.
- Work as a team: Rope in your partner, kids or roommate to help keep you accountable and come along for the beneficial ride – sleep struggles usually run in households and we can all benefit from better balance.
What about temperature – do things such as electric blankets/heating/air conditioning impact sleep?
For your deep rest to happen, a cool and stable room temperature is best. Stick to 16-18 degrees Celcius for your best sleep yet.
Finally, how long does it take to break a habit/get into a new healthy one?
We’re all individuals and have unique challenges, but research currently sits at 66 days for the average amount of time needed to form a new health habit. Don’t give up if you make a mistake and check back in on your why regularly. You can do this!