Dozy days and restless nights, how much sleep do you really need?

By Emma-lee Strachan, Naturopath

If you wake up feeling tired, you?re not alone. Almost a quarter of the population frequently experiences sleeping difficulties, and 16% of Britons regularly start the day feeling tired & un-refreshed. Unfortunately, as we age a good night?s sleep is often harder to come by.

Not only can a lack of sleep impact on your daily function by leaving you feeling moody and forgetful, it can also impact your long term health. Depression, anxiety, certain medications, lifestyle and even creature comforts such as the height of your pillow can impact on your quality of sleep.ÿ Whether you wake in the night or lie in bed for hours wishing you could doze off there are lots of simple steps you can take to ensure your sleep is as restful as possible.

It is all too easy to overlook the effects that a poor night?s sleep can have: an increased need to nap, susceptibility to pain, reduced cognitive ability- including poor attention and memory, slowed response times, adverse affects on relationships, and a general sense of being unwell can all be associated with a poor night?s sleep. Even losing some sleep on one night can contribute to any of these symptoms.

No one knows how much sleep is the ideal amount. It varies from person to person. The amount you require to be at your best is as individual as the amount of food you need. Anything between six and ten hours is considered normal for adults, but many people manage on less. Most adolescents need nine.

Experts tend to agree that most people need eight hours a day. Einstein believed he needed ten hour?s sleep a day. Generally you should wake up feeling refreshed and not feel sleepy during the day. You know better than anyone else what?s best for you.

What?s keeping you awake?
Many things can bring on a bout of insomnia, but the most common causes are worry, stress, anxiety, grief and depression. Insomnia can be due to physical problems, not just emotional ones, and there are also certain drugs such as antidepressants, beta-blockers, appetite suppressants and thyroid hormone replacements that can cause disturbed sleep patterns.ÿ To improve sleep patterns, the underlying cause of the sleep problems needs to be identified and addressed. However, on a daily basis, there are some simple measures you can take to help out.

Warm milk before bed
Most people have heard that a glass of warm milk before bed can help you to sleep. As it turns out, there is some science behind this, it is thought that milk along with certain other foods affects your brain chemistry to guarantee a good night?s sleep.

Sleep chemicals
Neurotransmitters are molecules that regulate brain function. They are chemicals that relay messages from nerve to nerve, both within the brain and outside of the brain. They also relay messages from nerve to muscle, lungs, and intestinal tracts. Neurotransmitters are used all over the body to transmit information and signals. ÿThese chemicals affect your sleep wake cycle.

Norepinephrine, is a second stress neurotransmitter. It is released in response to perceived danger. High levels of this hormone are seen in states of anxiety and insomnia.

Serotonin, the sleep saviour master neurotransmitter, is made by our bodies from the amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin is found throughout the body, and is necessary to modulate the levels of stress hormones. Serotonin is a precursor of melanin, the hormone that is released at night, when the body is asleep. for the conversion of serotonin to melanin to take place, levels of norepinephrine need to drop. If there are persistently high levels of norepinephrine, as in states of chronic anxiety, this conversion will not take place and this can lead to insomnia.

Foods to EAT to positively affect your sleep chemistry
Increase your intake of tryptophan, which is mainly found in high protein foods. The following foods containing trytophan, are good to eat with the evening meal or as an evening snack: Dates, yogurt, turkey, bananas, legumes, tuna, milk and nut butters.

Foods that negatively affect your sleep chemistry
Avoid all stimulants, particularly caffeine, which is found in coffee, chocolate, cocoa, black and green tea and some soft drinks. Caffeine makes the body think is it under stress and this has a negative impact on your sleep patterns.

Foods containing tyramine increase the release of norepinephrine which negatively impacts your sleep patterns. For this reason: aubergine, tomatoes, sugar, bacon, sausage, spinach, potatoes, cheese and ham are best avoided in the evenings.

Herb focus
Some herbs can help to deal with the causes of insomnia. Certain herbs may be helpful to alleviate stress and anxiety during the day and some may be used at night for their sedative effect or to help any muscle pain that may be keeping you awake. This is why when using herbs to help you sleep, finding out the cause of your sleep problems will be really helpful. For best results you should always ask a naturopath or herbalist for advice.


Exercise is one of the best defences against insomnia. Exercise increases the amplitude of daily rhythms and tells the body to promote deeper sleep cycles to help replenish the muscle tissues from physical exertion.

Temperature control - Our bodies need time to produce enough sleep neurotransmitters to allow you to sleep, lowering room temperature sends a feedback signal to the brain?s sleep centre, that it is night time, and that it needs to release more sleep hormones.