• Rohini Pathmanathan

The 'Z' Factor: 10 Tips for a Good Night's Sleep

Updated: Jul 15, 2018

Watercolour cat sleeping on a colourful rug.
As Mr Fluffykins settled down for a cat-nap, he let himself be serenaded into slumber by the soothing song of the pippins and the gentle caress of the stars. Purr.

Whether you're adept at catching ZZZs or too busy bemoaning the lack of them, there's no getting around the fact that sleep is a human necessity. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines sleep as a “physiological state occurring in alternation with wakefulness”, with our sleeping patterns directly influencing our waking behaviour and daytime productivity. On a more esoteric level, sleep allows us to disengage from physical world concerns and from the survival-primed ‘reptilian brain’ of our conscious waking state, allowing us to enter a more universal state of consciousness.

However, sleep deficiency remains a global issue, is omniscient in developed and developing countries alike, and is multifactorial in nature. Possible causes include sleep deprivation, poor sleep quality, misalignment of circadian rhythms, or sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea or restless legs syndrome (Zee et al., 2014). These may be exacerbated by unsupportive lifestyle habits, chronic fatigue, stress, hormonal factors such as menopause or a hyperactive thyroid, poor diet, as well as ongoing biological and environmental factors.

International guidelines advocate at least seven hours of sleep nightly for optimal health benefits. Failure to meet this quota is associated with lower immune function, heightened pain perception, reduced performance in athletics and at work, as well as a higher risk of accidents (Watson et al., 2015). Sleep-deprived individuals also have more risk factors for cardiovascular disease, systemic inflammation, metabolic complications such as diabetes, insulin resistance and obesity, psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as neurocognitive dysfunction manifesting as dementia and early-onset Alzheimer’s (Markwald, 2012; Miller, Wright, Hough & Cappuccio, 2014).

So now that there's little doubt in your mind about the importance of sleep for physical and psychological health, here are 10 research-validated ways to nab some top-quality ZZZs:

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Gratitude journal with coffee, flowers and a striped hat.
Each day dawns as a brand new canvas, so write, draw, sketch and paint the pages of your life with the vibrant optimism of good things coming your way.

Though positive psychology is a still-growing field, research suggests that individuals who are perpetually stressed, depressed, anxious or frustrated have a higher risk of sleep deficiency and all its attending problems compared to individuals who are gratitude-oriented. In support, a British study reports that gratitude-oriented individuals who maintained a positive attitude towards their environment and personal relationships enjoyed better sleep quality, longer sleep duration, and enhanced daytime functionality compared to their less grateful counterparts (Wood, Joseph, Lloyd & Atkins, 2009). And the best way to find more gratitude and appreciation in your life? Keep a journal!

Journaling doesn’t have to be tedious or a chore: just keep a notebook beside your bed and every morning upon waking, jot down three things in life you are grateful for. Though this exercise may seem trite at first, personal experience with journaling has helped me foster a deeper sense of appreciation for things and people in life I care about...and improved my mental calm as well. In similar vein, other individuals who maintain a regular journaling practice report less stress, improved mental calm and better sleep courtesy of prioritising those things that matter, and giving a wide berth to those that don't.

2. Invest in a Heavy Blanket

Here in Malaysia, sleeping with the air-conditioning on is de rigeur for surviving the overwhelming balminess of the tropical climate. So what better reason for investing in a heavy blanket or doona to ward off the chill of your hardworking cool-maker? Supporting research reveals that sleeping with a blanket that weighs more than 10 percent of your total body weight confers deep-pressure tactile benefits for individuals suffering the effects of anxiety or stress-related sleep deprivation (Ackerley, Badre & Olausson, 2015). In similar fashion to deep-pressure massage, a heavy blanket replicates the relaxing sensations associated with touch for a calming, soothing and sleep-conducive effect.

3. Avoid Electronic Device Use Before Bed

Black poodle with hair curlers reading a magazine at hair salon.
The art of reading (real) books and magazines is fast approaching extinction, so why not reconnect with a fond childhood memory by flipping through a few actual pages before bed?

Ever find yourself climbing into bed with your handphone or iPad in one hand and the TV remote in the other? Bad idea, say scientists exploring the effects of blue light emissions on human arousal, as exposure to synthetic light sources preceding sleep has a disruptive effect on the body's natural circadian cycle (Chang et al., 2014). Specifically, exposure to light from electronic devices at least two hours before sleep disrupts brain waves regulating sleep and wakefulness, and instead increases arousal vis-a-vis suppression of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin (Chang et al., 2014).

And if that's not troubling enough, research also reports that individuals who regularly use electronic devices before bed experience lower levels of energy and alertness the following day, which has a significantly diminishing effect on workplace productivity. The moral of the story is simple: read a book before bed instead. And no, I don’t mean on your Kindle!

4. Consume Foods High in Tryptophan

Milk with cardamom, cumin, black pepper, turmeric and star anise on a dark background.
Golden Milk is a popular Ayurvedic remedy for insomnia featuring fresh cow's milk and an assortment of exotic spices to reduce stress and soothe frazzled nerves.

As a key sleep-promoting hormone, melatonin is synthesised from a dietary amino acid called tryptophan. In turn, tryptophan enables the synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that governs mood and arousal, maintains cognitive alertness, regulates muscle movement, and supports sleep (Jenkins, Nguyen, Polgaze & Bertrand, 2016). Tryptophan is found in a wide array of foods such as chicken, turkey, eggs, almonds, cherries, and milk. Milk is an especially rich source of this amino acid, and those of you who are not lactose-intolerant may like to try my Golden Milk recipe to usher in a peaceful night’s sleep. Failing that, a small serving of lean chicken or turkey breast on whole-grain bread makes a satisfying, low-calorie pre-bedtime alternative.

5. Eat More Magnesium-Rich Foods

Avocado mash and poached egg between two slices of whole-grain toast on a rustic wooden background.
Avocado, egg and two slices of whole-grain toast are packed full of sleep-inducing nutrients such as vitamin B6, magnesium and tryptophan...making this wholesome sandwich the perfect pre-bedtime snack.

Like tryptophan, magnesium supports melatonin production and increases serotonin’s affinity in the body by binding to AANAT enzymes (Yonei, Hattori, Tsutsui, Okawa & Ishizuka, 2010). Magnesium also supports relaxation by regulating the body's central nervous system vis-a-vis gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity (Yonei et al., 2010). In GABA's pro-relaxation effect is essential for deep sleep, and regulates nervous system function by decreasing excess brain cell excitability that gives rise to insomnia and other types of sleep-preventing hyperstimulation (Abbasi et al., 2012). GABA's beneficial effects are further magnified when magnesium-rich foods are consumed alongside foods abundant in vitamin B6.

Foods that are powerhouses of both magnesium and vitamin B6 include bananas, dark chocolate, avocados, and various nuts and seeds such as almonds, cashews and pepitas. Magnesium supplementation has also proved useful in improving sleep quality in individuals with chronic insomnia while simultaneously alleviating stress, anxiety and muscle tension (Abbasi et. al, 2012). However, not all magnesium supplements are created equal, so talk to your healthcare practitioner or book a consultation with me to discuss which magnesium supplement would be best suited to you.

6. Switch to De-Caffeinated Coffee or Herbal Tea

Fresh and dried herbs and flowers for infusion tea on a rustic dark background.
Chamomile, lavender, lime-flower and oat-flower make wonderful 'sleep infusion' brews due to their gentle sedating and nerve-relaxing properties.

There's no getting around the fact that in today’s adrenaline-driven culture, caffeine is a crutch. But did you know that extra cup of joe to help you face crushing deadlines or the mid-afternoon slump is likely the reason you lie awake in the dark, impotently counting sheep until 3 a.m? Research reports that 99 percent of caffeine from sources such as coffee and black tea are absorbed into the bloodstream via the digestive tract 30 to 60 minutes following consumption (Snel & Lorist, 2010). Following this, caffeine’s ability to transverse all biological membranes in the body including the blood-brain barrier has important ramifications for sleep, as caffeine antagonises adenosine receptors in the brain which regulate sleep and arousal (Snel & Lorist, 2010).

If you're loath to give up your mid-afternoon beverage altogether, opt for de-caffeinated coffee after 2 p.m. or wind down in the evening with a relaxing cup of lavender or chamomile tea instead. Both lavender and chamomile are mild nerve relaxants that possess phytochemicals which aid relaxation, reduce physical and mental tension, and prepare the body for a good night’s rest. How's that for the perfect cuppa?

7. Get a Massage

Tinctures of rose and lavender on a wooden background.
Floral scents such as rose and lavender rank among the most popular aromatherapy choices for evoking a sense of calm and well-being.

In similar fashion to a heavy-weighted blanket’s benefits, massage is a tactile art that employs deep pressure to stimulate the body’s various sensory plexuses. Positively, research examining the effects of aromatherapy massage on sleep quality reports improvement in overall sleep quality and daytime productivity in individuals who received regular aromatherapy massage treatment (Chang et al., 2017).

Of all essential oils, the sleep-inducing effects of lavender have been best documented in relieving insomnia and improving sleep quality (Afhsar et al., 2015), though other scents such as rose, vanilla, bergamot and jasmine are also used to promote tranquility and calm. Opt for lavender massage oil on your next visit to the spa, or speak to a certified aromatherapist about which customised oil blends would best meet your relaxation needs.

8. Practice Yoga

Woman on beach in Goa wearing white and practicing yoga in the morning sunshine.
Certain yoga asanas such as Viparita Karani (legs up the wall), Virasana (hero pose) and Balasana (child pose) have been shown to support sleep by improving circulation, alleviating muscle tension and enhancing mental relaxation.

Physical activity of any kind is essential for physical and psychological well-being, but did you know that yoga’s use of meditation, deep-breathing techniques and specific asanas (postures) is especially beneficial for sleep? In support, research reports that individuals who practice regular yoga enjoy reduced blood pressure, less stress and anxiety, and decreased sleep disturbance compared to individuals who do not practice yoga – all of which contribute to enhanced sleep quality and day-time productivity! (Bankar et al., 2013).

9. Maintain a Regular Bedtime

In Ayurvedic scripture, routine is synonymous with good health. Regardless of whether your constitution is Vata (air), Pitta (fire) or Kapha (water) predominant, bedtime is recommended no later than 10 p.m. for superior physical and mental rejuvenation. The period between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. is governed by Pitta, and marks a time when the body's fire element naturally begins to increase to support metabolic repair and cellular regeneration (Svoboda, 2004).

Pitta hours are a prime regenerative period for digestive organs such as the liver and gallbladder, and staying awake past this time often increases appetite, provokes late-night snacking, and sets the stage for metabolic problems such as insulin resistance. For optimal physical and mental vitality, Ayurveda also recommends waking up no later than 6 a.m., as Kapha energy starts to rise past this time and can make one feel sluggish, dull and unmotivated.

10. Choose Soothing Bedroom Colours

Bedroom interior decorated in blue and gray with ficus plants and a chair with books next to a bed.
Pale, muted blues remain one of the best bedroom colours for sleep, due to blue's association with water (emotion) and its calming effect on heart rate and blood pressure.

Colour psychology and colour therapy have long been used in stress management to calm, relax, inspire and encourage mental well-being. Interior decorators are fast latching on to this premise, as the colour of one’s bedroom can either confer a calming, soporific effect or an overly stimulating one. An Iranian study examining the effect of children’s bedroom décor and corresponding sleep quality reported that rooms decorated in soft pastel colours and neutral wallpaper had the most sleep-conducive influence, while rooms decorated in bright yellow, orange and red had the opposite effects (Abbasi et. al, 2014). Avoid warming, energising colours like the latter, and opt for pale blue, silver, mint and lavender instead to soothe the spirit and usher in a peaceful night’s sleep.

The foundation of a good night's sleep lies in the harmonious intersecting of mental and physical factors. Visit www.applesandunicorns.com or book a consultation with me to explore the best ways for catching more prime-quality ZZZs and to address underlying factors that may be promoting sleep deficiency. In addition to natural options for correcting stress and lifestyle-driven imbalances, a customised nutritional prescription inclusive of supplemental guidance is offered to optimise physical and mental well-being alongside sleep-enhancing benefits.


Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeghniiat, K., Shirazi, M., Hedayati, M., & Rashidkhani, B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in the elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 17, 1161-1169. Retrieved from www.journals.mui.ac.ir/jrms

Abbasi, M. A., Talaei, A., Talaei, A., & Rezaei, A. (2014). The use of appropriate colours in the design of children’s rooms: A short review. International Journal of Paediatrics, 2(4-1), 305-312. Retrieved from www.ijp.mums.ac.ir

Ackerley, R., Badre, G., & Olausson, H. (2015). Positive effects of a weighted blanket on insomnia. Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, 2(3), 1-7. Retrieved from https://www.jscimedcentral.com/SleepMedicine/sleepmedicine-2-1022.pdf

Afshar, M. K., Moghadam, Z. B., Taghizadeh, Z., Bekhradi, R., Montazeri, A., & Mokhtari, P. (2015). Lavender fragrance essential oil and the quality of sleep in postpartum women. Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, 17(4), e25880. doi:10.5812/ircmj.17(4)2015.25880

Bankar, M. A., Chaudhari, S. K., & Chaudhari, K. D. (2013). Impact of long term yoga practice on sleep quality and quality of life in the elderly. Journal of Ayurveda & Integrative Medicine, 4(1), 28-32. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.109548

Chang, A.-M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J. F. & Czeisler, C. A. (2015). Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(4), 1232-1237. doi:10.1073/pnas.1418490112

Chang, Y.-Y., Lin, C.-L. & Chang, L.-Y. (2017). Effects of aromatherapy massage on sleep quality of nurses on monthly rotating night shifts. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Article ID 3861273, 1-8. doi:10.1155/2017/3861273

Jenkins, T. A., Nyugen, J. C. D., Polgaze, K. E., & Bertrand, P. P. (2016). Influence of tryptophan and serotonin on mood and cognition with a possible role of the gut-brain axis. Nutrients, 8, 56-71. doi:10.3390/nu8010056

Markwald, R. R., Melanson, E. L., Smith, M. R., Higgins, J., Perreault, L., Eckel, R. H. & Wright, K. P. (2013). Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(14), 5695-5700. doi:10.1073/pnas.1216951110

Miller, M. A., Wright, H., Hough, J. & Cappuccio, F. P. (2014). Sleep and cognition. In C. Idzikowski (Ed.), Sleep and its Disorders Affect Society, pp. 3-28. doi:10.5772/58735

Peuhkuri, K., Sihvola, N. & Korpela, R. (2012). Dietary factors and fluctuating levels of melatonin. Food & Nutrition Research, 56, 1-9. doi: 10.3402/fncv56i).17252

Snel, J. & Lorist, M. M. (2011). Effects of caffeine on sleep and cognition. Progress in Brain Research, 190, 105-117. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-53817-8.00006-2

Svoboda, R. E. (2004). Ayurveda: Life, health and longevity. Albuquerque, NM: The Ayurvedic Press.

Watson, N. F., Badr, M. S., Belenky, G., Bliwise, D. L., Buxton, O. M., Buysse, D., Dinges, D. F., Gangswich, J., Grandner, M. A., Kushida, C., Malhotra, R. K., Martin, J. L., Patel, S. R., Quan, S. F., Tasali, E., Twery, M., Croft, J. B., Maher, E., Barrett, J. A., Thomas, S. M. & Heald, J. L. (2015). Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: A joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 11(6), 591-592. doi:10.5664/jcsm.4758

Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep thorugh the mechanism of pre-sleep cognition. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43-48. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.09.002

World Health Organisation. (2004). World Health Organisation technical meeting on sleep and health. World Health Organisation regional office for Europe: European Centre for Environment & Health – Bonn Office. Retrieved from http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/114101/E84683.pdf

Yonei, Y., Hattori, A., Tsutsui, K., Okawa, M., & Ishizuko, B. (2010). Effects of melatonin: Basic studies and clinical applications. Anti-Aging Medicine, 7(7), 85-91. Retrieved from http://www.anti-aging.gr.jp/english/pdf/2010/7_85.pdf

Zee, P. C., Badr, M. S., Kushida, C., Mullington, J. M., Pack, A. I., Parthasarathy, S., Redline, S., Szymusiak, R. S., Walsh, J. K. & Watson, N. F. (2014). Strategic opportunities in sleep and circadian research: Report of the joint task force of the Sleep Research Society and American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleep, 37(2), 219-227. doi:10.5665/sleep.3384

102 views0 comments