How you can sleep better
Understand the science behind good and bad sleep.
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Written by Sonder Health
Updated over a week ago

Having poor, restless or unsatisfying sleep now and then is normal, especially when you're going through a stressful time. Sometimes, however, prolonged difficulties with falling or staying asleep, or feeling tired throughout your day despite getting enough hours of sleep can be a sign of anxiety or a sleep condition like insomnia.

If you’re worried about your sleep for any reason, it’s useful to understand a bit more about the science behind good (and bad) sleep. There are three main processes responsible for regulating sleep: your sleep drive, circadian rhythm and arousal system.

Sleep drive

Your sleep drive is like your appetite for sleep. When you wake up, your sleep drive is at its lowest and it gradually increases as the day goes on.

The main behaviour that weakens sleep drive, is napping. You can think of this as like having a snack before you go out to dinner. In that situation, your appetite is reduced so you don’t feel as hungry for dinner. Similarly when you nap or ‘doze’ your sleep appetite is reduced for your main sleep in the night time.

Have you ever dozed off in front of the TV after a long day? It’s quite common for this to happen, but it can then impact your ability to fall asleep in bed. This may lead to a cycle of poor sleep that is difficult to break. Instead of letting this happen, go to bed as soon as you start to feel sleepy - even if it means cutting short that binge-session you’re in the middle of.

Circadian rhythm

This is your internal biological clock that regulates many of your bodily processes such as digestion, body temperature and sleep. For adults, this clock works on an approximate 24-hour period. Irregular sleep schedules weaken your internal clock, which is why it’s helpful to keep regular wake times.

Many people are pretty good at setting regular wake times for work, but fall into different habits on weekends. This gets worse if you’ve not been sleeping well during the week, and are looking to make up for your ‘sleep debt’. However this behaviour has a big effect on your circadian rhythm. The best thing you can do to put it back into sync, is to wake up the same time each day, including weekends, no matter how poorly you’ve slept the night before.

Another thing you can do to help your circadian rhythm, is to make sure you get a good dose of natural light when you first wake up, to suppress melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for helping your brain slow down for sleep, and your body produces it in darkness. This is also why sleep experts recommend you avoid artificial light from phone screens, TVs and computers when you’re trying to sleep. Light=wakefulness, dark=sleep.

Arousal system

Feeling on edge or anxious is incompatible with sleep. When we worry or perceive threat of any kind, our arousal levels increase and we often feel tense in our body. For many people, when their head hits the pillow, this is the first opportunity they have to process the day’s events and think about any problems or difficulties. This makes it difficult to ‘switch off’, relax, and fall asleep.

Many people who have had trouble sleeping over time, also develop an association between going to bed and not sleeping. Then, going to bed becomes a trigger for worry and frustration about not sleeping and this adds to arousal, making it harder to sleep. This is known as Conditioned Insomnia, if you think you might have it, you can start a chat using Sonder or speak to your GP.

Sleep hygiene

You’ve probably heard this many times before, but it’s worth a refresher. Healthy sleep habits are not that different to healthy eating and exercise habits… follow a few simple rules and they can make a big difference to the quality of your sleep.


  • Avoid caffeine (not just from coffee but also regular tea, cola drinks and similar) after 3pm as it interferes with getting to sleep and staying asleep.

  • Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others so you may need to have your intake earlier than 3pm, while some can tolerate it later in the day. The general rule would be to avoid it within 6 hours of your bedtime.

Limit alcohol close to bedtime

  • Although many people use alcohol to unwind, it interferes with your sleep quality

  • Even if it helps you to fall asleep, alcohol reduces sleep quality and causes you to wake up more in the night

Exercise is great for your sleep

  • It will increase deep sleep and also help you to reduce your anxiety and stress, and improve your mood… however don’t do any intensive exercise too close to bedtime as exercise will hype you up and may disrupt your sleep. Some light stretching before bed is good as it will also help you relax.

Sleep environment

  • Keep it comfortably cool (but not cold), dark, and quiet

  • Sometimes there are noises that we can’t control - try to keep calm and use ear plugs if you can. Some people find ambient noise is good, such as light static or the sound of a ceiling fan.

Dinner time

  • Eating a big meal before bed can disturb your sleep

  • If you get hungry at night time or wake up in the night hungry, a light snack before bed can be helpful

Regularity is key

  • Our circadian system likes it when we eat at regular times, socialise at regular times, and perform other daily activities at regular times.

Many people who experience sleep problems or insomnia, also experience low mood and anxiety. If you think you might be experiencing clinical depression or anxiety, it’s important to get extra help. You can chat to one of our Sonder team members who can refer you for appropriate support, or help you get an appointment with a GP.

THIS WAY UP is a trusted Australian provider of evidence-based, internet-delivered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (iCBT) programs.

As a not-for-profit and joint initiative of St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of New South Wales, its mission is to reduce the burden of mental illness by providing accessible online treatment for anxiety disorders and related mental health conditions.

THIS WAY UP has a range of self-paced online courses that teach clinically-proven strategies to help you improve the way you feel. Some courses are available for a small fee, however if Sonder refers you, you can access them at no cost. To find out if which courses are suitable for you and receive a free referral, simply start a chat with our team via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Image credit: Jake Charles on Unsplash

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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