The magnesium can definitely help, says Clinical Associate Professor Delwyn Bartlett, a psychologist and insomnia expert at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. “It can be quite useful if you have restless legs or muscle tension,” she explains, adding that dosage is important: We need 37.5 mg for the magnesium to make a positive impact.
Delwyn tells me a few things that put my mind at ease considerably. “People have unrealistic expectations of their sleep,” she says. “Everybody thinks that if you’re a good sleeper, you spend most of the night in deep sleep, sleep through the night and wake refreshed.” Delwyn insists we aren’t designed to sleep deeply for the duration of the night. Mostly, we should expect that about 20 per cent of our nights are made up of deep, slow-wave sleep, and this tends to occur in the first few hours, straight after we’ve drifted off. This deep, slowwave sleep is when the brain, working as its own dishwasher, flushes out high levels of certain proteins that have built up over the day. By the time I wake in the wee hours, this self-cleaning work is complete. The rest of the night will be comprised of relatively light sleep and dreaming sleep or Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM). Some sleep is so light that we are almost conscious to the point that we could respond to a question if asked.
We wake many times, Delwyn says, but only one or two wakes are generally remembered. This light sleep is more than okay, Delwyn insists. “The second half of the night, you’re more likely to be dreaming,” she says, and if we wake during this stage, we will probably feel wide awake. During REM sleep, brain patterns are similar to an awake state. However, during REM sleep our bodies are semi-paralysed so we don’t get up and act out our dreams.
The goal, Delwyn tells me, is to reset our expectations. “Expect two to three hours of good sleep and from that point onwards you’ll be dreaming or going in and out of relatively light sleep, and that’s okay,” she says. “The most important thing you can do is get up at the same time as much as you can, regardless of the previous night’s sleep quality.” Getting up at the same time is critically important, Delwyn explains, because that anchors our sleep with the environment and sets boundaries in terms of temperature and timing of sleep.
Exercise, diet and power naps are all restorative, she says, as long as we don’t power nap for too long. Beyond 25 minutes you’ll be heading for deep sleep, which is when we wake exhausted, so Delwyn recommends we limit power naps to under 20 minutes. Caffeine and alcohol can interfere with our sleep if we are sensitive, she adds. But the most important ingredient in a good night’s slumber surprises me. I feel like it’s a recipe for a good life.