Sleepless in Singapore no more

SINGAPORE - Black-out curtains, warm milk before bed and lavender-scented pillows. For years, insomniacs in Singapore have been tossing and turning out ways to slip into a dreamy snoozefest.

A recent editorial in the Annals, a journal by the Singapore Academy of Medicine, found that one in three people here is getting so little sleep that it is affecting their health. It said that people who do not sleep enough are more likely to become obese and suffer from diabetes and heart problems.

SundayLife! asks a range of experts, including sleep doctors, traditional Chinese medicine physicians and aromatherapists, for tips to make falling asleep easier.

Keep hands and feet warm

Wear mittens, gloves and socks to "trick" the mind and body for better sleep, says Dr Shirish Johari, 43, a senior resident physician at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Sleep Disorder Clinic.

Studies have shown that keeping your hands and feet warm dilates blood vessels in those parts, which cools the blood as it flows through the open channels near the skin's surface, lowering your body temperature and making sleep come easier.

Cool your room

Sleep at a temperature which is comfortable for you, says Dr Shirish. Though it differs from person to person, the ideal range is between 20 and 22 deg C. A cooler room tricks your body into lowering its temperature, a pre-requisite for deep sleep.

Hide the clock

Avoid the temptation to watch the clock if you cannot sleep, says Dr Ong Thun How, director of the Sleep Disorders Unit at Singapore General Hospital.

"If you lie down and stare at the clock while trying to fall asleep, you are inadvertently stressing yourself by trying to meet a 'deadline'."

Turn your clock towards the wall while you sleep to avoid sneaking peeks at it and turn it back around in the morning to check the time.

No electronics allowed

Keep mobile phones, television sets, laptops and iPads away from your haven of sleep. If these are in your room, switch them off.

While there is no scientific evidence that the wavelengths from electronic devices affects sleep, turning off mobile phones removes the "subtle stress" of the need to stay connected, says Dr Shirish.

A bedroom "only for sleep" may be difficult to achieve, says Dr Ong, as many Singaporeans live in crowded living spaces, which may not be sleep-conducive.

Leave your bed

If you lie awake in bed for 30 minutes or so, get up to do something else. A sedate activity such as reading is good, but avoid doing it in bed.

Make sure you are in a different part of the bedroom or in a different room, says Dr Shirish. This conditions the body to sleep when you fall into bed.

Return to bed only when you feel sleepy. Strangely, trying to stay awake rather than trying to fall asleep can do the trick. He says: "In what is known as 'paradoxical intention', the mind that focuses on being awake will relax sooner than the mind that is struggling to fall asleep."

Two-hour wind down

To relax the mind and body, dedicate a winding-down period to prep for a good snooze, says Dr Ong. She says: "The mind is not an engine that can be turned off at will and when you are tensed up after a hectic day, the body is still pumped full of stress hormones like adrenaline."

Doctors advise a two-hour wind-down period - have a hot shower, a massage or practice muscle relaxation techniques, or listen to new-age music.

Avoid studying, office work, cyber- gaming, television or housework during this period, says Dr Sridhar Venkateswaran, 43, assistant director of Changi General Hospital's Integrated Sleep Service. It sees about 120 patients with sleep disorders a week, an increase from previous years.

Smell sleep

An aromatherapy burner to diffuse fumes from essential oils of lavender, mandarin, rose and chamomile can do wonders, says Ms Julie Lew, 52, manager of aromatherapy brand Perfect Potion.

A cheaper option is to drip one or two drops on a tissue and slip it into your pillowcase so that you can smell it while you sleep. A scent pillow or satchet may not be a good idea as it could grow mould in about three months, she adds.

Cedarwood, ylang ylang and patchouli could also work, says aromatherapist Sheeba Majmudar, 39, from health and wellness centre Verita.

You can apply a drop behind each ear or use a timed diffuser, which will automatically switch off when you fall asleep, she says.

TCM methods

Cook a sweet dessert of lily bulb, lotus seed, red dates and longan - about 30g of each - and drink it two hours before sleep, says TCM physician Lim Lay Beng, 50, of YS Healthcare TCM Clinic.

These ingredients clear the "heart fire" which prevents sound sleep.

To calm the nerves, drink half a glass of warm milk. However, avoid drinking Milo, says Ms Lim.

"I usually do not encourage patients to drink this as it contains cocoa and can wake up the brain," she adds.

She also recommends a 30-minute warm foot bath an hour before bedtime - dip your feet in warm water mixed with about 30ml of rice wine or vinegar, which helps the blood to circulate.

keziatoh@sph.com.sg


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