39% of Hong Kongers have insomnia. Techniques for sleeping

Counting sheep won’t help you sleep, but other techniques will

David Wilson

High-pressure Hong Kong is nicknamed the city that never sleeps. Most of us manage to string some shut-eye together, but you may well suffer from sleep disruption, which can leave you feeling shattered when morning rolls around.

Research shows that a week of patchy sleep can stymie hundreds of genes, raising the risk of a range of life-threatening disorders linked to stress and inflammation.

According to sleep expert Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, who led the research at Britain’s University of Surrey, sleep is a “pillar of health” just like diet and exercise.

A common sleep disruptor, according to pharmacist Tim Linnet, is that central nervous system stimulant, caffeine. Caffeine’s “half life” – the time it takes for its levels in your body to halve – is five hours. So your unwanted wakefulness may stem from an afternoon coffee’s residual buzz.

The fast way to come down from your caffeine high is to take a dietary supplement used in traditional Chinese medicine called “rutaecarpine“.

This is a bitter alkaloid occurring in the wuzhuyu (evodia) fruit from a broadleaf tree that is native to China. Take it before going to bed, Linnet suggests.

You also need to watch how much alcohol you drink. In a new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, University of Melbourne researchers found that alcohol drunk just before bed initially acts as a sedative but is later associated with sleep disruption.

According to Stanford-trained sleep physician Nitun Verma, alcohol metabolises in the first half of the night, leaving the arousal threshold lower than normal in the second. The second half is less peaceful, so try to cut back on alcohol.

Another way to raise your abstinence game is to declare your goal – tell friends or family that you plan to turn temperate and enlist their support, he says. Or stop drinking earlier, so you metabolise more alcohol before bed, Verma says.

His liquor-related advice is relevant because Hongkongers have a serious drink-related insomnia problem. According to a 2010 survey by the European Sleep Research Society, 39 per cent of Hong Kong respondents – equivalent to 2.2 million adults.

“Our results suggest that insomnia is highly prevalent among Hong Kong Chinese adults and is associated with frequent use of alcohol, poor mental health and quality of life,” the survey says.

Another trigger, according to Verma is daytime stress, which increases the time taken to fall asleep and aggravates sleep fragmentation. His answer is meditation, which helps you stay asleep, and sleep deeper.

“First, settle down and simply be,” he says. Begin some meditation with three deep breaths and calmly start to notice everything around you – sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts. Second, focus on breathing. Close your eyes and focus on how your breath moves in and out.

“Third, let your thoughts wander. Your mind will wander away and back to your breathing, and this is expected. Simply let your thoughts come and go without disturbing your inner peace.”

Fourth, finish gently. If you have limited time, set a quiet, relaxing alarm to end your meditation session, which should last at least 10 minutes.

“When you are finished, take three deep breaths, slowly open your eyes, and regain your presence in the room,” he says.

Yoga and qigong teacher Fiona Patterson has a more physical take on taming stress, which she also blames for fitful sleep. Breathe deeply several times and, when you exhale, let your muscles relax – allow yourself to grow heavy and sink into your bed.

“Feel the weight of your head on your pillow,” Patterson says. Next, relax parts of your body. Begin at the toes, working through the legs and torso, down the arms to the fingers then shoulders – up to the neck, jaw and face.

Or imagine breathing in and out through the soles of your feet: the technique takes your mind as far away from your head as possible, she says.

Relaxation training has been around since the 1930s, when physician and psychiatrist Edmund Jacobson devised a process called “progressive muscle relaxation”. Recent neuroimaging studies have identified changes in the brain that occur during the practice of relaxation methods.

Our results suggest that insomnia is highly prevalent among Hong Kong Chinese adults and is associated with frequent use of alcohol, poor mental health and quality of life

These include meditation, chanting, yoga and breathing exercises, according to psychologist Catherine Pittman. Many of the methods apparently curb anxiety almost instantly.

Celtic sea salt, which is harvested from Atlantic seawater off the coast of Brittany, is additive-free. It contains more than 80 trace elements, according to personal trainer Kusha Karvandi, who lists several relaxation benefits.

The salt adds sodium to your bloodstream, which curbs your stress response.

It also raises your level of the hormone oxytocin, which keeps you calm and boosts your sense of well-being.

It helps combat adrenal fatigue, which depletes salt levels in the body.

And it saves you having to get up to urinate in the night.

So, 30 minutes before bed, take a teaspoon of Celtic sea salt in hot water and then, with luck, you will experience a deep, unbroken, restorative sleep.

If all else fails, just turn down the air conditioning. The typical recommendation is between 18 and 21 degrees Celsius. You could also use cooling accessories such as gel pillow pads or a climate-controlled mattress.

But forget about counting sheep in your head. According to Oxford University research, the ritual actually lengthens insomnia. Picturing scenarios such as a walk in the woods works better.