Ok, hope this blog isn’t a total snooze-fest (no pun intended). But I was trying to think of a subject and realised I hadn’t talked about sleep at all, and given what a problem it is for so many people I thought it was high time. Most clients I see say they don’t sleep well, whether that’s trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up early and being unable to go back to sleep.
There are plenty of reasons why someone might struggle with sleep, and can often be part of more complex health issues (in which case you might be better off seeing a nutritional therapist for a one to one session) - and at the same time, life circumstances play a big role in how are sleep patterns go. But there are some basic things to make sure you are doing/not doing, that can help those with more mild sleep issues.
1) Timing is everything - get up half an hour earlier than you would usually wake up. This may not sound like much fun, but research shows that it is an effective strategy for helping establish better sleeping patterns. No matter how little sleep you’ve had, get up at your new waking time for the first few weeks. We have little control over when our body falls asleep, but we can control when we wake up, and by doing this you force your sleep cycles to change. I’ve done this one myself – it’s not that much fun, but definitely helped.
2) Sleep when you are sleepy - make sure you aren’t going to bed before you actually feel sleepy. Although it’s tempting to feel you “should” go to bed at a certain time, stay up until your body feels like it really does need to sleep. After a few days of getting up early and going to bed late you’ll find that you naturally begin to feel sleepier earlier in the evening.
3) If you are unable to get to sleep within 30 minutes to an hour then get up and do something calming or boring until you do feel sleepy.
4) No clock watching - although it’s tempting to clock watch through the night, this tends to reinforce anxiety and negative thoughts such as “now I only have 5 hours left before getting up for work”.
5) Try and keep to the above principles for getting up and going to sleep every day, including weekends and even holidays at first. The regular rhythm will give your body some consistency with which to work from.
6) No Napping - try and avoid taking any naps, even short ones, during the day. This helps make sure you are tired in the evening. If you cannot manage this then make sure it’s under an hour and is before 3pm.
7) Sleep rituals - develop your own ritual that reminds your body it’s time for bed, such as relaxing stretches or breathing exercises 15 minutes prior to going to bed. Or sit calmly with a small herbal tea (many brands do their own “Bedtime” tea).
8) Bathtime - having a hot bath 1-2 hours before going to bed has been shown to help. This is because it raises your body temperature, and then when your body temperature begins to drop again you start to feel sleepy. Research shows that drops in body temperature are associated with feeling sleepy.
9) Exercise - one obvious effect of exercise is that it makes you feel tired. It is best to exercise around 3 hours before going to bed, this gives the body time to metabolise the hormones that are released while you exercise. It also gives your body temperature time to cool down. As with evening baths, this drop in body temperature helps us fall asleep.
10) Avoid caffeine and nicotine - tea, coffee, caffeinated drinks, chocolate and some medications all contain caffeine. Both caffeine and nicotine act as stimulants, and therefore should be avoided 4-6 hours before going to bed. I realise this is an obvious one, but it’s surprising how many people ignore it then say they can’t sleep!
11) Avoid alcohol(sorry ☹ ) – it’s also best to avoid any alcohol 4-6 hours before sleeping as this too interrupts the quality of sleep. Although alcohol will initially make you feel sleepy, as it depresses the central nervous system, after a few hours a rebound effect occurs, making sleep difficult. In addition, it dehydrates the body, and people often find themselves waking up in the night with thirst.
12) The bed is for sleeping - ensure your body associates the bed with sleep, therefore avoid using it to watch TV, work on the computer and other things unrelated to a peaceful night’s sleep. Reading a book can be helpful for people.
13) Ensure the space and lighting is right. It is better to have a quiet comfortable bedroom that is warm and cosy, but with a little fresh air coming into the room throughout the night.
14) Lighting - always make sure the room is as dark as possible, or that you wear an eye mask. The reduction in light in the evenings triggers our brain to start producing the hormone melatonin. It is melatonin that tells our brain when it is time to sleep.
15) Electrical equipment - remove any sources of electromagnetic radiation from the bedroom. We are more sensitive to electromagnetic radiation during the night, due to its effect on the pineal gland which is what produces melatonin. Some people advocate removing as many sources of electromagnetism as possible, including TVs, mobiles, radios and computers. Even when turned off they still emit an electromagnetic frequency. There are also many pieces of equipment that can help screen electromagnetic rays, including mats, bed covers etc. Information on this is easily found online.
16) A quiet environment - make sure the room is as quiet as possible. This is not always easy when living in a city, so you may need to find some good ear plugs as well. Alternatively you can use CDs of natural sounds, such as waves or forest noises.
17) Allergy prone - some allergy prone people may have a slight reaction to the bed linen detergent. This may not be enough to cause actual discomfort, but might be a factor in waking in the night. If this is the case then try alternate washing detergents.
18) Don’t eat heavy meals too late - digestion is an active process, and if the body is still trying to digest a heavy meal when you go to bed this can be uncomfortable and interfere with sleeping. It is best to leave at least 3 hours before going to bed if you’ve had a heavy meal.
19) Avoid foods that contain high levels of processed carbohydrates and simple sugars, such as biscuits, sweets, sugary yoghurts etc. The sugar is easily released and causes the body to be stimulated. However, it is also important not to have too low blood sugar levels, as this also stimulate the body through the release of stress hormones and make it difficult to sleep. The ideal is to have an evening meal that contains some form of complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potato, legumes, oats, broccoli, aubergines, greens and various fruits such as apricots, plums and prunes. This allows a slow steady release of glucose to the brain and central nervous system. Then make sure you have a small snack before bed, such as a couple of oat cakes and a little hummus.
20) The role of tryptophan - tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein rich foods such as almond milk, soybeans, sesame and sunflower seeds, turkey, chicken and bananas. Tryptophan is converted into serotonin, and then eventually into the sleep inducing hormone melatonin. If eating tryptophan foods in the evening, eat them with complex carbohydrates as this causes a release of insulin into the blood stream that causes the removal of other amino acids that would usually compete with tryptophan, allowing more to enter the brain and enable us to feel sleepy. Interestingly, some people find that eating 2 kiwi fruit 30 minutes before going to bed can help with falling asleep. This is because kiwi fruit contain a high level of melatonin itself.
21) Eat a diet rich in zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 - these nutrients are involved in how our bodies make important neurotransmitters that enable our nervous system to relax. When our nervous system is on “go” it is very difficult to sleep properly. Foods to have in your daily meals that contain these nutrients include: green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, avocados, bananas, apricots, figs, prunes, oranges, sunflower and sesame seeds, walnuts, almonds, cashews, brazils, pumpkin seeds, lentils, black eye beans, navy beans, brown rice, rye and oats.
22) The overactive mind - many people lie awake for hours with their minds racing and filled with worries. One way to help reduce this is to use a meditation CD designed specifically to help you fall asleep. They help keep your mind away from worrying and provide a relaxing background noise that can be soothing. Also try keeping a pad of paper and pen beside the bed, this way if you think of something you need to remember to do/sort out, you can write it down and the forget about it till the next morning. I sometimes forget to put mine out, so if I think of something but can’t be bothered to get up and don’t want to forget, I chuck a pillow into an odd part of the room so that in the morning I’ll think “why on earth is that there??”.
23) Keep daytime routine - even if you’ve had a bad night, it is important to get up and try and keep to your planned daytime activities. Avoiding activities and lying in can reinforce the problem.
24) Use a sleep diary - many people, particularly women it seems, often feel they have had less sleep than they actually have. Keeping a record can help some people get things in perspective and may then reduce the anxiety and fear they have about lack of sleep. However, this is a short-term measure only as it involves clock watching. Therefore only use for two weeks at the start just to get an idea.
25) Herbal remedies - valerian tea is well known for its sedative effects. A cup of tea 30 minutes before going to sleep, or a few drops of valerian extract in some water can help with improving sleep quality. Also , white chestnut, the flower remedy, can be helpful in inducing sleep, particularly in those with overactive and racing minds. The one I use, and have seen it work with plenty of people, is Dormeasan by A Vogel. There are plenty of options out there, but check this one out if you aren’t sure what to go for. However, if you are pregnant, breast feeding, want to get pregnant then herbs aren't recommended. Also, if you are on medications, you need to check first if you can take this.
Lastly - sorry I realise this is a long blog. Having suffered from restless legs, and knowing quite a few people who do, I know this can be a nightmare when it comes to sleeping. I'm going to do a blog on a trial run I'm doing which will hopefully sort the restless legs out! So if anyone else has this issue, they can also try this method and see if it works for them.
Ok guys, I hope there are a couple of things in there that help. Have a good week.