Sleep is vital to our health and well being. Just like food and water, without it things can turn dire pretty quickly. While it may not feel like much is happening when our head hits the pillow, it's an important period of restoration and rejuvenation, where everything from our immune system, to our memory, to our concentration, to our energy levels, appears to be improved by it and impaired without it. It's also a great time for repair and maintenance work to be done on our cells, and basically give our body a whole lot of love and pampering after a (hard) day's work.
All this aside, a whole lot more appears to go on while we sleep, with countless theories as to why we really need it. While science is continuously researching, it's agreed we're simply not on our game when we don't get enough.
Insomnia's no ones friend. When I was younger I went through a long period of chronic insomnia, which is basically trouble falling or staying asleep. Periods of poor sleep are horrible - nothing can feel as lonely as 3am, lying in bed, beyond tired, but unable to switch off. My insomnia didn't last weeks or months, but rather years, and had consequences on my health - I was always getting sick and often felt on edge. I began identifying and labelling myself as a "bad" sleeper, which only amplified the problem - what we think, we become. Although now I sleep like a baby, it took a while for me to unravel why I was having issues. Remember sleep is a basic human function - if we're staying awake when we should be sleeping, there's reasons why.
Factors that can affect our sleep
There are many factors that may prevent us from getting a good night sleep - here are some common ones:
- Light. Our internal body clock treats light as a gauge as to whether it's time to sleep or be awake.
- Certain foods and drinks can affect the quality of our sleep. Sugar, caffeine (energy drinks, coffee, certain teas e.g. green or black tea...), cacao powder and alcohol are common culprits.
- Our sleep environment e.g. a noisy sleeping space (a ticking clock, a snoring partner, outside voices...), light in our room, the temperature (being too hot or too cold), the comfort of our bed, what we're wearing...
- Stress, anxiety and a busy mind.
- Some medical conditions or issues e.g. sleep apnea, or hot flushes during menopause.
- Jet lag and shift work.
- Naps during the day.
- Engaging in a stimulating activity before sleep e.g. a hard task, doing work close to bed time or in bed, an intensive TV show or a heated discussion.
- Using screens in bed or right before heading to bed.
- Exercise later in the evening. A double-edge sword. Restorative exercises may often help us to fall asleep (e.g. yoga), while vigorous exercise may make it more difficult.
- Hormones. Especially the release of melatonin or our stress hormones.
Worth a mention: the sleepy hormone
Hormones are chemical messengers within the body that have the ability to evoke physiological changes - they rule the roost! We've got all sorts of hormones to help us keep up with life demands, whether that be hunger hormones to tell us when we're full or hungry, reproductive hormones to guide our monthly cycle, and stress hormones, which are designed to help our body cope under pressure.
Melatonin is our sleep hormone - its role is to help us get to sleep and stay asleep. It works to a day-night cycle, with its production minimised by light, and amplified by darkness - when night time rolls round, the release of melatonin makes us feel relaxed, sleepy and ready for bed.
Until the invention of artificial light, and the wave of technology to follow, our ancestor would watch the sun go down, and either set up the fireplace or light a candle. Nowadays, our evenings are typically illuminated by artificial light, in particularly, the blue wavelength (commonly used as the backlight of mobiles and our computers). This type of light is stimulating during the day (natural morning sun is conveniently rich in blue light), and hugely disruptive to our melatonin release at night. While all light can suppress melatonin, blue light is the worst, and fantastic at tricking the brain it's still daytime.
To safe-guard melatonin release be really mindful of technology use before bed (especially mobiles and computers), as well as the TV, and even the colour of your light bulbs. In contrast, warm yellow light (like candlelight), is far less suppressive on melatonin production. There's great apps/in-built systems to switch the backlight on your phone or computer to a warmer dimmer light, so if you are needing to use technology closer to bed it won't be as disruptive.
Tips for getting better sleep
Now - the solutions! Here are my top tips for improving sleep:
1. Work with your physiology - increase sunlight exposure during the day, and minimise your exposure to blue light in the lead up to bed
The human body runs on a circadian rhythm (24 hour cycle), that lines up our sleep-wake cycle with day and night. Getting natural sunlight in the morning and throughout the day, as well as reducing our exposure to blue light in the eve, is hugely effective at helping our body keep to this cycle, and regulating the hormones that keep us awake and help us to sleep.
- Enjoy a little natural sunlight on your eyes and skin in the morning - you could eat breakfast on the porch, pop the washing out on the line, or try and squeeze in a short morning walk. During your lunch break at work go for a quick walk outside or eat lunch outdoors.
- In the eve, work on reducing blue light exposure to aid the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin - remember we want oodles of this before bed! If you really need to use technology then switch to a warmer dimmer light - I use the app f.lux on my Mac. Keep the phone out of your bedroom!
2. Nap with caution
Good for some, a win-now-lose-later situation for others. Our appetite for sleep has similarities to our appetite for food - if we're snacking too often during the day, we may upset our appetite at our main meals. Same with our sleep appetite when we go to bed at night. It may be worth persevering through the day, even if you're feeling really tired, to try and give yourself the best shot at a deep and restful sleep at night.
- Short power naps (30 minutes or less) may be beneficial, but anything longer may confuse your body clock.
3. Unwind before bed
Before bed we want to be winding down, not winding up. Too often we're doing work right before bed, or tackling a stimulating project late at night - I get it, sometimes there's not enough hours in the day! But it's important to set boundaries, as the stress/stimulating nature of the task may linger and interfere with our sleep. Alternatively, taking our phones to bed and aimlessly scroll through our social feeds as a way of unwinding is a no-no - aside from the blue-light, the nature of our newsfeed and bombardment of information/colour can be very stimulating.
- Carve out time before bed to relax, unwind, and signal to the body it's time to sleep - aim for an hour of dedicated unwinding time.
- Relaxing looks different to everyone - you could try having a bath, reading a good book, lighting some candles and doing some stretches, writing down any pesky thoughts you're having so you don't carry them to bed, or laying out your clothes for the next day.
- Set social media and technology boundaries. Commit to switching off by a certain time each eve.
4. Be mindful of food and drink intake
What we eat or drink can disrupt our sleep. A common culprit is caffeine, a stimulant found in coffee, tea, energy drinks or chocolate, which makes us feel alert. Caffeine can remain elevated in our blood for hours after consumption (6-8 hours), and so if we're enjoying it later in the day we may still feel its wiring effects at bedtime.
- If you have trouble with sleep skip the caffeinated drinks after midday, or switch to decaffeinated options. If you think your sleep issues may be linked to your caffeine intake try reducing your consumption (try just 1x a day, in the morning) or remove it altogether for a period and see if this helps.
- Sugar intake, particularly around bedtime (hello dessert!), can cause a spike in blood sugar levels and disrupt our sleep. Sweet foods/drinks containing cacao/cocoa e.g. chocolate or hot chocolates, also contain caffeine - eat/drink with caution at bedtime.
- Although alcohol has been reported to help some drift off to sleep, it disrupts REM/deep sleep, making us wake up during the night.
5. Up the magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral that's important in helping our body to physically relax, particularly our muscular system. Stress tends to gobble up our magnesium stores, making relaxing more difficult - and when we're tired, we tend to be more stressed, and so it can become a viscous cycle.
- Up your intake of magnesium-rich foods to help maintain good stores - dark green leafy veggies, nuts, seeds, fish, avocado, banana and fish are all great sources.
- Alternatively you may benefit from a magnesium supplement - quality is important here, so talk to a health professional for guidance.
6. Create a sleeping space that's supportive of a restful night.
It's easier to relax when we're feeling comfortable. Aim to keep the temperature in your room nice and cool, make sure the space is dark enough (invest in some good curtains or use an eye mask, remove artificial light sources e.g. alarm clocks), and try to minimise any potential sources of noises (ticking clocks) that might distract you from getting a good night sleep.
7. Tackle stress
Stress and insomnia are often best buds. Working towards managing stress whether through switching up our physical reality, priortising us more, or rewiring our mental landscape, is one of the most empowering things we can do for ourselves, and is a huge form of self-love. Stress can be so deliberating, in so many way.s If it's a problem for you, please explore this area.
- Say no more. If you're too tired, or your schedule is looking too packed, just say no.
- Do more things you love and make you, you! Read a book, go for a walk, have a bath or do some yoga. Never feel guilty for making time for you.
- Make sure you have outlets to talk to, whether family, friends or professional help.
- Spend less time online and on social media - not only can it be a huge time waster, but it can also drive a little anxiety. Put boundaries in place, especially later in the eve.
What if we're having one of those nights where we just really, really can't sleep? Here are some ideas that have helped me in the past:
- Turn on a dim light and read a favourite book to distract the mind and get it sleepy again.
- Get up and shift to a new sleeping spot (like a couch) and spend the night there. Sometimes a change in space can help.
- Deep, slow breaths - if you can focus on this, and I mean really commit in the moment, you may drift back to sleep without even realising. Slow, deep breaths relax our nervous system.
- Observe your thoughts, without judgement. This was a trick I was taught to counter insomnia, and I've found it pretty effective. When you're in bed trying to sleep, with some serious monkey chatter going on, practice just observing your thoughts rather then partaking in the commentary. You're mind will continue to jump, but thoughts will get more and more obscure, until eventually you've drifted off to sleep.
- If I'm feeling stressed and worried I ask myself a few important questions: "Is lying here stressing about this situation going to make it better?" - probably not. "Will it solve the issue" - no. Then, REALLY, what is the point in worrying? It can be hard, but sometimes we have to take control of our minds. I try to mentally bookmark whatever's going on, and promise myself to revisit it tomorrow. Sometimes pulling out a pad and pen and jotting down what's making me feel stressed can help.