Not getting enough shut-eye?  You are not alone! Sleep problems are the scourge of our times and the current pandemic certainly doesn’t make things any easier.

Millions of us have issues with sleep which can have a damaging effect on our energy levels, concentration, memory, immunity, libido and skin health. Not only that, research suggests that if left untreated, long term insomnia may increase the risk of diabetes, some cancers and Alzheimer’s. Sleep is closely linked to our mental health and was chosen as the theme of the 2020 Mental Health Awareness week.

Factors such as worry, anxiety, use of mobile phones and tablets late at night, as well as caffeine and alcohol consumption can all take their toll on our sleep.  During the pandemic lock downs you may also find that if you are doing less physical activity through the day, you simply don’t feel tired enough to get to sleep at night.  In turn, less sleep or poor quality sleep can affect your emotions and make you feel less able to cope during the day.

As we spend about one third of our lives asleep, it’s important to get it right!  But don’t worry- deep restorative sleep is within your grasp, if you take the time to develop good practices.

Sleep Cycles

There are two types of sleep, non-rapid eye movement (N REM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.   REM sleep is lighter and dream-filled and stimulates the areas of the brain that help with learning, whereas non-REM sleep is deeper and more restorative.   Non-REM sleep is itself divided into 4 stages which become progressively deeper and represent about 75 to 80 percent of the total time spent asleep, whilst REM sleep constitutes the remaining 20 to 25 percent.   

Circadian rhythm

Circadian rhythms are not something you might come across in a dance class, but refer to the daily rhythms in our physiology and behaviour. They control the sleep-wake cycle, as well as modulating physical activity and food consumption and are controlled by the hormone melatonin. The body naturally produces melatonin during the evening in response to fading light, which instructs parts of the brain to swing in to action to begin to make you feel sleepy. Light inhibits melatonin production so as the sun comes up you feel awake and ready for the day again. Unfortunately many of us are out of synch with our body clock.

The best way to set your circadian rhythm is by rising and going to bed at the same time each day.

Getting plenty of daylight also helps your sleep/wake cycle, promoting good sleep. Additionally, daylight  stimulates serotonin production making us feel happy and relaxed.  According to research, the most beneficial period for sleeping seems to be between 8pm and midnight, but the night owls amongst us may find it difficult to go to bed before 10pm.   One thing we should do however, is take notice of what our body is telling us and go to sleep when we realise we are sleepy, rather than trying to over-ride nature by forcing ourselves to stay up. 

Top 12 tips to encourage restful sleep:

  • get into the routine of going to bed and getting up in the morning at the same time each day
  • get at least 30 minutes exercise a day but avoid exercising too late in the evening
  • try to get at least one hour’s natural sunlight each day (and in the winter months, as much as is possible)
  • stay away from caffeinated drinks such as tea and coffee later in the day as these act as stimulants, making you more alert and less likely to drop off – setting a cut off point may help – try for at least six hours before bed.
  • avoid alcohol as much as possible as it disrupts normal sleep patterns.  Although alcohol acts as a sedative, helping you to drop off easily, it actually results in more fragmented and shallower sleep.
  • avoid large meals late at night as they keep the body busy, breaking down and absorbing nutrients long into the time when it really should be resting and repairing
  • simple meditation or yoga practised an hour or so before bed can work wonders! Or try listening to a guided meditation to help you drop off…...
  • to help you relax (and a great exercise to help you get back off to sleep if you do find yourself awake in the night) is to clench and release each of your muscles 2 or 3 times from the toes up.  You can also try breathing techniques  - count to 3 on the in-breath, hold the breath for 5 seconds and count to 6 on the out-breath.  Repeat several times for instant calm.
  • avoid anything that keeps your mind busy before bed. Studies have shown that electronic devices such as a PC or mobile phone emit a “blue” light that tricks the brain into thinking that it is daytime, so avoid using these in the evening.  More than any other type of light, blue light has been found to suppress the hormone, melatonin.
  • adopt a relaxing and calming routine at night before bed – drink chamomile tea, use lavender on the pillow, make sure the bedroom is not too hot or cold and that it is completely dark.
  • low blood glucose levels late at night may interrupt sleep. A drop in blood sugar levels causes the release of hormones that regulate glucose levels, such as adrenaline and cortisol that stimulate the brain. To avoid blood sugar drops, have a small snack an hour or so before bed.  A mix of protein and carbohydrate is ideal – so try some wholegrain cereal with milk, peanut butter on wholemeal toast, or cottage cheese on oat-cakes to help keep you sound asleep all night.
  • limit your fluid intake in the last couple of hours before bedtime

Helping hands:

  • Magnesium has many health benefits and plays an important role in over 300 reactions in the body - it is vital for us all! Muscle cramps, restless legs and eye twitches are signs of low magnesium, as is trouble sleeping and anxiety.  It is perfect for natural calm as it supports normal psychological and nervous system function.  To ensure you are obtaining adequate magnesium, top up your leafy greens and whole-grains and consider taking a supplement with your evening meal to help you wind down.
  • Herbs such as wild cherry, chamomile, hops, lavender and passionflower are renowned for their calming properties and are often taken to promote a more restful disposition.

  • L-theanine - when life gets hectic, a soothing cuppa is often the answer!  Despite its caffeine content tea can exert a wonderfully relaxing effect and it is believed this may be due to the theanine. This is an amino acid naturally found in both green and black tea as well as some types of mushrooms and is used to help cope with hectic lifestyles. Theanine can be taken about an hour before bed.
  • Ashwaghanda and rhodiola – if you are suffering with tiredness, fatigue and poor mental performance, these two herbs, popular in Ayurvedic Eastern traditions may be just the tonic you need.
  • 5-HTP is an amino acid and building block for the body’s neurotransmitters involved in mood, appetite and sleep patterns.  Try supplementing 5-HTP about half an hour before bed with a small carbohydrate snack to aid absorption.
  • Valerian – a traditional herb used for relief of sleep disturbances due to symptoms of mild anxiety. This pungent smelling herb has long been used to promote a good night’s sleep. It can reduce the amount of time taken to fall asleep and encourage better quality sleep.

………...and remember - sometimes even with the best will in the world our circumstances are such that getting seven to eight solid hours of sleep is impossible. The important thing to remember is to try to accept that this is the case rather than fight it.  Remember you are still resting your body which is beneficial.  If you find yourself awake for long stretches try getting up and reading a book, practising a spot of yoga or drinking a cup of chamomile tea – these are all better than lying in bed tossing and turning for ages. Just remember to keep the lighting level low!

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