On average we spend almost a third of our lives snoozing; sleep is a natural process that is vital to our health and wellbeing. Our body and mind send us really strong cues that tell us it is time to shut down for the day and to begin to recharge. You only have to watch funny clips of toddlers falling asleep mid tantrum or nodding off and landing face first into their dinner, to be reminded how hard it is to fight the biological urge to sleep.
So, why is it that something which has such intense physiological power over us can at times be so difficult to achieve? It is estimated that over 25% of the U.K. population are experiencing sleep difficulties at any one time, with problems varying from actually falling asleep to waking several times during the night.
Stress along with modern lifestyles choices have a huge part to play, as do chronic health conditions. By making a few changes to your daily habits you can encourage your body to regain its healthy natural sleep pattern.
Daily Dose of Daylight
Reprogram your circadian body clock by getting a good amount of natural light during waking hours, this helps the hypothalamus to clearly distinguish between day and night and regulates the production of Melatonin (sleep hormone). Open the curtains as soon as you wake, and aim to have a regular morning or early lunchtime walk. You could also try a Dawn Simulator Alarm Clock, to help you to wake gently with the gradual increase in light. If you are indoors most of the day, try to sit by a window, if that is not possible it is worth investing in a SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) light box especially for the winter months to boost your exposure to full spectrum light.
Vitamin B Boost
B vitamins have a big part to play in regulating sleep. B3 (niacin) helps to us to achieve a full REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle, B6 helps the body to process and absorb Tryptophan (an amino acid that helps relaxation) and B12 aids in the production of Melatonin (the sleep hormone).
You can get B vitamins from your diet; B3 and B6 can be found in: chicken, peas, tuna, salmon, spinach, mushrooms, bananas, avocado and sweet potato. Sources of B12 include: Eggs, Mackerel, prawns, red meats and spirulina
You can also take a Vitamin B Complex supplement to ensure you are getting enough, this is especially important if you are a vegetarian or vegan. Check the label (you may have to read the ingredients list) to ensure the B12 is in the form of Methyl-Cobalamin as this is the best source for solving sleep problems. B vitamins should be taken earlier in the day with breakfast or lunch as they do have an initial energising effect on the body.
*check with your GP before using B vitamins if you have inflammation of the stomach or colon, gout or high blood pressure.
Stretch and Move
Exercise helps to remove built up tension and unspent energy that can be held as stress in the body. All forms of exercise are beneficial, the key is finding something you enjoy and can fit into your daily routine. It is best to work out during the day or early evening, if that is not possible then leave at least 2 hours between the end of your exercise session and your bedtime, as you can feel stimulated immediately after training.
Whatever type of daily activity you choose, try adding a session of yoga or tai-chi once a week. They have the added benefit of encouraging mindfulness and bring a focus to breathing, both of which are helpful stress management techniques.
Cut the Caffeine
I know a few people who can drink a double espresso half an hour before bed and then easily drift off to dreamland. However, they really are the exception, everyone has a different tolerance level to caffeine and for most of us avoiding caffeinated drinks (including tea and cola) after 3pm is a good way to ensure they are out of the system before bedtime. If you know you are sensitive then experiment with making the cut off point earlier in the day and notice if it helps your sleep.
Eat for Sleep
Tryptophan (a building block of protein) helps to release serotonin a ‘relaxing, feel good hormone’ that encourages sleep. To get the benefits of this amino acid, tryptophan rich foods need a mix of the essential nutrients: Iron, vitamin C, B6, Calcium and Magnesium and carbohydrates to carry it into the brain.
Good dinner time combinations would be: lean red meat, poultry, lentils or beans with green leafy or broccoli and new potatoes, sweet potato or squash.
Don’t go to bed hungry, waking in the night can be caused by blood sugar levels dropping. The following foods are great to include as part of your evening snack or desert:
Bananas and walnuts contain both tryptophan and B6.
Almonds and cashews are high in magnesium.
Oats are a natural sedative, great source of carbohydrate and contain magnesium.
Yoghurt and milk are both rich in calcium and tryptophan ( dairy and fortified soya)
Dried fruit is rich in iron and can help to carry tryptophan quickly into the brain due to its high levels of natural sugar.
Why not try: Bananas with yoghurt, almonds and dried fruit. Dates stuffed with walnuts. Oatcakes topped with nut butter and sliced banana or Pancakes made from mashed banana, 1 egg & oats fried and then drizzled with honey
Keep your snack or desert small and eat it at least an hour before bed, so that you feel comfortable and not boated.
Drink your Herbs
Herbal teas are a great way of using the potent properties of plants in a safe and easy way. Camomile, Valerian Root, Passionflower and Hops all promote restful sleep and can be bought as individual teas or as ‘night-time’ blends.
Lettuce contains lactucarium, which has sedative properties, if you don’t fancy munching your way with a dish of lettuce each evening; you can extract the beneficial properties by simmering 4 leaves in water and then either drinking the water or better still, using the water to make your herb tea.
Power of the Pen
Clients often tell me that they are not stressed during the day, yet they find their mind seems to turn on and begin to race just as they are about to fall asleep. This is not a cruel trick of the mind, although it can feel like one… we need space and relaxation to read the subtle cues of our feelings, and in our busy lives, often the first opportunity to be free from distractions is when we get into bed and close our eyes.
If you find that your mind becomes more active as you rest, try writing before you lie down to sleep. You can use free writing, where you just put the pen on the page and let yourself write. You are not attempting to write something that you can re-read and understand, the purpose is to release thoughts and feelings that might otherwise pop up as evening mind chatter. You can even rip the pages up afterwards if you find it symbolic of letting go.
You can also use writing if you feel overwhelmed at all the things you need to do in the near future, or have important things that you have to remember tomorrow. Simply making a list or rough notes, allows your mind to feel safe, and allows it to drift through thoughts and enter a dreamy sleep.
Relax with Aromatherapy
Essential oils are a wonderful way to help insomnia and support the relaxation response. You can add a few drops to an evening bath; mix them with a carrier oil (such as sweet almond oil) and use as massage oil on the body or you can put a few drops on your pillow or nightwear.
True Lavender, Jasmine, Roman Chamomile, Sweet Marjoram, Rose, Ylang Ylang and Valerian are all great choices – they can be used on their own or mixed to create your own sleep time blend.
*If you are pregnant do not use Rose or Jasmine oils and if you have any complications or are in the first trimester then seek advice from a qualified Aromatherapist before using oils.
Room for Relaxation
Creating the right environment is key to getting a good night’s sleep, keep your bedroom as a sacred space that is used for sleeping, resting, fictional reading and nocturnal activities i.e. loving! Don’t use your bedroom for intellectually tiring work, watching TV or using your laptop.
The area should be well ventilated, turn back the bed covers and open the window during the daytime. In the evening use a couple of layers on the bed (a quilt and a throw) so that you can easily regulate your body temperature during the night
Make the room as dark as you can for sleeping; try blackout blinds if you have street lights situated immediately outside of your room, cover bright clock faces and don’t use your phone or tablet in bed. If you can, avoid using your screen for an hour before bed, so that you don’t interfere with your body’s production of Melatonin.
Breathing patterns can dramatically change how we feel, the two best breathing techniques to bring a sense of calm and restfulness are: Diaphragmatic Breathing and the 4-7-8 breath.
To begin Diaphragmatic Breathing simply inhale through the nose and try to draw the breath all the way down into your abdomen, imagine that you are breathing into the space below your belly button and then exhale slowly through the nose, repeat the whole process 4-6 times. Of course you are not actually breathing into your belly, but by having this deep focus you are allowing the diaphragm to draw down meaning that the lungs have space to expand to their full capacity.
The 4-7-8 breath is said to be the sleeping breath, it is widely promoted by Dr Weil (Naturopath) to help reduce anxiety, stop cravings and to induce sleep. It takes a little more concentration to perform but is very effective. Begin by inhaling through the nose for a count of 4, hold the breath in for the count of 7 and then exhale through the mouth for a count of 8. Repeat 4-6 times.
Create your own Reality
If you experience a few nights of bad sleep, it is very easy to begin to feel anxious about being able to get enough rest and so a negative cycle begins.
This pattern usually involves the initial concern about whether tonight might be a bad night and how horrible it will be to be lying awake when you are feeling so desperately tired. People often look at the clock to check the time to see how long they have been awake for and calculate how much time they actually have left to sleep. Whilst this is a rational response, the impact on the body and mind is very stimulating and can actually prevent sleep.
You can counteract this by using self-hypnosis, begin by using one of the breathing techniques – and then move your awareness to each part of your body (either feet upwards or head down) and notice how heavy and relaxed they each feel. Remind yourself that this time you are spending relaxing is restoring your body and that sleep will happen easily and naturally in its own time. Don’t look at the clock, simply focus on your breathing and the feeling of relaxation.
If you struggle to do this yourself, you could download a relaxation or sleep hypnosis session or visit a Hypnotherapist who can make a bespoke recording for you.