If you find it difficult to get a decent night’s sleep, you’re not alone. Around 51% of the UK have problems sleeping, and over half of American citizens too – with about 10% having fully diagnosed insomnia.
It was Warren Zevon who said ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, (after doing some research in to his health, I wouldn’t follow that advice….) but no matter how busy we are, there is no underestimating the importance of sleep to our health and wellbeing.
Our sleep cycle not only effects our mood, how much we retain of what we learn, our sex drive, and weight – but can also lend itself to much more serious health problems if we’re not getting enough…..
When you sleep, your body goes in to ‘repair mode’ and any damage caused during the day is restored with a good night’s sleep. The cells repair themselves and the hormones and immune system work differently when we’re asleep. Getting enough rest at night ensures our immune system stays strong and we’re less susceptible to both common and serious illnesses.
Not getting enough sleep obviously makes us feel worse off in the day time, meaning we make bad decisions for our health – grabbing the nearest sugary snack in the hope of a quick energy buzz, not going out in the fresh air because we’re ‘too tired’ and becoming irritable. This develops in to a vicious cycle until we eventually make ourselves very ill.
So, how can we help ourselves to get a better night’s sleep?
Can’t get comfy?: Sleep with a pillow underneath your knees if you lie on your back – this helps the spine and hips to remain in healthier alignment and helps the back muscles to relax. If you sleep on your side, place the pillow between your knees.
Breathe deep: Taking long, slow and deep breaths helps the nervous system to relax and the parasympathetic nervous system to set in. Lengthening your exhales allows for even deeper relaxation and should be a big help if anxiety is stopping you from sleeping.
Get moving: Research has linked regular exercise not only to better health, but to better sleep too. If you suffer from insomnia or are restless when it comes to bed time, consider doing something active in your day that you enjoy. (Enjoying the way you exercise is especially important!)
Turn it off: You’ve probably heard this before; turn your electronics off an hour before you go to sleep! Not only does the stress of social networking cause our nervous system to work overtime (plus, studies show that those who use social networking sites more often, suffered from much lower mood levels), but the blue light particles emitted from the screens suppresses the secretion of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the body’s circadian rhythms (the sleep-wake cycle).
Turn it on: If you find it very difficult to sleep in silence, playing some relaxing music (classical often works best) helps to calm the mind and body.
Get in to a routine: By going to bed and getting up and the same time each day, we train our bodies to recognise when it’s time to sleep and when its time get up. This not only makes getting to sleep and getting up in the mornings easier; but we feel more awake and alert during the day because the body knows its time to be awake!
Get outside: The morning is when the most blue light particles are emitted, and this is the best time to get outside and breathe in some fresh air. If we allow our eyes to absorb these blue light particles in the morning, our circadian rhythms work well and our levels of melatonin drop so we’re more refreshed and awake during the day.
Listen to the rhythm: It is important to understand and learn our bodies’ circadian rhythms. These rhythms effect our sleep cycle – governed by our internal body clock, which organises the production of the hormone melatonin that makes us sleepy.
Recognise when you are most awake and when you’re most tired throughout the day and start to live by these natural rhythms. If you’re tired at 10:30, then sleep – if you’re more of a morning person, then make the effort to get up early and you’ll feel a lot better off! (plus, you’ll get lots more done throughout the day). These rhythms work along side nature; as the sun sets, naturally we’d begin to feel tired, and as it rises we should feel awake and active (well, most of us should….). Try adapting to the cycles of nature and see how it affects your wellbeing the next day.
Bed time snacks: While it isn’t advisable at all to eat a large meal right before you sleep (your body needs to use sleeping time to re-build damaged cells and generate new energy for the next day, instead of digesting food) the body does need to keep working throughout the night while you’re asleep, and knowing which foods are most beneficial to help you sleep can be handy:
Kiwis have been shown to be particularly helpful towards not only getting to sleep faster, but staying asleep for longer and with better quality sleep! They contain high levels of vitamin C, which works as an antioxidant and helps to repair cells and boost the immune system. Kiwis also contain high levels of serotonin, which is a powerful neurotransmitter and mood booster! Serotonin also interacts with melatonin, helping to initiate sleep onset and aids in maintaining sleep throughout the night.
Tryptophan is a natural sleep inducer, and is the precursor to serotonin. Eating something containing tryptophan before bed is likely to help improve your night’s sleep. Try: soy milk, chickpeas, lentils nuts and seeds. (probably not all at once though….)
Foods containing higher levels of melatonin include cherries, grapes, walnuts.
A warm drink can be comforting at night, and if you have any of these products, try warm almond milk mixed with fresh lavender, cinnamon, cardamom and a little honey before bed.
Contrastingly, foods that actually cause insomnia include: alcohol (if you’re drinking, try not to continue drinking right before you sleep!), spicy foods, sugar (you’re likely to wake up craving more sugar if you eat it right before bed, plus refined white sugar has so many detrimental health effects that it is worth looking in to), and chocolate (because it contains stimulants). Obviously, caffeine is on the list too! So next time you’re planning on heading out for a spicy curry and a few drinks, followed by a midnight snack of chocolate on the way home; do whatever you feel is best – but just be mindful that you’re probably not going to get the best night’s sleep ever….
Scents: We probably all know about lavender’s relaxing qualities; it helps to reduce anxiety and aids greatly in relaxing the nervous system. Jasmine though, might have beaten lavender to it when it comes to which is better before bed time though. Studies have shown jasmine to not only aid in getting to sleep, but improving the length and quality of sleep too.
Yoga: While a lot of people have reported sleeping better since they started practicing yoga, knowing what sort of movements to do in the evening can make a big difference to your sleep cycles and health. While a lot of us opt for a dynamic class in the evening, it may reduce our ability to calm down if we’re practicing too late in to the night. Before bed, take some gentle seated twists, viparita karani or legs up the wall pose, and supta baddha konasana. These poses will help to first neutralise, and then deeply relax the body and mind.
Relaxation Response: This technique of tensing and relaxing muscles has been noted as having helped those suffering with chronic pain, serious illness and insomnia. To train your body to recognise the difference between feeling tense and feeling relaxed; begin by squeezing the feet and then consciously relaxing them, then move upwards through the body, tensing and relaxing muscles along the way. This action of tension encourages a deeper relaxation to occur when you let go, so give it a try next time you’re feeling too tense and uptight to sleep.
Tea Time: Well known blends such as chamomile, rooibos, jasmine and valerian root are known to help facilitate a sense of calm with their anti-anxiety properties and ability to initiate a sense of sleepiness, so consider sipping one of these teas before you go to bed.
Give any of these tips a go and see what works for you. Hopefully you’ll be getting a great night’s sleep and feeling good in no time!
‘Sleep is the best meditation’
– Dalai Lama