One of the things I spend a lot of time coaching health and nutrition clients on is sleep. My clients are often surprised by who much I talk about sleep but, we can often downplay its contribution to our overall health as we chase more time, to be able to do more things.
Many of us, particularly in our 24-hour, go-go-go western culture are going through a cycle of late nights, little or poor quality sleep, early mornings and packed days. We turn to energy drinks, caffeine and sugar to keep it all going and may opt for things like alcohol, self or over the counter medication, and mind-numbing TV to switch off. It’s not a strong or sustainable recipe for long-term health and wellness.
Most people know that they should get anywhere from seven to nine hours sleep a night. When it comes to it, it is about time spent and about eight hours is ideal, but sleep is also about quality.
During sleep, the body goes through five different stages of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep and each of the five stages will be repeated four or six times. If we aren’t going through these stages and cycles of sleep we’ll more than likely to wake up feeling tired, unfocused, lethargic and groggy; possibly with one hell of a mood to match!
One of the best ways to support our bodies to sleep well is to prepare for it. Here are a few tips to getting a good night’s sleep.
- Get out during the day
Sleep is triggered by hormonal changes that signal when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. Studies have shown that 30 minutes of sun exposure during the day, particularly in the morning can support a good night’s sleep by stimulating the release of hormones that are linked to daylight and the lack of daylight at sunset. For people who have insomnia, or consistent trouble sleeping, increasing sun exposure to an hour a day could be more helpful.
- Stick to a sleep schedule
Aim to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. We are creatures of habit and benefit from routine. Unfortunately, sleeping later another day such as the weekend doesn’t truly make up for what was missed.
- Get Physical
Physical activity is a great promoter of sleep and many people who exercise regularly can attest to that. While exercise has it’s obvious benefits it’s best avoided in the two or three hours leading up to bedtime. Try swapping your vigorous cardio routine for something more relaxing like light yoga and stretching and leave the cardio to earlier in the day.
- Avoid stimulants
Stimulants like coffee, chocolate and green tea, all of which contain caffeine should be avoided after 3pm. As caffeine tends to heighten alertness and can take up to eight hours to leave our system, we want to avoid it as we head towards the late afternoon and evening. Nicotine also acts as a stimulant and encourages a lighter sleep rather than the deep sleep needed at some stages of the sleep cycle.
- Feeding Time
Avoid eating a heavy meal two to three hours before bed. Sleep is a time for rest and repair for the body and organising of the mind. We don’t want to expend valuable energy during sleep breaking down and digesting a heavy meal rather than healing our bodies and sorting our minds. Eating close to bedtime too can disrupt digestion, leading to indigestion which can impair sleep. Similarly, drinking a lot before bed means that you’re more likely to wake up during the night to use the bathroom. Depending on the journey to the loo and the amount of light you’ll be exposed to this can be highly disruptive.
- Cat Naps
Although naps are helpful and there is evidence to show that it’s beneficial to overall sleep, think Mediterraen siestas, avoid napping after 3pm as this can make it harder to get to sleep at night.
Do something relaxing in the lead up to bedtime like reading, listening to calming music, having a cup of relaxing herbal tea, taking a bath or shower. Swap bright overhead lights for lamps and candles too can set the scene. Journaling or writing a short to do list before bed can be helpful if it helps you get things off of your mind and increases your sense of relaxation. Adopting a slower, more relaxed pace with dimmer lighting will stimulate those sleep hormones and signal to your body that it is indeed sleepy time.
- Sleep Settings
Sleep in a cool, dark, preferably quiet, space. Having said that, I know of some people who prefer a little background noise and constant ambient sound such as white noise has been shown to help people who have trouble sleeping. Avoid having distractions in the bedroom like TVs, computers and tablets as the blue lights emitted screens, including mobile phone screens can be disruptive to sleep by stimulating the more wakeful hormone. Using an app like F.lux on your laptop or dimming the light on your phone are also helpful when it comes to bright and blue lights in the evening. Avoiding these about one to two hours before bed is ideal.
- Don’t Lie Awake
If you can’t sleep for more than 20 minutes during the night, avoid lying in bed and listening to the clock or just staring at the ceiling as this could make you more frustrated, anxious and stressed, not a good sleep combination. Instead do something that will make you sleepy again. Some of my tricks include reading and listening to calming sleep stories on apps like Calm and Insight Tracker.
- Get Help
If all else fails and you need support, speak to your doctor or a health professional. They might be able to offer helpful tips based on your personal circumstances. Stress, anxiety, depression and other issues weighing on our minds can play a big role in how much quality sleep we get. Where you can, avoid taking sleeping pills as long-term use can cause a reliance and are focused on solving the immediate problem rather than the root cause. You might want to research natural herbs like ashwagandha, valerian root and chamomile as well as lavender essential oil and magnesium salt or Epsom salt baths, all of which promote relaxation. You should consult a health professional before taking any herbs or supplements, particularly if you are taking medication.
Sleep is one of the pillars of wellness and despite the old adage “sleep when you’re dead,” sleep may just be one of the most important keys to life.
Claudine Thornhill, is the owner of Claudine. J. Thornhill Nutrition. She is a Nutritional Therapist and Health Coach who helps her clients feel better, be better and do better by focusing on increasing balance in their bodies and lives. You can find her at www.claudinethornhill.com, Facebook and Instagram.
References: Walker, M. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Penguin (2017) Chatterjee, R. The Stress Solution, 4 Steps to a Calmer, Happier, Healthier You. Penguin (2018)