I’ve been through patches in my life when I haven’t slept well and I know that when you can’t sleep it affects you physically, mentally and emotionally. Apart from the obvious tiredness, irritability and poor concentration that we all know about did you know that it also affects your physical health? Lack of sleep increases inflammation throughout the body, worsening symptoms that may already be present and possibly causing new ones. Sleep is also the time our bodies heal so without it our organs and tissues are not functioning at their best, our immune system is not firing on all cylinders and toxins are not being processed efficiently through the liver. Lack of sleep can also contribute to weight gain as our adrenal glands are not resting properly causing higher cortisol the next day which can induce sugar cravings. We also crave carbs and sugar as a way to get instant energy when we are tired.
So what can we do about it?
Firstly we need to ensure we follow good “Sleep Hygiene Habits” which includes:
- Make your bedroom a restful place – not too much clutter or noise or distractions.
- Keep the bed for sleep or intimacy only and don’t fall into habits of watching TV or working on a laptop in bed.
- Keep the bedroom dark and cool. Blockout curtains, soft lighting, fans in summer and avoiding heavy hot doonas can all help to make it an environment better for sleep.
- Don’t have any caffeine after 4pm which includes coffee, black tea, green tea, chocolate, energy drinks and soft drinks.
- Limit sugar intake after dinner as sugar stimulates the body and can disrupt sleep.
- Don’t eat too late, preferably at least 3 hours before bed.
- Avoid highly processed food, spicy food or foods you know give you indigestion as having a stomach upset will disrupt sleep.
- Limit alcohol intake as although alcohol may help you to fall asleep faster, it can cause more disrupted sleep during the night while your body is processing the alcohol.
- Avoid nicotine or medications that may be stimulating (eg cold & flu medications).
- Turn off all screens for at least 1 hour before bed, preferably longer if possible. The light shining into your eyes from a screen tricks the brain into thinking it’s still daylight and this wakes the brain up and stops it producing melatonin, our natural sleep hormone.
- Exposure to daylight during the day, especially in the morning, can help reset your natural sleep/wake cycle and encourage your melatonin production.
- Keep the lights in the house dim and in the yellow light spectrum after dinner, eg use a lamp instead of a brighter overhead light.
- Exercising in the morning or afternoon can help you to sleep that night, however don’t exercise too late in the day (eg after dinner) as this causes stimulating hormones to be released which can delay sleep.
- Having a shower or bath 30mins before bed can raise the body temperature and then as it drops it signals the brain that it’s time to sleep.
- Don’t watch scary or stimulating programmes or content after dinner.
- Limit daytime naps to a 20 to 30 minute power nap and not too late in the day.
- Get up at the same time every day and limit sleeping in to no more than 1 day per week.
- Don’t ignore tiredness – go to bed if you are feeling tired in the evening. If you push through it you will get more cortisol and other stress hormones released causing a “second wind” and then may not get to sleep for another few hours.
- Conversely if you don’t feel at all tired, try sitting up in a chair or lounge reading (no screens) until you feel tired. Going to bed and lying awake can reinforce wakefulness.
- Relaxation exercises, stretches or meditation before bed can induce a state of calm and drowsiness.
Following these suggestions should work for most people, however if you are still not sleeping you may need additional support. Many people are deficient in Magnesium and taking this mineral alone helps many people to sleep better (but make sure it’s the right form of magnesium and not the one which causes diarrhoea). There are also many calming herbs such as Passionflower, Zizyphus, Skullcap or California Poppy that help to relax an overactive nervous system, and Bach Flowers such as White Chestnut that help to quiet an overactive mind. Balancing thyroid, hormones, and the adrenals, as well as supporting liver function might also be needed to ensure optimal sleep.
If we sleep well then everything else in our life and in our body runs more efficiently, we have more energy, can think more clearly and enjoy everything we do more.
If sleep is an issue for you then perhaps it’s time to get some help.