Good sleep is vital for our long term health and wellbeing and yet it is something that most of us have struggled with at some point in our lives. In particular, many of us are struggling to sleep well at the moment because of heightened stress levels, difficulty transitioning into working from home and too little time to ourselves to unwind regularly.
Once poor sleep habits have started, it can be a vicious cycle with lack of sleep creating more stress as we struggle to function optimally and start to experience some of the negative impacts on our health and mood.
Long term lack of sleep or poor sleep can have serious effects on our mental and physical health ranging from impairing our concentration levels, memory and decision making skills to increasing our risk of anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart problems, some cancers, hypertension and stroke.
Fortunately, there are many simple ways in which we can support ourselves back to better sleep patterns and interrupt the cycle of stress and poor sleep.
Here are just a few areas to consider:
* Stimulants: try cutting down on obvious stimulants in the day such as coffee, fizzy drinks, sugar, and both black and green tea. At night the stimulating effects of alcohol, dark chocolate and some cold and cough medicines, can slip in under the radar. Although drinking alcohol may help us to fall sleep more easily, overall it has a stimulating effect on our system and alcohol consumption will often lead to poor sleep quality and periods of wakefulness later in the night.
Our sensitivity to stimulants can change with age, stress levels and other factors, it can be useful to keep a sleep and food diary for a few weeks whilst you experiment with when, and what, stimulants you consume and the impact this has on your sleep.
* Exercise: strenuous exercise in the morning or daytime can improve sleep quality, whereas the same type of exercise in the evening will often adversely affect sleep through its stimulating effect on our metabolism. Gentle and calming exercise such as yoga or pilates is a great way to unwind in the evening especially if you suffer from sleep affecting conditions such as restless leg syndrome. Any new daytime exercise regime can take 2-3 weeks to fully impact our sleep patterns so don’t lose hope too quickly.
* Bedroom environment: we generally sleep better in a cool environment whilst ensuring we are warm and as comfortable as possible in bed. In particular, keeping our feet warm enough helps us to sleep well. Maintaining our bedrooms as a place purely for sleeping and relaxing helps create positive and calming associations for our brains.
* When and what to eat: try to eat at least 3 hours before going to sleep and ensure that you have a healthy mix of protein, ‘good’ fats and fibre at dinner. Depending on your metabolism, you may find that a drop in blood sugar levels in the night can contribute to wakefulness. If this is the case, try having a small snack just before bed such as peanut butter on oat cakes, or a banana and warm milk.
* Light levels: as our sleep hormones are partly controlled by light levels in our environment, it can help to ensure 20 minutes or more of daylight and fresh air first thing in the morning. At night the blue coloured light emitted from TV’s, laptops and phones mimics daylight to our brains – many devices have a night mode setting which changes the hue to an orange colour to signal the end of the day to our body’s light sensors. Ideally we should keep our bedrooms completely dark for sleeping, including turning all electronic equipment fully off. Eye masks can help to reduce light levels entering our body if black out curtains are not practical.
* Reducing stress: Meditation is a great way to train our bodies and minds to access the calm ‘rest and digest’ state more quickly and easily, even in the face of long term stress. Just 15-20 minutes of meditation per day can have other health benefits in addition to reducing stress such as boosting our immune response, reducing anxiety and depression, aiding memory and concentration and reducing blood pressure. I have recently experienced great success for myself, and my students, by practising sleep targeted yoga nidra.
Find what works best for you to reduce your stress levels it may be exercising, a creative outlet, talking to friends, spending time with a pet, gardening, using calming aromatherapy oils or journalling. Once you have identified what helps you to relax, prioritise regular time for it in your schedule and gain all the benefits that releasing stress brings.
* Vitamin/Mineral deficiencies: Some nutritional deficiencies, for example, low iron levels can adversely affect sleep. Food intolerances, stress, diet, illness and stage of life can all impact our levels of vitamin and minerals. If you continue to have problems with sleep that don’t respond to positive lifestyle changes, and you find you are tired all the time, you can ask your doctor for a blood test to check vitamin and mineral levels.
* Understanding natural sleep patterns and discovering our personal, optimal sleep times: Stress about not sleeping can occur because we hold up the ‘8 straight hours’ goal that is often alluded to. It may be that we feel we are not sleeping well when in fact our night time waking is a natural part of our sleep cycle and only becomes an issue because of unrealistic expectations and stress at waking.
It can be useful, perhaps during a holiday period, to create good conditions for sleep and see how long you naturally sleep for without setting an alarm. Finding your optimum sleep pattern, including allowing for short periods of wakefulness without stress can help to break the sleep-stress cycle.
Happily, there are many easy ways in which you can improve your sleep, just a few of which are covered here. For more help, you may wish to speak to your GP, or sign up for Orenda Wellbeing’s upcoming “Better Sleep” Yoga Nidra (meditation) course with specially designed guided sleep meditations plus personally tailored strategies and tips. Book your place here http://events Or email us for a private, targeted programme of aromatherapy, yoga and meditation for sleep.