I consider myself to be something of a sleep expert, not because I’m a Health Coach but because I have struggled with sleep all my adult life. I have experienced first-hand how it impacts health and over the years I’ve tried pretty much every new trick to improve my sleep.
We all know that sleep is important for our health and I expect you’ve all experienced the feeling of being slow and irritable following a bad night’s sleep. Sleep impacts our health in so many ways. It affects our concentration and productivity; our immune system; our weight and our risk of developing a chronic lifestyle disease such as Type 2 Diabetes; our mood and mental health; our emotions and ability to interact with others.
So, what can we do to support our sleep? For most people it is trial and error until they find what works for them. At the end I will discuss supplements and tests which may be of use.
1. Stick to a sleep routine.
Our bodies like routine. Try to go to bed and get up in the morning at the same time every day. We all have an internal body clock known as a circadian rhythm and it responds to day light. Our internal body clock is the reason we suffer from jet lag because it takes a few days generally for our circadian rhythm to adjust.
2. Get outside in the morning and dim the lights in the evening.
. As mentioned, our circadian rhythms respond to day light. We are designed to rise at dawn and go to sleep when it gets dark. A hormone called melatonin is released as gets dark helping us to feel sleepy. Artificial light in the evening interferes with this system.
3. Lose the technology.
As well as dimming the lights, put away your technology at least an hour before you go to bed ideally 2-3 hours. Staring at screens impacts the quality of sleep. If you must watch Netflix, scroll Instagram or go on a Zoom call then wear blue light blocking glasses. The other downside of Instagram scrolling is that the brain is getting a dopamine fix – “did my last post get any likes”; “where is she on holiday”; “oh look, more notifications” etc etc Dopamine puts you in a wide awake state, which is completely the opposite where you don’t want to be. Try instead to spend the hour before you go to bed reading, having a hot bath, doing some gentle stretching, listening to some calming music.
4.Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugary snacks in the evenings.
Matthew Walker who wrote “Why We Sleep” says that even if we don’t think we are impacted by the caffeine we consume after noon, it will undoubtedly affect the quality of sleep. It is true that some of us clear caffeine out of systems more quickly than others so maybe they can get away with an early evening coffee but most us are better off stopping our caffeine intake at around 12pm. And remember that caffeine is found in chocolate and some teas as well as coffee.
Sugar raises your blood sugar so if you eat it before you go to bed it is likely that you will fall asleep but wake up in the small hours as your blood sugar levels dip. If you need a snack before bed stick to something savouring such as an oatcake with some nut butter or a handful of nuts.
Without a doubt alcohol impacts our sleep length and quality. For a start alcohol contains sugar which we know impacts our sleep. As Matthew Walker says, alcohol fragments our sleep, littering our night with brief awakenings. If you are a midlife woman the alcohol can trigger night sweats or make them worse, and the periods of wakefulness can become extended. Alcohol also blocks the brain’s ability to generate REM sleep. This is when we dream but more importantly it is when memories from the day before are stored. If you can, I suggest you ditch the alcohol or at least cut back as much as you can.
I have personally found it easy to stop drinking coffee after around 12. I usually eat a couple of squares of dark chocolate after lunch which is fine and I have cut back on the evening wine. These days I use a soda stream to make sparkling water which I mix with beetroot juice and a slice of lemon or I have the water with a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. I have also treated myself to some bottles of Mother Root ginger switchel, which is delicious provided you like ginger! These drinks work really well as a non-alcoholic pre-dinner drink and I may then have a glass of wine with my meal but I try not to on at least 3 evenings a week.
5. Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
Dark for the reason mentioned in point 3 and cool because we fall asleep much more easily in a cool room. Our core body temperature decreases at night and this together with the fading light triggers the release of melatonin. Matthew Walker says that the ideal room temperature for sleep is 18.3 degrees centigrade assuming standard bedding. I rarely have the radiator on in my room and I know many people benefit from sleeping with a window slightly open even in the winter. Consider too what you wear to bed. Wear natural fibres or nothing at all. This is particularly relevant if you are a midlife woman who suffers from night sweats.
The stress sleep connection can be a bit of a vicious circle. We are stressed so we sleep badly; we sleep badly which makes us more stressed! First of all, I recommend that as part of your bed routine you keep a journal in which you can write down any specific worries and concerns you have. This may be your To Do list for the next day or it may be family related or related to world events out of your control. Writing it down acts like a brain dump and can help you relax before sleep. I mentioned some other calming and sleep -inducing activities in point 3 above. Having a bed-time routine, in itself, is relaxing and sends “I am calm” messages to the brain.
I am a big fan of nasal breathing and breathing practices in general. Day time conscious nasal breathing has improved my sleep and fitness. Start nasal breathing by doing it first thing in the morning before you even get out of bed. Breathe in through your nose for the count of 3, pause for a moment and then breathe out slowly to the count of 5. Focus on your breath. Do 5 or 6 rounds – that’s not even one minute. If you remember, during the day, do it again and try it too when you go out for a walk. After some practice, nasal breathing will become second nature to you.
A breathwork practice immediately before bed can also be very useful. The practice I outline below helps to switch your body into a state of relaxation. Counting your breath helps to redirect your mind away from any anxious thoughts you may have.
- Breathe in through your nose for 3 seconds
- Hold for 3 seconds
- Breathe out through your nose for 6 seconds
Try doing this for at least one minute before you shut your eyes. You may find doing it for longer is even more beneficial.
Exercise and sleep can be a bit of a vicious circle as well. You don’t feel like exercising because you’ve not had enough sleep even though you know exercise during the day helps with sleep. Getting outside for an early morning walk is perfect. You don’t need to spend hours working hard in the gym. I specifically mention exercise during the day here because exercising in the evening will impact your ability to fall asleep. You get hot on the inside at the time when your core body temperature should be dropping. Exercise also increases cortisol levels and mental alertness. If the evening is the only time you can exercise, I suggest you cool down with some mindful stretching and then have a bath with some lavender essential oil or pop some in a diffuser.
9.Eat earlier in the evening.
Try to finish your evening meal 3 hours before you go to bed. We all know what it feels like to go to bed after a large, late meal – it’s not a great feeling and not conducive to a good night’s sleep! You also don’t want to be digesting food during the night. Night time is when your body cleans up toxins and dead cells so you want it to be able to focus on this important job for as long as possible.
Having said that, if you do need a late night snack for some reason then try a low Glycemic Load snack such as nuts or some seeds or an oatcake. I personally find I need to eat some starchy carbohydrates with my evening meal along with lots of green veg and some protein otherwise I don’t sleep so well. Other people are fine on a very low carbohydrate evening meal, but as I’ve said before we are all different!
10.Check your mindset.
Mindset is important if you are struggling with sleep. First of all, you need to recognize that prioritizing your sleep is really important. There aren’t short cuts to getting a good night’s sleep. Try the tips mentioned and see what works for you. BUT, don’t get stressed when you have a bad night. If you have a bad night think about the possible reasons. I personally struggle if I don’t stick to a regular bed time and stress is a big one too so I find it useful to write down what’s on mind before I get into bed. It might be something as unimportant as what we are going to eat at the weekend which keeps me awake! Second, if you wake at night, check in with yourself – are you too hot, are you dehydrated, are you worrying about something? Do something about if you can then practice the breathing exercises mentioned earlier. If you still can’t fall asleep get up and go a read a book in a different room until you feel sleepy. It is important that you don’t lie awake in your bed for more than an hour because you brain will then associate your bed with wakefulness rather than sleep.
I apologise for the length of this blog post but there is so much to explore when it comes to sleep.
I said I would also talk briefly about supplements and tests you can take.
It is well known that Magnesium can help with sleep. I take Magnesium Glycinate in the evening and I also use Better You Magnesium body lotion after a shower or bath – I tend to shower in the evening. You can also try Epsom Bath salts which are high in magnesium – you can put them in your bath or use as a foot soak. Foods which are rich in magnesium include nuts and seeds, quinoa, chickpeas, kidney beans, seaweed, cocoa (yay!) leeks, spinach and avocado.
If you are a midlife woman experiencing poor sleep then HRT (hormone replacement therapy) may help. I suggest you see your G.P. about tis. I personally found it helpful but we are all different!
Melatonin, the hormone of darkness, is a well-recognised sleep supplement but can be difficult to get hold of -it’s not a regulated drug in the U.K. I read different opinions on the benefits of Melatonin supplements – some people, Matthew Walker included, says its works because of the placebo effect. I don’t know. I do know it’s helped me!
With respect to tests, if you want to throw some money at your health then you could go to Lifecode Gx and get a Professional Genotype Analysis done. If you feel like you have tried everything, then this test might help you identify why you aren’t sleeping. You should do this via nutritionist who is experienced in nutrigenomics testing.
You also try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia which addresses bad sleep habits and anxieties that have been inhibiting sleep.
There are also a variety of sleep apps and smart watches which monitor your sleep. I find these rather stress inducing! I kept a sleep log for a week about a year ago – I had the worst week of sleep ever!
If you would like to talk to me about your sleep and feel that maybe having a Health Coach alongside you on your journey to better sleep and better health then please contact me. I am very happy to have a FREE chat before you make a decision as to whether you want to work with me. Please send me a message at email@example.com or join my Facebook Group Fit and Thriving at 50 plus to get an idea of who I am. You don’t need to be 50!