Understand why you need to sleep – I know that sounds obvious, but it may help. Sleep, good quality sleep supports every biological and chemical function in your body and maintains balance and stability. That’s why when you don’t sleep well, you can feel as if you’ve got a fuzzy head, or can’t concentrate properly or even feel shaky. It’s your body showing that homeostasis (or your body’s regulator) has been off set and needs to be re-aligned. But how do we re-set?
Understand that sleep is also a day time activity – That may sound odd, but if you’re not eating well, are stressed to the hilt and are running on empty your body keeps a record. It works something like this. Your brain’s neurotransmitters (or chemical messengers) are constantly directing everything from your sleep patterns, appetite, emotional state, to your drive, your desire and your ability to be calm and relaxed. At the same time, your hormones and circadian rhythm (or body clock) are also making continual assessments of what’s happening in your body and making adaptations to maintain homeostasis. Improving sleep means supporting your neurotransmitters, hormones and body clock during the day, and also understanding what shapes how well you sleep. Here are a few things:
Age – Changes to our tissues and muscle mass, our nervous system and bone structure, some brain function and loss in blood flow and menstruation can all impact how we sleep. But it’s not only genetics that affects how we age; it’s also our diet and lifestyle. And this is an area that we can control and make changes and improvements to.
Diet – We use about 400-450 calories when we sleep. But when we’re awake at night tossing and turning, we’re still active. To our brains we’re actually stressed. Both of these use a lot of energy. Being stressed causes cortisol (our stress hormone) to raid our body’s glucose stores for energy. But then insulin needs to be released to push the glucose in to our cells. Doing this cortisol-insulin relay over and over again can create havoc. But having a diet that gives us steady energy throughout the day and night, can help us to remain calm and relaxed and ready and able to sleep.
Lifestyle –This simply means our regular actions, patterns and behaviours, all of which we can change (for the better). Although it may seem impossible, just doing one thing to reduce your stress level may support your homeostasis and aid sleep.
Environment – Where you sleep is important. But, so is your emotional environment. Having things in and around your home which stress you out can disrupt sleep. Take a look around your bedroom; is there anything that could be disturbing your sleep?
Physical health –Being physically fit aids your body’s use of oxygen. This can then impact your blood pressure; feed nutrients to your cells and eliminate the build-up of toxins and excess sleep hormones from your body. Being fit can also help to increase strength and endurance. And if we do it in a group, create connection which can help to reduce stress.
Mental health – Our minds shape how we think, feel and act. It doesn’t mean you have to be floating along in a permanent Zen state. But having high levels of demand and isolation and worry can lead to anxiety, depression and stress. Reducing the toll of these mind activities can put you in a state to improve sleep.
Although making changes to your ‘shapers’ may seem impossible, it doesn’t have to be.
So what can actually help you to sleep?
Understand the very basics of sleep – In order to sleep your brain needs to register the difference between night and day. Try to get out in daylight or even just look out of the window for 10 minutes in the morning and at lunch time. The pineal gland at the back of the brain acts as a light receiver and information transmitter, so open your eyes wide. The brain also needs to cut back on stimulating activities at night. So turn off the television, phones and computers at least an hour before you go to bed.
Accept not being able to sleep – That sounds weird I know. But our brains work on patterns which protect us. If your brain senses fear or danger because you have anxiety about going to bed, it can activate the fight or flight stress response and create a negative pattern about bed and sleep. So what can you do? Interestingly, many who work on anxiety reduction and sleep improvement advocate not fighting the uncomfortable feeling, but instead just being with the uncomfortableness until it fades. A useful book on this topic is ‘The Sleep Book’ by Dr Guy Meadows.
Diet – We always need energy even just to relax and sleep. And energy production is all about our body using nutrients properly. Our brains need a lot of glucose, fat and vitamins and minerals. But simple carbohydrates (white grains, breads, cakes, sugars) and eating late at night just creates a yo-yo, insulin/energy spike which ends up draining us. So remembering that sleep is also about what happens in the day, let’s KEEP IT SIMPLE.
For breakfast – Especially if you’re pressed for time. Make a quick and simple smoothie (These can be made in the evening in batches, for 2 or 3 days). You can choose from a range of soft vegetables (and or some fruits) and add; spinach, baby kale, cucumber, avocado, beetroot and apples, pears, and tinned fruit, prunes, apricots or peaches and some ground nuts and seeds or nut butter and nut milk or just water.
If you want some quick and easy smoothie ideas, just email firstname.lastname@example.org
For lunch – Protein keeps us full, so good sources are nuts and pulses and tofu, eggs and turkey which also contains tryptophan and B vitamins. These aid brain health and can help to relax the nervous system. Oily fish sources (omega 3s) and seed oils (omega 6s) feed the brain too. So sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna in olive oil, nuts and seeds. These can all be included in soups, with a salad or in a wrap with salad.
In the evening – Try to eat at least 3 hours before you go to bed. Have a combination of energy sustaining rich foods and those that support your neurotransmitters and provide your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs to help you relax and restore.
Get energy rich glucose from vegetable rich carbohydrates with small amounts of whole grains (if you can tolerate them) and good protein sources such as eggs, tofu, chicken and fish. Stir fry’s with cabbage, spinach or kale and easily chopped (or pre-cut vegetables) if needed and protein and a small portion of brown rice or whole wheat noodles. Or chilli with beans, vegetables and sweet potato. Beef casserole with carrots, broccoli or frozen organic vegetables and small potatoes. Aubergine and chickpea curry with coconut milk and or tofu.
Evening snacks – Banana, rice cake with nut butter or avocado, a few nuts, warm milk with honey and turmeric.
Plan – This might seem tough but if you can take just 10 minutes, one day a week, to plan your meals for the week it can really help to make things easier. And it helps to reduce excess food shopping and lower the food bill.
Lifestyle – Research by McCurry et al (1998) showed that caregiver’s sleep patterns improved just by them having the opportunity to talk to someone. So a key lifestyle change may be to connect with a person or a group that will allow you to talk about what’s going on for you. Or it may be to introduce a little time for self-care, even just having a relaxing magnesium mineral bath once a week. Or it might be to go for a walk to oxygenate your body and distinguish the difference between night and day.
Environment – Creating positive sleep patterns means creating a healthy sleep environment. So air your bedroom and keep the temperature low at night. Keep the room clutter free and have things which create positive emotions for you. And use a diffuser or aromatherapy oils to create a calming and cleansing environment. Keep lights low before you go to bed and put sensory stimulating phones and computers in another room.
Admitting the severity of the issue – This alone can be stress reducing, even if you only admit it to yourself. But then as obvious as it sounds, get help. It might be talking to your GP, a support group, relative or professional charity, or therapist or doing a programme or following these steps.
Even if you’ve tried 101 different things don’t give up. It may take time, but you can improve your sleep. If any of this resonates with you and you want help on a 1-1 basis, then please do call for a free 15 minute consultation.
McCurry, S., Logsdon, R., Vitiello, M and Teri, L (1998) ‘Successful behavioural treatment reported sleep problems in elderly caregivers of dementia patients: A controlled study’. [Online] Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article-pdf/53B/2/…/53B-2-P122.pdf
Meadows, G (2014) ‘The Sleep Book’, London, Orion Books,