We all know sleep is vital to our physical and mental wellbeing but why?
Muscle growth and repair
- Concentration and productivity
- Sleep regulates our energy, mood, emotional resilience, cognitive function, memory and metabolism
- Sleep regulates our appetite hormones and lack of sleep can lead to poor dietary choices and weight gain
- Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of various health conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke
- Sleep plays a big role in our mental health
- Circadian Rhythm
Our body likes routine and just like our eating patterns, we should try to go to bed and wake up at a similar time each day. Our circadian rhythm (also known as our sleep/wake cycle or body clock) is our natural internal system that is designed to regulate feelings of sleepiness and alertness over a 24 hour period. It also impacts memory, cognitive function and mood.
Our circadian rhythm is directly effected by light. In the morning it advances the clock and signals the brain to increase the body temperature and produce hormones such as cortisol to get us going for the day. Getting up and out in the natural sunlight every morning is a great way to support your circadian rhythm and bolster your physical and mental health. If you can catch some sunrises, even better!
At night, the opposite happens and light delays our body clock, throwing out our circadian rhythm and interfering with sleep. Darkness indicates to our brain that it is time to sleep, melatonin increases and body temperature falls to facilitate sleep. Bright and especially blue lights at night (i.e. all our devices), can delay our production of sleep-inducing melatonin, making getting to sleep a lot more difficult.
Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Support your circadian rhythm
- 30-60 minutes before bed, turn all devices off and switch your phone to flight mode – This is surprisingly empowering knowing you have taken control of what enters your mindspace.
- Dim screen brightness or switch to night mode as soon as practical – Alternatively, you can install an app that automatically warms up the colours on the screen away from blues and toward reds and yellows at sunset.
- Avoid using energy saving (blue) bulbs in bedrooms and bathrooms – Opt for softer lighting that does not suppress the release of melatonin like blue and bright lights.
- When you can, watch sunset – This will help melatonin production and have a relaxing effect on the body to support a good night sleep. Create a Relaxing bed Routine
- Our days can be very busy and highly stressful, with our brains go-go-go. We cannot expect our body to instantly shift from stressed to sleep mode just because we decide it is time to sleep. We have to train our brains to relax, unwind and switch off from our days so we can get to and stay asleep.
- Read that book you keep meaning to – This can be audible, as long as the screen is off/facing down. Listen to a podcast – As long as it isn’t going to stimulate your brain too much.
- Write down 3 things you are grateful for that day – Really embody how that made you feel.
- Do some yin yoga – You can do this in your bedroom or even in bed.
- Listen to a yoga nidra or guided meditation – Let this lull you off to sleep
- Write a list! If you struggle to stop thinking about your day or everything you have to do tomorrow then something I find helps is writing it all down, get it out and then do your relaxing activity to calm your mind for sleep.
- Having a hot shower – Maybe a bath if you have more time and perhaps then…
- Making a soothing cup of tea (caffeine free) – Chamomile, peppermint, passionflower or skullcup are all very calming. Perhaps a milky chai or turmeric latte
Create a Calming Space
Our bedroom should be a cool, quiet, dark and peaceful sanctuary to facilitate a good night sleep. Our body temperature drops slightly in order for us to fall asleep so make sure your room is not too hot. The ideal temperature is 60-67 fahrenheit (15.6 – 19.4 celcius). Consider using blackout curtains, an eye mask, ear plugs, white noise machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices.
If your desk is in your bedroom then, where possible clear your laptop and work items out of sight at the end of each day, to restore it to a calming sleep space, rather than an active-mind workspace.
We all know exercise is important for physical and mental health but it is also important for good sleep. Exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration. Try to avoid high intensity workouts late at night, as it may impact your ability to get to sleep. Interestingly, sleep is also when growth hormone is at it’s highest, aiding muscle growth and repair – particularly important for those who are very physically active.
Alcohol, cigarettes (nicotine) and other stimulants such as caffeine can significantly effect your sleep quality and quantity. Try to keep caffeine consumption to the morning and 1-2 cups maximum.
Challenge: If you think coffee might be effecting your sleep, challenge yourself to 2 weeks without any coffee and see if your sleep improves (use tracker questions below at start and end). Make sure you find a healthy replacement so that you do not feel deprived, create a new healthy habit.
Avoid late meals
Eating large, fatty or spicy meals late at night can cause digestive discomfort and impact your sleep. Try to avoid eating large meals at least 2-3 hours before bedtime. If you cannot allow this much time for digestion then try eating smaller lighter meals. Easier to digest meals include soups, slow cooked foods and smoothies or an omelette is always a quick and easy go-to that you can pack full of nutritious veggies.
You may benefit from tracking your sleep patterns and any other symptoms. Over time this can help clearly identify common patterns and what the driving factors are impacting your sleep.
Key questions to track your sleep patterns…
How many hours of sleep do you get a night?
Do you go to bed and wake up at similar time?
Do you struggle to get to sleep or do you find you
wake in the night?
Do you feel refreshed upon waking?
Out of 10 how would you rate your sleep?
Out of 10 how would you rate your energy?
Out of 10 how would you rate your mood?
Out of 10 how would you rate your stress level? *(10 = highest)
Then see if you can identify any correlation between your sleep patterns and stressors at work or home. This can include high workload, conflict, health, employment and financial anxieties. If you are female, also track this against your cycle.
Reflect on the tips above to see which of these factors could be impacting your sleep and set a goal to change this and create a new healthy sleep pattern.
Break the pattern
If you seem to have got into a bad sleeping pattern, whatever the reason (one of which may or may not be above), it is important to break it as soon as possible to reset a healthier sleep pattern. This can be easier said than done because the longer we have been having poor sleep, the more we tell ourselves ‘I’m not sleeping well’ or ‘I’m not going to sleep well tonight’. Whether you consciously tell yourself this or not, it is happening subconsciously. The effect is you go to sleep with that mindset and of course, you have another poor nights sleep and so the vicious cycle continue.
In order to break the habit, to create change, you need to change your behaviour and mindset. All of the above give you ways to shift your behaviour and calm your mindset for sleep. Focus on the pattern you want to create, the peaceful and refreshing sleep you want, rather than any previous experiences that may differ or distract from this.
Breathing: the key to calm
Our breath is the simple and most effective way to reduce stress, calm the body and mind to enable us to drift off to sleep. When we take slow and deep breaths we down-regulate our sympathetic nervous system – our fight or flight response (that we operate from most of the day) and we up-regulate our parasympathetic nervous system – our rest and restore mode that aids digestion and relaxation.
A simple breathing technique…
If you get into bed and your mind and body is still racing from the day, take 5-10 slow and deep full body breaths in and out. Ideally place your hands on your body (perhaps one to belly, one to heart) to encourage dropping into the feeling body and out of the thinking mind. The slower the better, even count the breath in for 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 and out at the same slow count. You can extend this to 8 or even 10 if it feels comfortable and as you drop deeper into a restful calm state.