By guest author, Emily Connell Gronholt, Nutritional Medicine Practitioner
Sleep – one of the most naturally powerful performance enhancers to humankind. But why do so many of us struggle with getting restful sleep?
Many of us have a ‘love/hate’ relationship with sleep. Undeniably, getting under those fluffy doona covers on a crisp autumn night, after a busy day, is one of the most satisfying feelings. But that moment of pleasure soon passes as we toss and turn with the worries of the day filling our head, or our mind races with random thoughts. This may be further exacerbated during this time of uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping us awake for hours.
To pass the time, we might even reach for the phone charging next to our bed and enter into the ‘deadly scroll’ of social media or news, and all of a sudden our brain is back to being so stimulated that sleep is impossible! And, it’s not just problems getting to sleep, sometimes this is the easy part. Instead, we may find ourselves waking in the early hours of the morning, unable to get back to sleep.
Good, restorative sleep is one of the essential things for wellbeing – as important as diet and exercise. It is vital for physical health, restoring energy supplies, repairing injuries, fighting off illness and infection, psychological wellbeing and mood, concentration, memory, work performance, and even weight loss.
Many different factors control the quality of our sleep, including:
the light we are exposed to,
the time-of-the-day when we eat our meals,
our mental health and,
the interaction with others.
Many of these factors are currently altered due to social isolation measures, changes in routine due to working from home or homeschooling, or staying indoors for longer periods and not as much as access to exercise. This can make the challenge of getting a good night’s sleep even harder, ironically at a time where sleep is so crucially imperative.
1. People vary in how much sleep they need.
Aim for 8 – 10 hours of sleep per night for optimal health and wellbeing. Try to get to sleep by 9 pm as the hours before midnight can be more rejuvenating than the hours after midnight.
2. Try to set a regular sleep schedule.
Go to bed and get up more or less the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps your body fall into a routine and sleep better each consecutive night. Even if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, staying in bed longer to catch up on lost sleep could negatively affect your body clock so get up at the same time regardless. Our bodies ‘catch up’ on sleep by sleeping deeper; it isn’t always about sleeping longer.
3. Get enough early morning sunshine.
Exposure to light during the first waking hours helps to set your body clock. This will help with alertness – just like having a strong cup of coffee as soon as you wake up!
4. Keep lights dim and avoid blue light from screens for at least 1 – 2 hours before going to bed.
Turn your devices onto ‘night shift mode’ to reduce the amount of screen light. A dark environment can help your body naturally produce melatonin and prepare your body for sleep.
5. Regular mealtimes can improve sleep by resetting the biological clock.
Try to eat meals and snacks at the same time each day. Don’t go to bed hungry – however, avoid eating and snacking late into the night. Your body does a lot of hard work overnight repairing, so it needs a break from digesting. If you’re feeling peckish before bed try foods that contain tryptophan and support melatonin production like a snack of green apple slices or banana with almond butter, or a cup of bone broth, which contains glycine, an amino acid that supports sleep.
6. Avoid stimulants like coffee, tea (herbal tea is OK), coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, and chocolate (sorry!) for at least 4 – 6 hours before bed.
The effects of caffeine can last up to 12 hours in the body. And while alcohol can induce sleep, it reduces REM sleep and causes fitful sleep in the early hours of the morning, affecting the quality of sleep. Swap out the glass of vino and the coffee in the evening for a soothing cup of chamomile or rooibos tea.
7. Use your bed for sleep and relaxation
Do not eat, watch TV, use your laptop or work in bed and avoid charging phones or electrical devices in the bedroom. These things trick our brain into thinking that bed is a place for wakeful activities. If, during this period of social isolation and working from home, space is limited and your bedroom is your only place to work, try to make a separate area in your bedroom for work and pack it away before sleep.
8. Develop consistent sleep rituals so that your body is reminded that it is time for sleep.
Sleep rituals could involve having a bath each night and adding in some aluminium free Epsom Salts, full of magnesium, a nutrient known to support relaxation and sleep. And having a hot bath can be useful as it raises your body temperature, causing you to feel sleepy as your body temperature starts to drop again. Research shows that sleepiness is associated with a drop in body temperature.
9. Write your insomnia away. Keep a notebook next to your bed.
Thoughts racing through your head just as you lay your head on your pillow? ‘Download’ all those brilliant ideas and concerning worries into a notepad next to your bed. And then you can get on with just sleeping.
10. Still can’t sleep? Get up, and take a break from trying to sleep.
Worrying about not sleeping makes it more difficult to sleep. These negative thoughts about not getting enough sleep almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy and working harder at it, does not help sleep come faster (and watching the clock only reinforces these negative thoughts). During the break, leave the bedroom, have a gentle stretch, read, listen to some music or a calming podcast. When you feel like your level of alertness has dropped, try to sleep again
11. To nap or not to nap?
I regularly get asked about this in the clinic. I am a huge fan of the daily nap, but it comes with strict nap rules. It has to be 20 minutes ONLY. Any longer and it starts to interfere with the following night time sleep. Having a 20-minute nap can go a long way to regulating stress hormones and circadian rhythms, especially if it is done in the early hours of the day (before 9 am is ideal, but I generally advise not later than 2 pm) and can improve the following night’s sleep while helping with concentration and alertness during the day. You can use apps like ‘Pzizz’ which have sleep timers and meditations so that you can be soothingly talked off to sleep and woken gently again at 20 minutes.
There are a multitude of reasons for not getting quality sleep, and these are different for everyone. But implementing a few of these sleep hygiene strategies can help you to become so good at sleeping, that you will be able to do it with your eyes closed.
Emily Connell, BHSc Nutritional Medicine, BAppSc Occupational Therapy
Emily is a Nutritional Medicine practitioner, writer, speaker, facilitator and trainer. Emily combines her passion for Nutritional Medicine with her background in Occupational Therapy, mental health & management to support people to achieve health & inspire wellness.
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