Research

Essentials of sleep

sunset and tree
21/01/2015 |

Written by Gina Fox and Milly Dabrowski

The beginning or end of daylight savings is a good reminder of the importance of sleep – it highlights the impact that a small change to our sleep routine can have on how well rested we feel. Hands up anyone who doesn’t feel pretty tired now and then, if not every day? Read on for our top tips on improving sleep and a unique approach to resetting your body clock!

Doing a bit of research recently, we were astounded at the number of studies there are about sleep and health. Did you know that poor sleep or insufficient sleep is implicated in many aspects of our health including high blood pressure, obesity, stress, mood disorders, diabetes and hormone imbalance? Having enough sleep also helps us to think clearly and make good decisions and a recent study has even suggested that chronic lack of sleep may even damage brain cell neurons.

We know we are getting enough sleep when we can wake up naturally without an alarm clock (unless you wake wired and anxious at 4 or 5 am when that is more likely to be a sign that our stress hormone cortisol is overworked and you need to de-stress).

Resting really does restore and refresh us, lifting our mood, giving us energy to enjoy our day and ensuring our immune function is ready for action. In terms of our fertility lack of sleep can affect hormone regulation and commonly affects libido and sexual function, as well as leading to lifestyle factors that can have a negative impact including overuse of caffeine and other stimulants. So the knock-on effect of chronic poor sleep is that our food choices, willpower and resolve to exercise and be healthy will also suffer.

“… it is very often simple lifestyle measures that make a difference to their capacity for sleeping well.”

While it is a natural and everyday part of life, many people suffer terribly with their sleep – often unnecessarily. Many times we have encountered people in clinic who complain of insomnia and it is very often simple lifestyle measures that make a difference to their capacity for sleeping well. If you are struggling with sleep the first thing to check is your caffeine intake. If you are sleeping badly, drinking coffee only makes matters worse by impacting the sleep ahead of you – we like to say it is making you use tomorrow’s energy today. So drink no more than one coffee per day prior to midday and only drink herbal teas and water after that time. This also includes caffeine loaded soft drinks (which nobody should be drinking at all anyway!). It is also a good idea to keep black tea to a minimum of one or two a day and again not close to bed-time.

Other things that can impact on your sleep (and their remedies) include:

Big meals late at night. Try eating a big breakfast, smaller lunch and a light, early dinner for ultimate digestive peace while you sleep.

Alcohol. Aim for at least 2-3 alcohol free days per week and limit your intake to 1-2 standard drinks and plenty of water if you do drink.

Unstable blood sugars making you wake up feeling hungry. Ensure you eat enough protein – a hand size portion with each meal as well as some nuts and seeds or yogurt for a snack will help keep you balanced. A dessertspoon of full fat yogurt right before bed will keep you going overnight.

Stress. A simple meditation practice will make a difference. Just ten minutes (perhaps at the end of the day) to sit quietly or practice some deep breathing has been shown to greatly decrease stress levels. Guided relaxations make it even easier and can be downloaded on to any device so you can practice anywhere, anytime.

Snoring/sleep apnoea. If you or your partner are snoring, neither of you is sleeping well. Many lifestyle factors can contribute to sleep apnoea but getting a sleep check and addressing this issue can be life and relationship changing for many people.

Restlessness. Cramping, restlessness and discomfort can be helped by a 5 minute routine of pre-bed stretching. If your bed or pillows are old you may need to replace them – pillows in particular should be replaced at least every 3-5 years and all bedding should be aired regularly. Try increasing foods in your diet that are high in magnesium such as nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, whole grains, avocados and green leafy vegies. Or regularly treat yourself to a nightime bath with a cup of Epsom salts and some lavender oil.

Children! If your kids sleep better, so will you. Consider how stimulated your children are. Are they watching television or playing computer games at night. Do you kids watch more than an hour or so of TV per day? Are they using up their excess energy by being active enough? A simple wind-down routine at the end of the day can make a huge difference. Try a chamomile tea or warm milk drink (perhaps sweetened with a little honey) close to bedtime. Couple this with low lighting, perhaps soothing music, no TV and all other devices off. A bath with a little lavender oil is also very calming. If they wake in the night, try a drop or two of rescue remedy (on wrists or temples for babies) and quiet music to soothe back to sleep.

Reset your bio-rhythms

In this age of electronic gadgets, devices, ubiquitous bright lighting, busy work and social lives, etc. we can lose connection with our natural body clock – known as circadian rhythms. Try this lovely, simple exercise for three consecutive days.

Resetting your body clock can be done relatively easily by following these simple steps:

  1. Eat an early dinner – at least prior to nightfall (dark)
  2. Put yourself in a position where you can see the sun setting. You don’t need to be outside or even watch the entire sunset. Just sit quietly for a few minutes and observe the changing light as day becomes night. This is an ideal time to practice mindfulness – just being in the moment.
  3. Keep any lighting very low (candles are ideal or use dimmers or low lamps) and plan to be in bed not long after dark or at least by 8.30pm at the latest.
  4. Go to bed in a room that is as dark as possible. Absolute darkness is an important hormone regulator during sleep and any light can interrupt this natural process (some research suggests it can even affect ovulation). Set your alarm for sunrise the following morning. Don’t worry about the time or the fact that it might be quite early to go to bed – it doesn’t matter if you don’t go to sleep straight away. Don’t turn on any lights, don’t read, check your phone, watch TV or otherwise allow yourself to be stimulated. Just lie in bed resting until you fall asleep. Most people are more tired than they realize and without constant stimulation will actually fall asleep more easily than they expect. (In fact, many people say they can’t meditate because they just fall asleep – if that is you, try meditating now and you’ll be asleep in no time!)
  5. When your alarm goes off, be sure to get up straight away, don’t be tempted to snooze on. Open the curtains or go outside so you can see the sun rising. Again, you don’t need to watch the whole thing, though it is a lovely way to start the day, just take 10-15 minutes to be mindful and observe the changing light and sounds as the whole world wakes up around you. This process of observing the changing light is something we evolved doing – electronic light is a relatively new phenomena (historically speaking) and it has drastically interrupted our hormonal and other physiological cues.
  6. Follow this process for three days in a row. After this time you should find you are more aware of your end of day tiredness, more able to respond to your sleepiness signals, able to fall asleep more easily when you go to bed and also to wake more easily, feeling more refreshed. You can repeat this any time you find yourself feeling stressed or when your sleep rhythms go awry. It is also a really helpful practice to reset your body clock after returning from travel – coupled with long walks outdoors this is one of the best cures for jet lag

For ongoing sleep health make the bedroom a technology-free zone especially no charging of your phone by your bed – keep it at least a metre away from you if you must have it in the room. Be brave and have a technology clear out. In addition no more emailing or social media an hour before bed. Learn how to relax with music, a chat, a cup of herbal tea or a good book instead. That way you will be ready for sleep. If you want to be on top of your game and not undermine your ability to make good decisions then, like most of us, you need 7 to 8 hours sleep each night. A good night’s sleep is a great prescription for good health.

If you are still struggling, there are many great herbal and nutritional supports that can help and acupuncture has much to offer as well. Call 9419 9988 to make a time to see one of our expert practitioners.

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