For my own ongoing and ever changing journey for optimal health and performance I have to admit sleep took a backseat for me until more recently, and sometimes still does, it’s the first healthy habit to slip, during stressful or busy times that throw me out of routine. But I now appreciate the importance of a good nights kip to keep me fighting fit, eating well, energetic, and able to deal with daily stressors.
I used to boast about how I only needed 5 hours, traveling to the gym early without fail, before working on my feet most of the day then getting home to cook, study, and probably fall asleep in bed with my laptop in my face. I would point blank deny being deprived of sleep but I was definitely kidding myself, no matter how well I ate or exercised, I was missing a crucial element of a healthy lifestyle.
So regardless of how many or little hours you claim you need…Ask yourself a few questions;
- Can you fall asleep anywhere?
- Are you dead to the world the moment your head hits the pillow?
- Do you get that wired but tired feeling when it comes to bedtime and struggle to switch off?
- Do you regularly wake during the night?
- Do you need to regularly hit snooze?
- Do you rely on caffeine and/or sugar for daily pick me ups?
- If you exercise, do you always feel poorly recovered despite eating well and stretching?
If the above sound familiar, chances are you need to work on your sleep hygiene.
Lack of sleep massively affects our hormones and daily lives. We are less able to deal with mental or physical stress, our blood sugar can go on a roller coaster regardless of eating well, cravings can ramp up, metabolism can slow down, sex hormones are disrupted, and we can get cranky or distracted easily.
Behind that tired feeling a lot is going on! Want an immune boost? To support natural detoxification? To balance your hormones? To lose weight? To perform better? Yes? Ok, then make sleep a priority…..
So aside from magically creating more hours in the day here are a few tips on how to best make use of the time you have!
Optimise your environment
The first point here is, in my opinion, the hardest to address, due to the majority of us being hooked on some form of screen scrolling, watching, or clicking. As well as often keeping us up later through distraction, the light from the screens, predominantly blue light, interferes with hormones that rise and fall with our circadian rhythm, our sleep-wake cycle; i.e cortisol should be highest in the morning and decrease over the day, while melatonin (the main hormone regulating sleep) should rise over the course of the day. Late night screen exposure can be over stimulating leave you feeling wired through disruption to melatonin.
Try keeping as many electronics as possible out of the bedroom, and avoid looking at your phone or laptop an hour before you want to sleep. If this feels impossible you could invest in some sexy amber tinted glasses, as long as you don’t mind the crazy scientist look, or download a free app ‘f.lux’, these will help block some of the blue light, but not all.
As well as screen lights, other artificial lighting disrupts sleep hormones, whether it be your hall room lightbulb or the street lamp outside the window, our bodies are wired to respond to the rising and setting of the sun so artificial light confuses natural processes. Aim to make your room pitch black, or as close to it as possible; blackout blinds are effective, especially for those of us in the city, or an eye mask. Again removing, or switching off, any electronics that give off light helps.
The optimal temperature for sleeping is a little more on the cooler side that you might think (below 65F). During sleep the core temperature naturally cools, being in an environment that hinders this process can in turn also hinder sleep quality. This is one reason a hot shower or bath before bed can help promote sleep; the more rapid dropping of body temperature once out of the hot water supports relaxation.
Optimise your body
Think; stretches, baths, breathing exercises or meditation, reading, or journaling. Many of us are in this constant state of GO-GO-GO, ready to respond to daily stress that comes from work and family responsibilities, travel, or constant to-do lists. As handy as it would be we can’t expect to switch from this state to a state of relaxation with the click of a finger. That cortisol I mentioned earlier, the stress hormone that should be low come the evening, is going to struggle to get there without a little relaxation after a hectic day. It doesn’t have to take hours, there is no way I would have time for, or even want, a bubble bath every night, find something you find relaxing and doable; some breathing exercises or guided mediation (headspace app actually has a section dedicated to bedtime practices), some gentle stretches will support any worked muscles as well as promote relaxation, if that’s not your thing, reading a little or simply jotting down a few lines to take away busy thoughts can make a difference.
Rest, NOT digest
Aim to eat a main meal at least 2-3 hours before going to bed. Digestion is impaired when you are lying down (this is why not sitting up right when eating can cause problems, such as acid reflux) and if your body is busily working away trying to breakdown food then it will not be able to fully rest and recover.
Get moving during the day
Exercising during the day has been linked to better quality sleep, getting blood pumping while the sun is up again helps to regulate our circadian rhythm. Team it with time outside to get some essential exposure to natural light.
Optimise your nutrition
Magnesium (a.k.a. the relaxation mineral)
One of the most common nutritional deficiencies currently is magnesium, many of us struggling to get enough in our diet and it is rapidly used up in the body, becoming depleted even quicker with increased stressors; whether physical from exercise, illness, or processed foods, or mental from work or family worries. This crucial mineral is involved in over 300 enzyme reactions, including playing a role in the regulation of melatonin and other calming neurotransmitters, helping us to relax.
Leafy green vegetables, pumpkin seeds, almonds, yogurt or keifr, wild salmon, cacao, avocado, and black beans are all examples of magnesium rich foods (organically grown veg tend to be higher due to the minerals in the soil). If supplementing the most well absorbed forms are magnesium citrate or glycinate, with Epsom salt baths or magnesium spray also being effective methods.
There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to caffeine, generally it is fine, and even beneficial, in moderation, however how well we are able to deal with, that is how well we metabolise and tolerate caffeine can vary massively among individuals, partly due to genetics and partly due to lifestyle. As a general rule I find that sticking to higher caffeinated drinks before midday such as coffee and black tea, and no caffeine at all (e.g green tea or other herbal blends) past 2/3pm is sensible for most. Opt for herbal teas such as camomile or, my personal favourite, rooibos during the evening.
Be clever with carbs
Those that try to avoid carbohydrates late at night or eat a low carb high fat style diet can sometimes struggle to get to sleep, as well as making up part of a balanced filling meals carbohydrates help make the amino acid Tryptophan, which is necessary for quality sleep, more available. On the other side of the scale; too many refined carbohydrates and added sugar through the day causes an insulin roller coaster effect which can continue into the night, disrupting a good night’s kip.
There are other factors that can play into sleep quality with each case being different. These tips are intended as general advice but if getting to sleep, and staying asleep, still persists as an issue there may be some underlying cause such as nutritional deficiencies or adrenal fatigue that needs addressing through the help of a healthcare practitioner.