Every Thursday I spend a few hours at Health2000 in the Golden Centre, giving advice to customers and helping them find what they need. Its heaps of fun and the people I work with there are so fabulous and really care about the wellbeing of their customers. I’ve noticed that some things come up over and over and I will cover these in a semi-regular series of blog posts.
First up is sleep. I reckon about 50% of the customers that come into the shop are looking for help with either getting to sleep or staying asleep. Yikes! That’s a lot of people walking around sleep deprived, and more alarmingly, many of them are out there driving cars with their eyes half closed.
Preparing for a good night’s sleep starts during the day, not in the 10 minutes between turning off Netflix and crawling into bed. I’ve listed a few of the suggestions I give customers – not all of them will be relevant to you but if you’re struggling to sleep, commit to trying a few of these tips for a month and see if you see some improvement.
- Mindfulness – worry is one of the most common causes of sleep issues. The app Insight Timer is my favourite – a treasure trove of guided mindfulness exercises, bedtime stories and gentle music which can help to switch your mind off. There is a whole section for sleep and you are sure to find something in there that resonates with you. My favourite tracks are by Jennifer Piercy, I find her voice so hypnotic.
- Limit alcohol – a glass of wine in the evening helps you relax and therefore should improve your sleep, right? Wrong. Sorry! Alcohol causes sleep fragmentation, which means you wake up frequently during the night without even realising it. Although these periods of waking are brief, they mean sleep is not continuous or restorative. Since it takes the body several hours to metabolise alcohol, the most sensible advice is to avoid it completely. If that is one step too far, make at least every 2nd day alcohol-free.
- Have a hot shower or bath before bed – the benefit here is actually from the relative coolness when you step out of the bath or shower, which mimics the cooling of the day as the sun sets, and sends a powerful message to the brain that it is night time – increasing the release of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep timing.
- Minimise bright light, especially blue light – as we saw in the previous point, melatonin is important for sleep timing and its release is increased by darkness… but the opposite is also true – it is halted by light, especially blue light. This is what is predominantly emitted from our phone screens, iPads and flat screen TVs. You can get blue blocking glasses to mitigate this, or use apps such as Night Shift, F.lux and Iris. Or you could switch off altogether and use the 60 minutes before bed to read a book, listen to music or an audiobook, chat with friends or family, knit, play cards, have sex, write in a journal, meditate, have a warm bath, fold the washing, do some gentle stretches, go for a walk – whatever takes your fancy that can be done without bright or blue light.
- On the flip side, bright light exposure is important during the daytime, making you feel more energised and alert and resetting your circadian rhythm. As soon as you get a chance in the morning, step outside and get some daylight into your eyes. Going for a walk at daybreak or first thing in the morning is great, but even a few minutes of early morning light exposure is enough to start getting your rhythm back on track.
- Keep regular hours – all of our organs operate on different cycles, called circadian rhythms, which dictate when the organ is active and when it is resting and repairing. Waking, going to bed and eating at roughly the same times every day really helps to anchor these rhythms and many people find that by setting a consistent routine, their sleep is rapidly improved. In particular, try to have your evening meal at the same time every day, and if possible, don’t eat anything in the three hours before bed. The process of digestion takes about four hours from woah to go – even that little biscuit you have with your cup of tea in front of the telly causes the whole digestive system to switch on, ramp up and start processing. You want your sleep time to be a time for the body to be resting and repairing, not digesting.
- Consider bladder and pelvic floor training – do you wake up in the night needing to go to the loo? As we age, the bladder can become overactive, which means your brain receives a message to urinate before the bladder is full. If this sounds like you, bladder and pelvic floor training exercises might help. In Dunedin, Ingrid at The Core Centre does incredible work in this area and I highly recommend seeing her for a comprehensive assessment. Mouth breathing can also increase the urge to urinate during the night. If you wake up with a dry mouth and/or a sore throat, or you’ve been told you snore a lot, it is worth having a sleep assessment to check for disordered breathing.
- Protein is important for a couple of reasons – it is made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are repurposed by the body to make all sorts of important structures and messengers, including sleep-regulating melatonin. Getting a decent amount of protein from a variety of foods such as fish, meat, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds, provides an amino acid pool for the body to utilise. Protein also helps to keep blood sugar levels stable. Fluctuating blood sugar levels can cause us to wake up during the night as the body over-compensates for a high blood sugar (usually due to eating lots of simple carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, bread, cake, ice-cream etc) by bringing it down too low. Aim to include a palm-sized portion of protein at every meal.
- Watch your caffeine intake – some people are surprised to learn that caffeine is in chocolate, cocoa, some soft drinks like cola and Mountain Dew, and green tea, as well as coffee and black tea. Genetics mean that some of us are not efficient metabolisers of caffeine, so that afternoon pick-me-up can have lingering effects late into the day. For most people, limiting caffeine-containing foods and drinks to before lunch helps with night time sleep.
- Medication review – many commonly prescribed medicines can interfere with sleep. I am absolutely not suggesting you stop taking any medicines; ask your GP or pharmacist to review any medication you are on in case it is the cause of your sleeplessness.
Sleep should be something that comes easily but as you can see, there are many factors that can disturb the equilibrium and leave us tossing and turning through the night. I think good quality sleep is one of the most important, yet under-rated, pillars of health and sorting out sleep often has a beneficial effect on other health complaints. Try some of these tips to see if you can make some improvements to your own sleep.