It seems such a simple thing to do – get into bed and blissfully drift into a peaceful slumber for 8 hours before waking feeling refreshed and ready to attack the next day with a mighty Kung Fu kick. Alas, many of you will know that it’s not always as simple as that - millions of people struggle to get to / stay asleep and instead wake feeling exhausted and drained, and this can feel nightmarishly daunting if it continues night after night.
There are many possible underlying reasons for sleep problems and it’s important to seek professional advice if it is ongoing and starts to affect your health and wellbeing. Often though, if you spot that your sleep patterns have started to go a bit off track, there’s lots you can do to help improve it, just by making a few simple changes.
Here we ask psychological and nutritional experts for their best advice on how to handle sleepless nights:
Dr Liz Peacock - Clinical Psychologist
“Good sleep hygiene is essential”
Sleep is a natural and restorative process fundamental for human existence. It is essential for our health and wellbeing, with poor quality sleep leading to possible long-term health difficulties. Sleep occurs cyclically, roughly every 24 hours, with complex changes in brain activity, reduced heart rate and a fall in body temperature; resulting in a suspension of consciousness. Most adults need an average of 7-8 hours of sleep per night, although this varies considerably with age and from person to person. There are many reasons that sleep patterns can become disrupted, so in order to experience good sleep we need to adopt desirable lifestyle habits and eliminate unhelpful factors that may be disturbing healthy sleeping cycles.
'Sleep hygiene' is a term used to describe strategies and habits that help promote good sleep and provide long-term solutions to sleep difficulties.
Consider following these habits to take control of your sleep...
Sleep hygiene tips:
• ROUTINE: Develop a regular pattern in order to train your body to go to bed and wake up at more or less the same time each day (even weekends!). This will help set your body's 'internal clock'.
• ESTABLISH PRE-SLEEP ROUTINE: Develop helpful sleep rituals just before bed that remind your body it is time to sleep e.g. a warm bath, reading, relaxation or breathing exercises. Avoid stressful or stimulating activities, such as work or discussing emotional issues.
• GO TO SLEEP WHEN TIRED: Only try to sleep when you are actually tired/sleepy to avoid frustration and unnecessary time awake in bed.
• GET UP & TRY AGAIN: If you can't sleep after 20 minutes, get up and do something restful and quiet in dim light - nothing too active, interesting or stimulating.
• AVOID STIMULANTS: Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine should be avoided 4-6 hours before bed. They interfere with the body's ability to fall asleep and can interrupt the quality of sleep.
• AVOID CLOCK-WATCHING: Frequent checking of the clock as you're falling asleep, or during the night, can increase stress and reinforce negative thoughts about sleeping. Turn the clock away and turn off your smartphone.
• AVOID DAYTIME NAPS: You need to feel tired at bedtime so if you must nap during the day, make it less than an hour and before 4pm.
• EAT WELL: A healthy balanced diet will aid sleep. Timing of food intake is important - avoid heavy meals soon before bed, although a light snack may prevent an empty stomach that can be distracting. Avoid foods that cause indigestion. Consider food/drinks that contain Tryptophan which can act as a natural sleep inducer. Also, balance your fluid intake - it is important to keep hydrated but without waking too frequently for bathroom visits.
• EXERCISE: Regular exercise can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly - but don't make exercise too strenuous or too close to bedtime.
• CREATE SLEEP INDUCING ENVIRONMENT: Your sleeping space should be inviting and a place you want to be. Your bedroom should be quiet, dark, comfortable, not too hot or too cold. Using earplugs, blackout blinds/curtains, and investing in a good mattress/bedding are worth considering. You should get rid of gadgets such as smartphones, LED clocks, TV, computers, tablets. Try to be clear of clutter that may distract you or cause you to worry e.g. laundry, work documents.
• USE A SLEEP DIARY: These can be useful to establish the facts about your sleep pattern and track progress.
• BED IS FOR SLEEPING: Avoid using bed for anything other than sleeping and sex, so your body will associate bed with sleep.
REMEMBER!!...you can take control of your approach to sleep. Good sleep is a skill that can be achieved through understanding its benefits and taking time to learn what suits you.
Dr Liz Peacock (DClinPsy, BSc Hons, HCPC Registered, BPS Chartered Psychologist) is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working in the NHS across a range of mental health and neuropsychological services.
Katherine Pardo – Nutrition Team Manager
“There’s no magic bullet but this combination has helped me”
I don’t tend to have problems getting off to sleep, but I have suffered with wakeful periods through the night in the past - something I blame on years of sleep torture when my kids were little - and judging by the queries we get coming through at the office it’s a significant problem for a lot of people. I’ve tried a number of things to improve the quality of my sleep over the years and although there’s no magic bullet, I’m convinced that this combination has significantly helped, so my top tips for sleeping soundly through the night are:
• Being physically active during the day - if you have a largely desk bound job like I do, finding a way to squeeze in some physical activity around your job is a must - whether it’s going to the gym, going for a walk at lunchtime, or even some vigorous housework when you get home.
• Taking 200-400mg magnesium at night - magnesium is often referred to as nature’s valium, due to its relaxing effects on nerves and muscles
• Cutting down on wine - alcohol can cause disturbed sleep and early waking, so I try and keep it to weekends wherever I can.
Gemma Khoo – Nutritionist and Regulatory Affairs
“A change of environment usually works for me”
As a working mother of a 2 year old daughter who still wakes up in the night fairly frequently, I generally don’t have much trouble dropping off to sleep in the evening as I’m usually pretty tired! I have found though that since having Lizzie I will wake up at least a couple of times a night even if she doesn’t, and if I do have to get up with her then I’ll struggle to drop off again once I’m back in bed. If I do find that I can’t fall asleep again the worse thing I can do is stay in bed as I get more and more stressed about how little sleep I’ll have had come morning! My best bet is to get up, go downstairs and have a drink and sometimes a small snack and read a book for 10 minutes or so. I then find it much easier to drop off again once I’m back in bed.
Laura Murphy – Nutritionist
“A bedtime snack and breathing exercises helps me get my 8 hours”
I'm definitely one of those people that need my 8 hours sleep so establishing good sleep hygiene is essential. A couple of hours before I am due to go to bed I will have a cup of chamomile tea and follow it up with a small snack of either a handful or nuts, nut butter on a whole-wheat cracker or a banana. I will also try and stay off my phone half an hour before I plan on going to sleep and instead read a book or magazine. Then I do some breathing exercises, one which I find most effective is breathing in for 4 seconds, hold for another 4 seconds and breathe out for 7 seconds - this also works really well if I happen to wake during the middle of the night.
Rachel Bartholomew – Nutritionist
“Check in with yourself to see if stress is at the root cause”
Whether it’s a problem with getting to sleep or early morning waking, stress (acute or chronic) can often be at the root cause of sleepless nights. If you’re struggling to regularly get a good 8 hours, it’s worth doing a quick ‘check in’ with yourself to see if stress could be an underlying factor.
• Is your energy less than it used to be?
• Do you feel guilty when relaxing?
• Do you easily become angry or irritated?
• Do you get impatient if people or things hold you up?
• Do you often do 2 or 3 tasks at once?
• Do you work harder than most people?
• Do you rely on stimulants to keep you going (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine)?
• Are you especially competitive?
• Do you crave salty and / or sugary foods?
If you’re struggling to get to or stay asleep and you answer yes to three or more of these questions, then it’s probably worth adding some stress-busting strategies to your daily routine to support your sleep:
Soothing herbal teas – Both chamomile tea and valerian tea can be particularly useful. You can sip chamomile tea during the day for calming, soothing effects, but keep valerian for the evening when you don’t need to drive as it can make you really drowsy.
Avoid sugar, alcohol & stimulants – A crucial aspect of adrenal support is cutting out caffeine, alcohol and sugar as much as possible.
Snack before bed – Have a protein-rich snack just before bed to make sure your blood sugar is balanced through the night. Blood sugar dips not only wake you but place extra stress on the adrenals too. Oatcakes with nut butter and sliced banana is particularly beneficial. Bananas contain tryptophan – a sleep-supporting amino acid.
Magnesium – Take 200 – 400mg magnesium with supportive B vitamins daily. This mineral is commonly referred to as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ and is especially important for the adrenals; it’s a crucial supplement if you think your disrupted sleep patterns could be due to stress.
Vitamin C – This essential nutrient is found in high amounts in the adrenal glands. A supplement of 1000mg daily is a useful additional support.
Adaptogenic herbs – Asian ginseng, rhodiola root and cordyceps mycelium are useful adaptogenic herbs that can help to rebalance adrenals.
Mindfulness meditation – A routine of 10 minutes mindfulness meditation first thing in the morning and just before bed is so simple but incredibly effective at supporting overworked adrenals.
If you’re struggling to establish a healthy sleep routine, hopefully you’ll find something amongst our expert tips that works for you. Remember, good sleep is a habit that needs to be nurtured, just like regular exercise and eating healthily – take action now to support better sleep and you will soon notice the benefits start to stack up.
Useful sleep resources - www.sleepcouncil.org.uk
Online mindfulness meditation made easy - www.headspace.co.uk