6 minute read

How did you sleep last night? Well, I hope? If you’re anything like me, you may occasionally experience a disruption in your sleep quality or quantity that soon settles down. Or, if you’re more like the 40% or so of the UK population who regularly experience issues with sleep, your sleep strategy may benefit from review.

A good night’s sleep is one of the central factors in wellbeing: it can influence our energy levels, our mental performance, our mood, how well our immune systems function, even the food decisions we make. Yes, a lack of good quality sleep can make us crave unhelpful foods, even underpin “emotional eating”. Our understanding of sleep has grown massively in recent years, and it is now viewed as “the most powerful performance enhancer of all time”. 

Our physical and psychological wellbeing depends on getting enough, good quality, sleep, but we are living in sleep-deprived times with some scientists suggesting we are getting on average an hour or two less each night that we were 60 years ago. 

Estimated to cost the NHS around £40m a year in prescription sleep support, this gradual erosion in sleep quality and quantity began a lot earlier than that, with the Industrial Revolution. Before this pivotal time in our history, our activities were naturally curtailed as daylight faded; few entertainment options existed, leading us to retire to bed to rest and recharge ready for sunrise the next day. 

And then came electricity and, over the following decades, after-dark entertainment possibilities widened out: bright lights, radio, TV shows, DVDs, computers, mobile phones…the list of fun and engaging options now stimulate us well beyond our evolutionarily normal bedtime.

Our ‘evolutionary bedtime’ may have shifted but our ‘evolutionary biochemistry’ hasn’t. And that’s an issue.

Occasional disruption to sleep is rarely fatal but chronic, persistent lack of sleep exacts a toll on our health in many ways. One of those involves our hormonal system producing more of the stress hormone cortisol that can keep our body in a state of heightened arousal: the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ stress response. This can cause issues around food cravings, blood sugar regulation, appetite management, weight gain, body composition, immune function, growth, digestion, and mood management.

The main purpose of sleep is to enable the body and mind to rest and recover, during which time heavier emotions may be processed, memories laid down, and vital repairs performed. These processes take between 7 to 9 hours. Although the exact amount of sleep required varies from individual to individual, and can change as we go through Life, adults need between 7 and 9 hours per night, regardless of what you think you have trained yourself to get by with. 

If you’re falling asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, waking up refreshed in the morning, without an alarm, and feeling ready to embrace your day, you may be getting enough sleep. Well done, I applaud you: keep on doing what you’re doing.

If, however, you don’t get enough sleep you may find yourself lacking energy, have trouble concentrating, feel irritable, or notice other signs, such as digestive issues, that may point towards needing to review your sleep

For me, one reliable indicator is carb-craving. If I find myself regularly topping up the tea or coffee and reaching for a biscuit (or three) mid-morning, there’s a strong possibility that I’ve been binge-watching a few episodes of a compelling TV show at the expense of rest and recovery. And then I have to have That Talk with my impulses.

I could tell you all about the mechanics of sleep but, if you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you’re just wondering how to get a better night’s sleep.

There are several factors to consider in insomnia including, for women, the transition through perimenopause to menopause; the first one I’d suggest looking at is your daily routine. The flow of our day, how/whether we travel to work, working hours, the usual lifestyle factors (food and eating approach, physical activity, relaxation, sleep hygiene), and relationship conflicts can all contribute to sleep problems. Establishing good sleep hygiene is a solid first step in achieving and maintaining restorative sleep.

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.
  • Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable, neither too hot, nor too cold. Invest in a great mattress, good pillows, and the right weight of duvet or whatever covers you prefer. Think ‘nest’ and snuggle down.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and intimacy. This may help the mind understand what ‘bed’ is for. 
  • Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Blackout blinds or curtains, or eye masks can be useful, especially if you’re a shift or night worker.
  • Spend time outdoors every morning to get some daylight.
  • Build in daily movement as this may encourage restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise: a brisk morning walk ticks both boxes plus the ‘get outside in daylight’ box.
  • Make an effort to relax for at least 5 minutes before going to bed – a warm bath, a simple body scan, meditation, journaling, or reading something calming (not the latest thriller).
  • Get a traditional alarm clock and put your smartphone charger in another room. If you use an app such as Headspace or Calm, your phone may be next to your bed so you’ll have to be mindful of engagement with it. 
  • A couple of hours before bed, ditch the stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an edge-of-the seat film, or having an important conversation with a loved one. The same goes for smartphones and tablets: these emit full-spectrum light, just like sunlight, so can disrupt your body’s natural rhythms. Using your phone for Calm or Headspace? Download f.lux which will adjust the screen colour to mimic sunlight changes across the evening.
  • Get meal timing right: avoid going to bed hungry or uncomfortably full. Being uncomfortably full may slow your embrace of sleep; being hungry may trigger early morning waking.
  • After lunch, switch out caffeine-containing drinks (including green tea, ‘normal’ tea, coffee, colas, or energy drinks). This goes for decaff versions as a little bit of caffeine remains.
  • Remember that alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.
  • If sleep is disturbed, or if you feel the effects of poor sleep, try a daytime nap but keep this before early evening and do limit its length so that later sleep is not impaired.

Sleep issues may be frustrating; if you’ve tried these tactics and haven’t achieved the results you hope for, keeping a sleep diary can be revealing.

I hope these are helpful: let me know what you’ve found works for you. And, sleep well.

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