Sleep is essential for good health and wellbeing. However, lack of sleep is increasingly becoming a problem according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and lack of sleep is associated with numerous health issues. However, although it is important to get to the root cause of the sleep issue, diet and lifestyle may be able to help. Here I share with you all my tips for you to try at home.
- Get the right light. Our body clock, or circadian rhythm, is greatly influenced by light exposure at all times of the day. Try to get some daylight exposure as soon as you can on waking. Perhaps get up a few minutes earlier and take 5 minutes outside or in winter, aim to get outside in your lunch break. If there is no chance to go outside, then exposure to bright lights (such as a Lumie light) in the morning is the next option. Then in the evening dim the lights or use orange light bulbs or orange tinted glasses and reduce exposure to screens. If early waking is an issue, some exposure to white light in the afternoon may be helpful. Limiting exposure to screens is also important at bedtime, as the content such as that on social media, may promote feelings of stress or anxiety.
- Timing. Try to stick to the same bedtime and waking time each day. This will support your natural circadian rhythms, which can be disrupted by stress. Make sure you allow time to relax in bed before falling asleep as this is one of the ‘stages’ of sleep. If you tend to go to bed late, consider gradually making your bedtime earlier. To fully benefit from sleep, we need to experience each of the sleep cycles. Consider tracking your sleep cycles with an app or appliance such as a Fitbit. Be aware that sleeping pills and aids do not produce ‘real’ sleep and unfortunately the body does not experience all the important sleep cycles required for good health. You may have a sleep problem because you have a disrupted circadian rhythm. This is where your cortisol (one of the stress hormones responsible for being able to get up and go) is peaking and dipping at the wrong times of the day. Ask your nutritional therapist for a stress test to look at your cortisol levels and pattern.
- Manage stress. Is stress the root cause of your sleep issue? If this is the case can you get some support? Perhaps some help is required or even some counselling or a lifestyle change. Are you waking early in the morning with an active mind? Make sure you write everything down on a notepad the night before so you don’t need to remember things or worry about things in the night. Meditation is an effective tool for relaxation, coping with stress and improving sleep. Great apps include Smiling Mind, Headspace, Insight Timer and Calm.
- Relaxation. Do you allow time to actually relax? Taking time to wind down is an important part of the sleep process. Prioritise your relaxation and sleep time by going to bed 15-30 minutes earlier. You could listen to relaxing music, read or meditate. A warm bath with Epsom salts or lavender oil may help. You may enjoy essential oils with a diffuser or rolled onto pulse points. I like Neal’s Yard, Neom and doTERRA. The relaxation stage is a valid ‘stage’ in the sleep cycle.
- Exercise. Fresh air and exercise can help promote good sleep and general wellbeing. However, too much intense exercise or exercise in the evening may not aid sleep as it can cause rises in cortisol (one of the fight or flight hormones), so be mindful of how this affects you. Yoga has been shown in studies to aid stress and anxiety so may be a useful alternative.
- General comfort. Is your room dark, quiet and cool? Are you warm under your covers? Is your mattress comfortable? Make sure that the room is dark or use an eye mask. The room should be slightly cool. Use earplugs if you are disturbed by outside noises. Do you suffer from aches and pains? Do you have restless legs? Are you getting up multiple times to go to the toilet? Do you suffer from night sweats or hot flushes? Addressing the root of the issue of general comfort might help. Again speak to your GP about these symptoms. If your sleep disruption is due to babies or children, perhaps ask for help from family, friends or the relevant professional. There are baby sleep experts and nighttime nanny services that may provide some respite and support.
- Sleep apnoea, snoring and breathing issues. Snoring, sleep apnoea and mouth breathing are associated with disrupting sleep and are linked to other health conditions. Consider monitoring your sleep cycles on a gadget such as a Fitbit. If you suspect a breathing issue or you snore regularly, speak to your GP about seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) or ask for information about a sleep clinic. There are experts including dentists who work with breathing exercises to prevent mouth breathing. Sleep disorders can also be linked with thyroid issues so ask your GP for a full thyroid test (not just TSH) or get one done privately.
- Reduce stimulants. Everyone’s tolerance for caffeine and alcohol is varied. In some cases as few as two caffeinated beverages (even consumed earlier in the day) is enough to disrupt sleep – either through delayed falling asleep, restless sleep or early waking. It might be that you have to give up caffeine altogether. Coffee can affect people differently from tea, and be aware that decaf still contains caffeine. Look for ‘caffeine-free’ drinks. I like chamomile and Pukka Night Time teas. Remember that chocolate contains some caffeine too so avoid eating in the evening. This is the same for alcohol as, although drinking alcohol may feel relaxing at the time, in fact, this has a stimulating effect on the body. Try reducing alcohol and avoid drinking too close to bedtime.
- Eating patterns and nutrition. This will vary from person to person. Going to bed on a full stomach or after alcoholic drinks will not support a good night’s sleep. However, if your blood sugar levels are too low this may also be disruptive. Some people avoid ‘carbs’ in the evening believing that this is the time of day that they cause weight gain. This is a myth. Some carbohydrates (whole-food ones, of course) are needed to produce serotonin, which in turn is converted to melatonin which is important for the sleep cycle. You may need to add some whole-food carbohydrates to your evening meal. Blood sugar balance is important for sleeping through the night and food choices throughout the whole day can influence this. Try to avoid refined carbohydrates such as foods made from flour and sugar. Instead choose whole, natural, unprocessed foods. Include plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, oily fish, organic, free-range or grass-fed meat, seafood, olive oil, nuts, seeds and free range eggs.
- How might nutritional therapy help? Nutritional therapy would consider all of the above but tailor the diet and lifestyle to your individual needs. Nutrient imbalances can be implicated in certain conditions such as restless leg and thyroid disorders. Nutrition can be helpful in supporting inflammation, stress and anxiety. There are nutritional supplements (recommended by a qualified practitioner) that can be helpful for supporting sleep or aiding anxiety.
Nutritional therapy does not replace the advice of your doctor. This information is to educate and inform, not to diagnose. Do not take supplements without the advice of a registered nutritional therapist.