Our sleep quality is a product of our overall health, but because insomnia is a condition that is often white washed and considered a modern-day malaise, that we just have to put up with, I want to address it separately.
One of my first questions to clients is ‘How are you sleeping?’ Although I will generally have an idea of what they are going to answer, it’s important to get a description of where the challenges are – problems falling asleep versus falling asleep and waking shortly after, versus waking in the early hours of the morning. Depending on the answer to these questions, it can help to pinpoint the presence of stress hormones.
Darkness is stressful to our bodies, it is why we sleep when it is dark, and so one of the things that the Paleo trend does have right is that we should aim to be asleep as close to nightfall as possible, and aim to get up as close to sunrise as possible. This may seem fairly elementary, and explains why we are often seek to hibernate during the short days of winter. However it does not fit with our modern, artificial, blue-light dominated lives. Sleep is when our body should be in rest and digest mode; think of it as the body’s chance to reboot. So when we attempt to cheat the circadian rhythms that are so crucial to our health and well-being, we deny the body the chance to do all the things it needs to do to keep us well, yet we do not make the connection. We take stimulants, we use artificial light, we eat late, we ‘party’, we stay online to avoid FOMO; and then we wonder why we begin to get sick.
Like so many other things that relate to health, we may well get away with living high on the hog when we are in our 20’s, or even 30’s. But by the time we are 40, our body will be giving us a bill for the health debts we have accumulated, and poor sleep will be one of the things that is itemised on the bill.
Also like so many other health factors, food is a key issue in sleep health. The cells in our body need to be well fed in order to relax sufficiently to allow restful sleep. I have referred to Restless Leg Syndrome quite a bit but this is a prime case of the cells remaining in an excitatory state. As is coming to with a jolt just as you are falling asleep.
As with any issue you present with, we begin any programme that begins as a result of poor sleep quality with a health questionnaire developed by my mentor Billy Craig. This allows us to look at what may be causing the sleep problems, although generally sleep won’t be the only issue - if you are struggling to sleep, there will be some other problem too, even if you have not yet admitted it to yourself. The result may be a combination of sub-optimal metabolic health, in conjunction with some external stressors, that you are not able to deal with effectively because of the sub-optimal health. We work to address the top areas as highlighted in your health questionnaire with a combination of physical changes, along with what may commonly be classed as counselling – bringing to the surface the things that are bothering you, and getting them off your chest. I sometimes draw on my NLP and Hypnotherapy skills to help with this side of things, though at all times I only help to draw the answers that you already have, but may not be able to access.
What else can you do to improve your sleep quality?
If you are using a laptop, you can download this app which will dim the blue light emission https://justgetflux.com/
If you are using an iPhone (I don't know about Android, sorry), you can put it in night shift mode, which dims the brightness. When you see the impact it has on the display, I think you can begin to really appreciate the impact it will have on your physiology. I’m not going to lie, it took me a while to get used to it.
Whatever you are using, device-wise, try and switch it off a couple of hours before bed. Do some reading, chat to your family (remember, that was a common pastime back in the 1990s :D), be still, relax.
Eat some food! Be honest with yourself - track your calories if you need to - how much are you really consuming? Is it consistent? Does your body know that it’s safe to sleep, and not be on red alert / in panic state?
Have something to eat before bed - I can’t prescribe here 1) that's not my style and 2) everyone is different. I like ice cream with a good pinch of Maldon salt, but just experiment and see what works for you.
Limit your booze....I know, I know - this is boring! Well, so is getting to middle age and having a chronic stress-based disease, I can assure you.
Try and have a routine; I know, again this is dull! But your body’s circadian rhythms are routine based, and it will improve your sleep quality if you can get to bed and get up at a similar time
Try and get to bed at around 10.30 /11; this is not exactly Sex And The City stuff either. But because our body wants to sleep when it’s dark (if we didn’t give it a bucket of Starbucks and a side of adrenaline every day), once you keep yourself up into the hours of darkness, the adrenaline levels will rise, and that will impact your ability to sleep anyway.
Try and get things off your chest. One of the most significant contributors to my improved overall health has been acknowledging when I feel unhappy about something, and then saying that out loud. This doesn’t need to be confrontational, but it does help with stress, which will in turn improve your sleep.
Keep a pot of mixed salt and sugar by your bed. In the event that you wake up in the small hours, put a pinch of this under your tongue and the sugar / salt combo should kill the adrenaline that's woken you up and allow you to go back to sleep. Don't put the light on, get up, wake your partner for a chat, have a quick scroll through Facebook etc etc. It's very easy to form bad habits here (more on that in a coming blog), so you need to assure your body that it’s time for sleep, not online banking, revisiting all of of your questionable life decisions in the last 15 years, nor a quick bit of housework. I can't stress enough that this is a sticking plaster to get you through the odd sleepless night It's not a long term solution to insomnia, the root cause of which needs to be understood and treated.