Specialist trainer and corporate coach, Michelle Spirit, offers practical tips and advice in her answer to our latest Ask the Expert question.
“Recently I have started waking in the middle of the night and am finding it increasingly difficult to get back to sleep. It feels like I have just succeeded when my alarm goes off. So, I start the day feeling tired and by early afternoon could easily nod off at my desk. With a busy family life there is little room for relaxation in the evening. I know both my work and home life are suffering. Could you suggest any tips I could try to help me get a full night’s sleep?”
“If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made”
Dr Allan Rechtschaffen
We are getting between 1-2 hours less sleep per night than we did 60 years ago. So, if we sleep around 8 hours a night that’s a 25% drop. The result? Well economists estimate sleep deprivation costs the British economy about £40bn a year. The human cost is so huge it is inestimable, but for sure we put ourselves at risk when simply not getting sufficient sleep.
Consider this … if you drive when having had only 3 hours sleep, it can be more dangerous than drinking alcohol. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in South Australia 1997 study reported that ‘relatively moderate levels of fatigue impair performance to an extent equivalent to or greater than is currently acceptable for alcohol’. It also affects our energy levels, food choices, immune system, memory, life expectancy, risk of developing Alzheimer’s and chronic diseases and our stress levels.
One of the problems is that most of us don’t know we are sleep deprived and just carry on, business as usual, as we just get used to how we feel. Being aware then, is the first stage. But how do we know?
Try answering a few of these questions:
- In less than interesting meetings, do you get fidgety, rather than yawn?
- Do you wake up feeling refreshed?
- Do you usually wake up at the same time rather than need an alarm?
- Do you get to sleep about 30 minutes after going to bed?
If you mostly answered ‘yes’, then it is unlikely you are sleep deprived. A few ‘no’s, then now is the time to start making a few changes to get the sleep you need. Here are a few ideas to get you started. Don’t think you have to do them all at once. Focus on those that seem relatively easy to implement and focus on the benefits you will enjoy rather than this being something you need to do just because it’s good for you.
- Keep technology out of the bedroom.
- Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible so your body knows it’s time to sleep. If light is leaking into your room then get some black out curtains.
- Minimise the amount of light you are exposed to in the evening … our phones emit the same wavelength light as the morning sun … blue light …so we are sending a message to our body that it is the morning. So, how can you minimise this light in the evening?
- Many phones have a function that allows you to reduce the amount of blue light emitted so make sure this is switched on at least 2 hours before you intend to get to bed.
- Get some blue light blocking glasses. They are inexpensive and highly effective (although my own family think I look a little crazy in my orange specs which go on at around 8.30pm every night, it is well worth the teasing as this has made a huge difference to my sleep quality).
- Have a rule ‘no tech on after 8.30pm’, and if you watch TV at night turn it off at least half an hour before you go to bed .
- Try a relaxing aromatherapy diffuser or pillow spray, not a candle – for sleep lavender, vanilla and ylang ylang.
- If you need to get up in the night, use low red night light as red has the least impact on your circadian clock (this is also good advice if you have a night light for your children – switch to red for the same reasons).
- Use an alarm clock that doesn’t emit light – one of the old fashioned ones will do as long as it doesn’t tick too loudly.
- Get at least 20 minutes of daylight first thing in the morning – have your first cuppa outside or by a window, if driving park away from where you work/shop/drop kids off and walk, walk to the next bus or tube stop.
Start a sleep routine
- This has to be something that works for you, so it’s hard to prescribe in any detail but consider the importance of calming thoughts and calming the body down as a general rule of thumb.
- Set an alarm for when you need to start putting in place your routine.
- Don’t watch or listen to the news or anything that is going to trigger the release of stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, before going to bed.
- Save any potentially difficult, emotive conversations until the morning.
- Put in place boundaries around emails to ensure you are not reading or replying to emails in the evening, especially not when in bed.
- Try and do something relaxing before going to bed such as listening to music, having a bath, reading, watching something unlikely to trigger excitement (so that’s any Christmas episodes of Eastenders out!)
- Keep a gratitude diary – make a note of 5 things that you are grateful for before heading off to the land of nod.
- Drink no caffeine after 6.00pm – preferably earlier – and remember that even decaffeinated drinks have trace amounts of caffeine. Try something calming like camomile tea or one of the range of herbal teas that are designed to help you sleep e.g. valerian and hop as a relaxant
- Keep the bedroom cool but the feet warm. As we drift off to sleep our core temperature drops in relation to our extremities. That’s why bedtime socks are really very useful for those looking to get off to sleep quickly.
- Read with a low light if you like to read before sleeping.
- Take some deep breaths in, and slow ones out for two minutes to calm the mind.
- If you are not getting enough sleep, consider having a tomato or pineapple juice as your Lycopene levels are likely to be low
- Infuse some citrus into your drinks to increase vitamin C as levels are also likely to be low
- Increasing selenium can also help, just eating 3 to 4 brazil nuts will bring your levels up to a good level needed for sleep
- Get those B vitamins – B3 increases REM sleep, B6 is needed for serotonin production and B12 for vitamin production
- Vitamin D and magnesium can also really help optimise the quality of sleep
N.B. Always remember to seek medical advice before commencing any supplements as they can interact with other medications
If you can’t get off to sleep or are awake in the night
- Most importantly, don’t lie in bed worrying about the fact you cant get to sleep or stay asleep as this will simply make the problem worse. Relax and know that one night’s poor sleep won’t be that devastating. Try and distract the mind by focusing on something very boring. Indeed, many GP’s will recommend you say the word “the” repeatedly, over and over again to induce sleep.
- Guided meditations are also very helpful, as is self-hypnosis. Body scans where you focus the attention on each part of the body in turn, tightening this and then relaxing, is also a very helpful technique for many people.
- Another technique it to focus your awareness to the area in the middle of your forehead. Focus on the left hand and just allow that hand to relax … let go. Then start to notice how it begins to drift up the arm to other areas of the whole body. Slowly. Little bit by little bit.
- The 3 things exercise is also valuable. Just bring to your attention three things you can see (or visualise), hear and sense….repeat this again and again.
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