“Sleep in heavenly peace” – sadly that is so not the case for a lot of people. This post contains my top 12 tips to improve the quality of your sleep. But before I begin with those, just a few musings about sleep and mental health.
Musings about sleep and mental health
I have always slept like a log. As soon as I’d hit the pillow, I’ve always fallen asleep within minutes. Except when I was suffering from depression. WOW- was my sleep bad. Really just so bad.
I would fall asleep without much difficulty but two hours later I’d wake up feeling wide awake, with thousands of (very negative) thoughts racing through my head. Eventually I’d drift off again only to wake up way too early once more. It was a horrible pattern that left me struggling with not just the daytime hours but the nighttime hours as well.
Truth be told, I’m not sure whether my sleep deteriorated before I got depressed or whether it got bad as a result of depression. My memory of those two years with very low mood is generally not the best – a pretty classic phenomenon.
The personal costs of sleep problems
Sleep is a huge part of our lives as we roughly spend a third of our time asleep. This alone demonstrates just how important it must be for our health! And yet, up to 30% of adults in the general population experience occasional sleep problems. Up to 10% suffer so badly to be diagnosed with chronic insomnia.
Sleep deprivation effects us in so many ways.
You’re at greater risk for depression and your quality of life decreases. You become less productive, feel very tired, your mood changes quickly and you find yourself more irritable than normal. Your interest and satisfaction in your normal activities decreases, and you struggle to think clearly and remember things. Concentrating and making decisions become difficult. Lack of sleep can make you feel more hungry and slow down your metabolism. It can increase insulin resistance, the condition leading up to diabetes.
And of course, the more you worry about your sleep, the worse your sleep difficulties can become… In the end, sleep can become a source of stress, rather than being there to relieve you from it.
How could anyone’s mental health possibly be good if you’re dealing with sleep problems? And whether insomnia leads to depression or the other way around – it’s clear that living with little sleep is simply not good for you.
You're in a state of hyperarousal
A fantastic article published in the Sleep Medicine Clinics Journal reported that insomnia is a disorder of hyperarousal present both during the night and the daytime. Basically, you’re way too wired, both emotionally and psychologically as well as physically.
Certain factors contribute to this state of hyperarousal, such as stressful events, specific personality traits (perhaps you tend to be anxious and ruminative), poor coping mechanisms, genetics, and a bodily decline of your sleep mechanisms linked to ageing or the menopause.
In terms of improving your sleep, this perspective (so insomnia resulting from a state of hyperarousal) just really highlights how important it is to truly wind down. To switch off, to relax, to give your mind and body the signals that you are in not in danger.
Do the things that give your body the message that all is well, and that you are safe to relax.
With that in mind, here are my top tips to improve the quality of your sleep.
My top 12 tips to improve the quality of your sleep
As is now known, when it comes to your sleep, quality seems more important than quantity. And as always, take away what you think works best for you. If you work night shifts or your children wake you up at night, of course you’ll need to consider those factors and figure out a way to best support your sleep.
- Balance your blood sugar levels
Reducing your sugar intake and adding protein to your meals and snacks helps to stabilise your blood sugar levels which is good news for the stress response in your body. Even the food you’ve had for breakfast can effect how well you’re going to sleep at night.
- Expose yourself to natural light during the day
Consider how we humans have evolved over thousands of years, and get outside as much as you can during the day. Even on cloudy days.
- Reduce blue light exposure in the evening
We have a natural 24-hour light cycle and you want to make sure that particularly blue lights are reduced in the evenings, as they can otherwise suppress melatonin release (the hormone that regulates sleep cycles). So switch your devices to “night shift” mode or even better turn them off if you like. Or get yourself a pair of blue light blocking glasses.
- Exercise during the day
This advice has helped many people sleep better at night. Kids tend to sleep better when they’ve been active during the day – the same applies to most adults. Just try not to exercise late in the evening as that may lead to increased arousal.
- Socialise with others
Humans evolved to live in a tribe. We looked out for one another and we were simply safer within a group. Studies have shown that a lack of connection to others can decrease the quality of your sleep as you are unconsciously aware that you’re “alone out there in the dark”. Your sleep might be less restful as a result.
- Avoid stimulants, particularly in the late afternoon and evening
So that’s anything with caffeine, nicotine and alcohol (which may at first relax you but you might then wake up as the effect decreases).
- Keep the bedroom for sleep (and sex) only
This is about your associations with your bed and sleep. Keep your bedroom environment calm and uncluttered too
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
…as best as you can
- Use relaxation techniques in the daytime and particularly evening
To get yourself out of a potential “hyperarousal” state, do anything and everything that truly calms down your nervous system.
For example: Hot baths with Epsom salts. Lavender essential oil in an oil burner of diffuser. Reading. Knitting. Writing your worries down. Not reading the news or watching upsetting and frightful films. Floating tanks. Meditation. Yoga. Breathing exercises. Visualisations.
Whatever works for you.
- Herbal remedies
You can try botanical remedies that have long been known for their sleep inducing and calming effects. For example hops, chamomile, lemon balm. Head to a health food shop that sells and advises on supplements but always make sure to check they won’t interact with any medications.
In line with the above, there are also supplements you can try as natural sleep aids. Magnesium is a great one, as is vitamin D and tryptophan among others. Again, make sure to get professional advice.
- Explore potential underlying medical conditions with your doctor
If none of the above recommendations have helped, seek out advice from your doctor. Also make sure to check any medications you are taking for possible sleep interactions.
In my work with clients I use functional medicine testing to help get to the root of what’s happening inside your body. One of those tests that I sometimes run is called the DUTCH test, which measures your sex and stress hormones as well as your cortisol release through the day. This can give great insight into why you’re struggling with sleep.
If you want to have a chat over your sleep and explore the possibiliy of working together, just send me a message.