My Border Terrier Bear is an expert in good quality sleep. ;)
There's no getting away from the fact that consistent, good quality sleep is essential for a healthy body and mind. Here are a few ideas to help you raise your sleep game.
A quick reminder of why it's worth investing time in your sleep
Before we get to ways to improve your sleep, it's worth remembering why sleep is important in the first place.
Here are a few of the things your sleep does (or could do) for you.
Good sleep starts when you get up in the morning
That might sound like a contradiction, but as with most things, sleep needs to be seen within a bigger context. It's no use just getting in to bed at night after a busy day and wondering why you can't get to sleep.
To understand the context of sleep, it helps to understand a bit more about one of your body's natural rhythms or 'body clocks'.
Your circadian rhythm
Your circadian rhythm helps to regulate many functions in your body. One of them is the wake/sleep cycle.
This cycle is controlled by the release of two hormones - melatonin and cortisol.
Cortisol is at its peak about an hour after waking up. It then gradually decreases during the day.
It helps you to stay awake and alert. You may already know about cortisol as a stress hormone.
Melatonin starts to increase in the evening. It stays high during the night and decreases in the early morning.
It makes you feel sleepy so you know it's time to go to bed. The trouble comes when we 'mess' with this natural rhythm.
You can find out more about circadian rhythms here and here.
How to support your circadian rhythm to promote better sleep
The tips below are all aimed at supporting your circadian rhythm - your body's natural sleep rhythm.
It can be overwhelming to try and change every at once. Be kind to yourself and take some small steps to better sleep. :)
If you make some small changes now, you can achieve big improvements over time. Why not pick two or three ideas to try and decide to stick with them for at least two weeks?
Perhaps you'll be ready to introduce some more positive changes after that.
Seven steps to better sleep
1. Start your day well
Get yourself a drink and stand outside for a few minutes. Do this before you pick up your phone or turn on the radio or TV. This gets your eyes exposed to the most beneficial light - natural morning daylight. It works with your rising cortisol levels and helps you feel awake. See my related post on Morning Mindfulness.
I realise this won't be possible for everyone depending on children, pets, access to the outdoors etc. The next best thing is standing by an open window. Or even just looking out of a closed window.
It's also important to get up at a consistent time. Even at the weekend. Yeah, I know! See step 7 for more about that.
2. Get outside in the morning, preferably in nature
Ideally walking for at least 20 minutes. Walking the dogs everyday means I have to do this, but invent a reason to get outside if you need to! If you're already out to walk your children to school or to get to the bus stop, try taking a longer route to make it up to 20 minutes.
If you can't walk or you don't have time to be outside that long, then enjoy your morning coffee/tea/herbal tea outside instead and spend some time looking at the trees (if you can see any) and the sky. Leave your phone inside or in your pocket.
This will help your exposure to natural sunlight which in turn helps your circadian rhythm. In his book The 4 Pillar Plan, Dr Rangan Chatterjee explains that if you are inside all day, you don't get enough lux (the unit of measurement of light) as artificial light does not provide anywhere near as much as natural sunlight.
His book is well worth a read. It explains about the importance of sleep in more detail and also explains how sleep is one of the 4 pillars to good health - the others being relax, eat and move.
3. Have your caffeine early
No caffeine at all is even better, but if you're a caffeine fan (like me) then make sure you restrict when you drink it.
The general consensus is to enjoy your caffeine before midday. Caffeine affects your sleep because it's an adenosine-blocker.
Adenosine is a chemical that's made in the body and builds up the longer we're awake. The more we have in the body, the more sleepy we feel. Caffeine stops this process happening.
It can keep working in your body for around six hours (it's different for everyone), so the later in the day you drink caffeine, the later in the evening it can affect your ability to get to sleep.
Watch out as green tea contains caffeine and even some decaf blends of tea and coffee contain trace amounts. Try herbal teas, water with slices of fruit to add flavour or sparkling water. If you feel you want something more substantial, a plant-based milk alternative is a great option too (just make sure you check the ingredients as not all milk alternatives are equal!).
4. Finish eating by 7pm
Or at least a couple of hours before you're beginning to wind down for sleep.
Snacking during the evening is an easy way to contribute to poor quality sleep. Try introducing a no snacking rule so your dinner is the last thing you eat until breakfast.
I've recently been having the Pukka After Dinner tea. It's quite a strong flavour which really helps me to stop thinking about eating anything else! Another tip is to brush your teeth soon after dinner.
If you've eaten later than usual, you're best to delay when you go to bed. This allows your body to effectively digest your dinner and supports your circadian rhythms.
This ties in with the concept of sleep cycles too - see point 7 below for more information on this.
5. Start a bed-time routine
This could have a whole blog post of it's own but I'll just stick to a few general guidelines:
Give yourself at least an hour to wind down
This could include getting yourself ready for the next day, or better still some yoga, meditation or stretching. You could also try a warm (but not hot) shower or bath and reading a good book. Relaxing essential oils in your skincare or diffused in your room or in a pillow spray can help this process.
No screens before bed!
Aim to turn off your laptop and stop looking at your phone or tablet for at least an hour before bedtime, preferably longer than this. Dr Chatterjee likens looking at your phone to staring into the sun.
This acts as a trigger for your brain to wake up. I know that for some people going without their phone at bedtime is a big deal, but just try it for a week and see how you get on.
If you really have to look at screens invest in some amber glasses to cut out the detrimental effects of blue light. Blue light is the light emitted from screens. It inhibits melatonin and increases cortisol - you can see why screens are such a problem before bed.
Apparently Jamie Oliver has a bed-time alarm to make sure that he remembers to start his bed-time routine! This is a great idea if you tend to lose track of time scrolling through social media in the evening.
Keep your wind-down hour stress-free
Avoid anything that could raise your stress levels in your wind-down hour.
If you do the above two points this should be a big help as you can't check social media or your emails or get news updates which can easily trigger a stress response in your body.
It's also worth avoiding any potentially difficult conversations at this time too. Earlier in the day is a better time to deal with these things.
Remember that cortisol is linked with waking you up. Anything that causes any sort of stress at any time of day will stimulate a release of your stress hormone. This is really unhelpful just before bedtime!
But if you do end up feeling stressed . . .
However hard you try, sometimes you can't avoid your stress levels creeping up before bed.
Relaxing essential oils, yoga, a self-guided mediation, breathing techniques, looking at the night sky, a hug, a massage, having sex, reading a good book, writing in a journal or a gratitude journal are all ways of relaxing your body and mind.
These are all great things to incorporate in to your wind-down time on any night - you don't have to feel stressed out first. ;)
6. Create a sleep-friendly bedroom
Make sure there are no devices in the the bedroom. Buy yourself an old-fashioned alarm clock and charge your phone in another room.
Keep your bedroom really dark. Use a sleep mask if you need to. If you need to have a light, for example a night light for your children, invest in a red-light. Dr Chatterjee explains that red light is the wavelength that has the least impact on your body's circadian clock.
It's also important to keep your bedroom cool. Your body temperature naturally drops while you sleep. The lower temperature stimulates the release of melatonin which helps to keep you asleep during the night. Keeping your bedroom cool assists with this process.
7. Work out your optimum bedtime and learn about sleep cycles
This involves understanding a bit about the concept of a sleep cycle.
According to Nick Littlehales in his book Sleep, the human body sleeps in cycles of 90 minutes. So you should plan your bedtime and getting up time around multiples of 90 minutes (and forget about the 'myth of 8 hours sleep').
If you need to be up at 6am, and you are aiming for 7.5 hours of sleep then you should be getting to sleep by 10:30pm. This is 5 lots of 90 minute sleep cycles. He also believes in getting up at the same time every day. Yes, even at the weekend. But it doesn't mean you have to get up and stay up - you can get up, get a drink and then get back in bed for a while if you need a bit more duvet time!
If you are up later than usual, Littlehales suggests waiting for the start of your next 90 minute sleep cycle. So if you usually go to sleep at 10:30pm but you're still up at 11:15pm, he argues it's better to wind down for a while and then aim to be asleep by midnight so that you pick up your body's natural rhythm again.
There's a lot more to it than this, but hopefully that's enough to get you thinking. His book is a really informative read - it completely changed my approach to sleep. You can also see him explain things himself during a TED Talk and on various blogs and videos.
Which step will you work on first?
I appreciate that this guidance is quite general and is easier for some to apply than others.
My hope is that you have found some useful information that you can adapt to your own situation.
If you are still struggling with sleep after trying these steps then perhaps there is an underlying cause that you need to get to the bottom of.
Any form of trauma, grief or stress could be a block to good sleep. If you would like to talk about this you can book a free 30-minute Discovery Call with me to find out more about how homeopathy and homeobotanicals can help improve your sleep. :)
You might also be interested in my blog post which explains more about the stress hormone cortisol with some simple tips on helping to keep it under control.