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How To Get A Heavenly Night’s Sleep
Here's some sound advice and sleep secrets for you.
If you've been waking full of anxiety in the middle of the night these past few weeks than you're in good company. A recent survey’s found that due to the dark and dreary days of winter many find their body clock slightly askew. Leaving them prone to waking up fitfully not sure whether it's time to face another day or to stop fretting and try to get back off to sleep.
With other research finding that 36% of adults experience at least one troubled night a week and 18 per cent regularly sleeping poorly, a lack of sleep is a real problem. In fact a staggering 400,000 people in a recent British Sleep Society study claim that sleep problems are ruining their relationships and careers.
It's not simply your sleep problem at issue. If you’ve a partner that tosses and turns, or has a disorder like sleep apnoea (and snores) your sleep is likely to be disturbed. Interesting, though, women have more tenacity when sharing beds. Research at the University of Vienna found that men showed more disturbed sleep when sharing a bed then women. Despite the fact more men snore!
Some experts reckon we've become overly neurotic about getting the perfect night's sleep arguing that overall the majority does. Others claim the so-called "sleep debt" facing the country is very real and engendered by modern, 24-hour society. With researchers at the University of Surrey citing laptops in the bedroom, mobile phones at the bedside and other light and noise pollution as major culprits.
When devising a sleep programme for a coaching-client I always take these and many other considerations into account, as I'll outline. Worrying about sleep is logical in my book – but it doesn’t solve the issue. We spend a full third of life in bed and so we should expect a good quality of rest. Market analysts Mintel estimate the sleep industry’s worth over £4 billion annually confirming the fact we're terrified of being tired and spend a lot of money in pursuit of sleep.
There are many questions around getting a good night's sleep. First, what is a good night sleep? Most would answer seven to eight unbroken hours. Some research calls this level this into question. What may be more important is simply meeting your own unique needs rather than panicking if you don't get the full eight hours. Many people, famously including Margaret Thatcher, thrive on four hours a night. Some are famous cat-nappers, as Winston Churchill was, who top-up their rest-requirements as needs be. The definition of a good night sleep becomes your own sense of well-being, feeling refreshed in the morning.
An important consideration is your body's own natural circadian rhythm. Our evolutionary heritage is essentially to go to bed with the sunset and rise with sun up. But this is complicated by some evidence suggesting that when our hunter-gatherer ancestors were on the move they gave up this routine and flourished on much shorter cycles of rest and activity as the hunt required.
This diversity in sleep patterns has left a legacy where some people may well have inherited a greater need for a long, nightly rest. And others, like Churchill, inherited an ability to recuperate quickly and have shorter bursts of activity. Again there’s evidence from the University of Zurich that you partly inherit a propensity to sleep well and deeply, or lightly.
There are a number of myths around sleep. One is that if you feel sleepy mid-afternoon you've got a problem, i. e., you’re energy levels are too low. This isn't true and other cultures, e.g., Mediterranean ones, recognise this natural mid-afternoon dip requires a siesta. Whatever the climate it's normal to experience a mid-afternoon dip after eating lunch. Determine if you simply need to chill-out for a few moments while your energy returns or need a proper "Churchilian" catnap.
Another myth is that you’re stuck with your "type" of sleep. But with the following advice you can try many things to establish better sleep. Other misconceptions include that it’s "bad" to sleep for “too long” but research shows after extraordinary stress/illness the body naturally requires more sleep. That when you don't remember your dreams you haven't had them - completely untrue. And that “deep sleepers” get better sleep – again not necessarily true as some wake feeling lethargic.
What isn't disputed is that sleeping is a complex process involving many parts of the brain and neuro-chemicals. Its function is both to replenish the body physically and rest the mind to ensure mental agility. How much you need - and when you need it - is harder to determine.
What also isn’t disputed is that a real lack of sleep weakens your immune system, disturbs your ability to think and work efficiently, affects other abilities like driving skills, and impacts negatively on relationships. Who wants sex when feeling exhausted? And who can meet targets when too tired to think?
Here are a number of sleep secrets to try. Most based on research and others from my own and clients’ experiences of being light or disturbed sleepers.
You And Your Lifestyle Overall –
What you do when awake hugely impacts on your time asleep. I hate to be a killjoy but this means many lifestyle choices may have to be modified as part of a new routine including:
* How much stress is in your life? General stress is a major culprit for keeping you awake worrying. As with any stress identify the cause of it rather than simply treating the symptom. As you eliminate stress generally in your life, your sleep cycle will improve.
* How much caffeine do you drink? Research confirms caffeine after 3pm impacts negatively on sleep even if your bedtime is, e.g., 11pm. Substitute decaffeinated teas/coffees with decaf or herbal drinks. Bear in mind that some decaffeinated coffee has a little caffeine!
* Do you enjoy alcohol? More than a unit or two of alcohol and you’re significantly more likely to have a rebound effect. This is where a few hours into sleep, your body naturally "fights off" the effects of alcohol, giving a surge of energy that can wake you up.
* What foods do you eat? You may love hot and spicy cuisine (as I do) but things like chilli, onions and garlic stimulate circulation. Keep these for a lunchtime culinary delight and after 7pm choose foods with soporific qualities like turkey, salmon, low GI foods like oats, wholegrain pastas, lentil dishes, and even lettuce or banana sandwiches. Avoid processed foods high in sugar and/or salt - both can frazzle your wellbeing.
* Do you exercise? If not choose something you enjoy to do regularly. You might hate the gym but if you love something like dancing build it into your routine. Regular exercise promotes wellbeing - promoting in turn better quality sleep. Don't do vigorous exercise within three hours of your bedtime, though. Your circulation keeps pumping for a number of hours making sleep difficult.
* Are you a techno junkie? If you love surfing the Net and playing computer games - beware! This focused mental activity increases restlessness and disturbs sleep. Stop using such technology at least an hour before bedtime.
* Do you love films and television? Likewise if you love watching films/programmes late at night ensure they’re not action thrillers, full of police chases. These raise adrenalin levels preventing relaxation.
* Are you an owl or a lark? Fascinating research found that most people fall into being an “owl” - coming to life later in the day, concentrating better in the afternoon, enjoy a late bedtime and are later to rise. "Larks" are the opposite - working best in the morning and preferring an earlier bedtime. Although research suggests you can retrain this, most people usually only successfully shift an hour or two one way or the other. That said, if work or relationship commitments mean you need to shift your body clock you can nap at appropriate times to make up for changes. Psychologically it's crucial to keep an open mind!
Specific Strategies For Day And Night -
After considering ALL the above here are specific strategies to use.
* Keep a sleep ‘diary’ for a week making a note of when you get off to sleep, wake up, and take catnaps. Look for any pattern and identify hot spots (worries, issues) that keep you awake.
* Once you've examined your sleep diary begin a Super Slumber routine tailored to your needs. After dinner do an activity that’s enjoyable but not over stimulating.
* Take a warm bath or shower - not hot as this can be of a stimulating. Take time to relax and enjoy it. Use calming aromatherapy oil in the bath - lavender oil is perfect.
* Read a magazine/book you find relaxing. Follow the same principle as with telly – reading over-stimulating material will keep you awake.
* Read or watch telly away from the bedroom. The bedroom should be associated with sleep (and sex!) not other activities. Some people (including me) find reading helpful in bed but it disturbs sleep for others.
* Use relaxation techniques. Start by clenching, then relaxing the major muscle groups. Next visualise a restful scene. Use deep breathing - inhale slowly and then exhale to the count of 10. Use relaxation techniques during the day when tension is mounting so you prevent it mounting to sleep-disruptive points.
* Relaxation tapes are helpful to some. From whale music to white noise and self-hypnosis tapes, experiment with different ones.
* Ensure bedroom temperature is balanced between not being too cold or so warm you’re kicking off covers.
* Bedroom lighting is important. Don't use a powerful reading light – over-stimulating. A dimmer switch is ideal for getting the right balance. Some find coloured light bulbs more relaxing.
* Noise levels in the bedroom can disrupt your sleep. Although some could sleep through a train most have some noise sensitivity. Heavy curtains, draft excluders, and earplugs where necessary will help.
* The use of colour is important in your bedroom. Calming colours include pale shades of blue, pale lavenders and lilacs - often used in mental health units. Pale brick and earth tones and fleshy-pinks also promote tranquillity. Deeper greens promote comfort. And darker earth tones/dark fleshy pinks/deep, rich butter tones are soothing.
* Emotional "Association's" play a part in sleep disturbances. Your bedroom should be a place only associated with sleep and not other activities. Having the TV going late at night is not helpful. Bringing files of work to bed is not advisable!
* Use a few drops of relaxing aromatherapy oil in your pillow stuffing - lavender, geranium, or sandalwood.
* During very stressful times take a herbal sleep remedy- available from health shops and chemists.
* Put out of your mind any worries. Make a list of ‘must-dos’ for the next day before you get in bed. Don’t think about them the rest of the evening. If stressful thoughts creep in, banish them.
* Sip relaxing camomile or other ‘night remedy’ teas. Any evening snacks should again consist of slow-burning carbohydrates. Snacking within 30 minutes of bedtime causes digestive activity keeping you awake.
* Having satisfying sex will help you sleep by releasing tension.
* Put "to bed" any rows, i.e., make up with your partner/family member before switching off the light.
* The quality of your mattress and bedding can either promote or inhibit a restful night. Seriously consider investing in a good quality (e.g. pocket sprung) mattress and bedding.
* Don't get your system out of sync by lying-in for hours on weekends. Research shows people who do this have poorer quality sleep. Allow yourself an extra hour - or 90 minutes maximum - but no more.
* Reassure yourself that if you wake early you will cope. Take one night at a time – worrying that you won’t “sleep all week” won’t help.
* Mentally “reframe” the way you think about your sleep needs. You may be trying to force yourself into a sleep pattern that’s actually unnatural for your body clock. Play around with it by slightly adjusting times, trying naps, and try rising earlier.
Finally, consult your doctor if you've tried ALL of the above and you still sleep poorly.
The Stages of Sleep:
Let’s begin by finding out what happens when you fall asleep. During sleep your brain undergoes many changes. Researchers measure these changes in terms of brain electrical activity. This electrical activity goes through a series of stages. In Stage One you begin to feel drowsy but are semi-conscious of your surroundings and your brain activity is fairly active. During Stages Two and Three you fall deeper into an unconscious state with calmer brain activity. You’re meandering towards the deeper reaches of your unconscious mind. In approximately twenty to thirty minutes you reach Stage Four sleep, or slow-wave sleep, where the electrical activity becomes gentle. This is the deepest level of sleep.
This pattern of brain waves change abruptly after about ninety minutes. A great burst of electrical activity occurs that is even livelier than the activity recorded when you’re fully awake! During this time your eye muscles twitch being named Rapid Eye Movement sleep or REM. REM sleep lasts for about twenty minutes and occurs in cycles of about ninety minutes. Woken during REM people report they were dreaming. Before REM Stage people will move about in their sleep. But during REM people undergo ‘sleep paralysis’ where their whole body, accept the chest for breathing and eyes, is paralysed. It is believed that this paralysis stops you from ‘acting out’ your dreams and potentially hurting yourself.
So what is the purpose of REM? Experiments show that REM deprivation leads to emotional and psychological disturbance. Although it’s important to recharge your batteries during sleep, it’s even more important to have REM sleep. This allows you to process important emotional issues.
Your Sleep Problems:
Approximately 25% of people suffer from sleep problems leaving them drained. Researchers believe ‘modern living’ is responsible. Eating processed foods with additives keep us awake, leading sedentary lives, and the stresses and strains of modern life keep us awake worrying. Although the recommendation for adults aged 25 and 60 is eight hours per night this varies depending on your energy requirements. Excluding rare disorders like narcolepsy (where a person drops off to sleep at unpredictable moments) sleep problems fall into three main types –
1/ Not being able to get off to sleep - Excess stress that leaves your mind fully switched on is the most common culprit for this. Follow the first step in my sleep routine below to help you switch off from stress and fall asleep.
2/ Early waking – Waking with the ‘dawn chorus’ and being unable to get back to sleep is usually associated with anxious/depressed mood. The long-term solution is to address issues that are causing you anger or sadness. Pent up emotions will cause early waking. Whether work, relationships, or family, draw up a list of what you’d like to change. Next set some small goals to bring about this change. Put your plan into action. As your confidence increases to tackle life issues so too will your sleep improve.
3/ Fitful sleep patterns – Fitful sleep is quite common and usually due to sleep apnoea, or shortness of breath. This is where the sleeper relaxes to such a point that their throat collapses inwards stopping the flow of oxygen. Their body then forces them to gasp – often waking themselves – but they fall straight back to sleep. In the morning they feel tired and aren’t quite sure why their night was disturbed. The signs of sleep apnoea are loud snoring and gasping noises. Get help from your doctor who may recommend sleep masks, or nasal ‘plasters’, or in severe cases surgery to reduce excess tissue in the throat.
Top Tips for Super Sleep:
a/ Know your caffeine threshold – the point in the day where any more caffeine will disrupt sleep. It may be as early as lunchtime or as late as 8.00 p.m. Try different points to see how you’re affected. Consider giving up caffeine altogether if sleep problems persist.
b/ Alcohol intake - more than a couple drinks may cause the rebound effect where your body surges with energy after three to four hours of poor quality, alcohol induced sleep.
c/ Avoid foods containing sugar - Sugar is a stimulant and is contained in many processed foods. Avoid where possible.
d/ Use relaxation techniques. Perhaps visualising a restful scene or learning to clench and then relax muscle groups. Use during the day when tension is mounting so you prevent it mounting to sleep-disruptive points.
e/ Take regular exercise before 7.00 p.m. Exercise burns excess stress, leaving you relaxed. However people get energy surges for a few hours after exercising so doing it in the evening may stop you getting off to sleep.
f/ Keep a sleep ‘diary’ for a week making a note of roughly when you get off to sleep, wake up, and take any catnaps. Catnaps should be limited to no more than one a day, no longer than 20 minutes.
g/ Ensure the bedroom is balanced between being too cold so you’re uncomfortable, and so warm you’re kicking off covers.
h/ Put a few drops of relaxing aromatherapy oil in your pillow stuffing. Add a few drops of lavender, geranium, or sandalwood oil to an almond oil base.
i./ Avoid intense interaction on technology within two hours of bedtime – PCs, computer games, etc., over-stimulate the senses.
j/ For particularly stressful times keep a herbal sleep remedy in your home - available from good health shops and chemists.
My 10-Step Sleep Routine:
1/ Put out of your mind any worries from the day. Make a list of ‘must-dos’ for the next day before you get in bed. Refuse to think about them the rest of the evening. If stressful thoughts creep up, ban them by saying ‘NO!’ within your mind. Remember worrying at night won’t solve the problem!
2/ Don’t watch television/videos that distress you. Violent images will give you a surge of adrenalin and literally keep you awake with fear.
3/ Have a warm, soothing bath/shower to start unwinding. Include a few drops of aromatherapy oil (as above) for de-stressing.
4/ Read a magazine/book you find relaxing. You need to follow the same principle as with telly – reading material that’s over-stimulating will keep you awake.
5/ Read or watch telly away from the bedroom. The bedroom should be associated with sleep (and sex!), not other activities.
6/ Sip a relaxing cup of camomile or other ‘night remedy’ teas. Any evening snacks should consist of slow-burning carbohydrates. Snacking within 30 minutes of bedtime may result in digestive activity keeping you awake.
7/ Counting sheep can be boring so instead call to mind a relaxing moment. Perhaps visualise lying on the warm sand during a recent holiday.
8/ Having satisfying sex will help you sleep by giving you a sense of well-being and releasing tension.
9/ Take a few deep breaths, holding for a count of five and breathe out slowly.
10/ Reassure yourself - if you wake early, you WILL get through your day. Take one night at a time – worrying that you won’t ‘sleep all week’ won’t help.
The British Sleep Society – email@example.com
National Sleep Foundation – www.sleepfoundation.org
Fun Facts and Figures:
1/ Men are more likely to complain their partner’s feet are cold. Women are more likely to complain their partner hogs the bed.
2/ 15% of people are happy when their partner’s away to have the bed to them selves.
3/ 25% of people admit using the spare room because their partner disturbs them.
4/ The average person sweats over half a pint per night – into the bed!
5/ A five-year-old pillow is 50% house dust mite droppings!
Published in The Express Newspaper
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