Why Sleep Matters to Us
Sleep is a time for recovery, rest and revitalisation. It allows for some parts of the body and mind to find sanctuary and peace. But for some people sleep can be a time of anxiety, restlessness and feelings of vulnerability. For others sleep may be consumed by hours of insomnia and recurring nightmares. However, sleep remains a vital condition of survival and without it we would suffer, fall ill or die. This is why sleep deprivation can have such a devastating effect on the way we live our lives - causing considerable anxiety and depression. The causes of poor sleep are innumerable. However there are some common causes of sleep deprivation which can be addressed:
- naps during the day
- breathing problems
- excessive changes in temperature
- excessive levels of exposure to light/electrical appliances
When someone suffers from poor sleep they may become irritable, experience mood swings or high levels of stress and anger. Physically, someone may suffer from poor health and frequently experience bouts of illness. The symptoms of poor sleep are:
- irritability/mood swings
- ill health/ prone to disease
- poor appetite
- poor motivation
- low energy levels
- heart palpitations
- excessive yawning
- slow motor response rates
I have therefore created some techniques and routines for better sleep, so that you can regain the rest and recuperation you need throughout the day. A good sleep routine may look like this:
Breakfast is essential for resetting the body clock
Stay awake all day as far as possible, no daytime naps
Eat small amounts of healthy food/sometimes in soluble liquid when your appetite fails
Drink plenty of liquids during the day to keep hydrated
Take plenty of exercise which tires you out and relaxes muscles
Regular relaxation exercises - breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, walking meditation - to raise arousal levels
Get out of the house and allow sunshine/light on your skin to activate melatonin levels which regulate sleep
Evening routines, before sleep:
- Each night change your sleeping time by increments (one hour backwards or forwards)
- At night take smaller, simpler, lighter meals – no stimulants/coffee/alcohol/heavy spices/cigarettes/chilli or fatty foods
- Go to sleep at a set time every night
- Switch off the TV/computer an hour before sleep
- No bedtime reading or thinking over daytime dilemmas
- Consume less liquid so there is less chance of waking for the toilet
- Drink a small cup of camomile tea x 2 teabags an hour before sleep
- Take an early evening walk/cycle/stretching/yoga
- Take a warm shower with scalp massage/body massage before sleep
- Create an atmosphere conducive to sleep – pay attention to creating the optimum smells/sounds/temperatures/light & shade conditions
- Switch off all electrical appliances where you sleep/silence phone
- Practice breathing exercises/progressive muscle tension/meditation
- Listen to sleep inducing sounds/music e.g. classical music (European or Indian)
- Darken the sleeping room with blackout curtains
- If sleep is interrupted and/or resisted, do not fight with yourself. Induce a visual/sensory fantasy which is pleasurable/sensual/peaceful
- Rather than focus on your worries and concerns, practice mindfulness exercises which focus your attention onto your bodily sensations and attuning yourself to the five senses e.g. listening to your heartbeat to the exclusion of other sounds/vibrations; counting the breath; visualisation.
Further Information on Sleeping Routines:
Eat a light dinner early on, or nothing at all. Fast for 16 hours until the next morning when you eat a solid breakfast containing protein. Fasting has been shown to reset the inner clock, and breaking the fast when you are supposed to wake will decide your new daily pattern. Avoid stimulants after dinner. Depending on the size of your body, the amount you ingest, and your general health, the effects of caffeine can remain active in your body for up to 5 to 10 hours after initial consumption. Similarly, nicotine should not be introduced to the body after dinner because it is also a stimulant. This is often because the effects of these stimulant drugs have a half-life and take a long while to be filtered out of the body and brain, even if you do not notice the symptoms consciously your body will remain in a state of arousal.
Avoid alcohol after dinner. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down your body and relaxes it temporarily. While this will help you fall asleep, it also slows down your metabolism and interferes with brainwaves during its sleep cycles. You may also experience a temporary bout of 'withdrawal symptoms' in the midst of your sleep, as the body craves more alcohol consumption and wakes you up - with a sudden surge of anxiety or stress and headaches. It is also a diuretic causing you to urinate more and interrupt sleep.
Wait till evening bedtime to sleep. Naps are a great way to recharge your batteries when you have a stable sleep schedule, but they are counter-productive when trying to change sleeping patterns as they interrupt the body's natural rhythms of arousal and rest states. Do not nap at all during the day so that you can fall asleep at the appropriate time later.
Determine your desired waking time and stick to a routine in order to condition your body and mind to an optimum level of sleep. If you're changing your sleep schedule so you can wake up early enough for work, for example, you probably want to wake up an hour or so before departure. Calculate your optimal sleeping time. Most people require 6 to 8 hours of sleep every night, but the exact duration of necessary sleep differs from person to person. Determine at what time you need to fall asleep in order to wake up at your desired waking time.
Eliminate or minimize external distractions. If there are residual lights that are distracting you as you try to sleep, use an eye mask to block them out. If you can't sleep due to the sound of crickets or neighbours, use ear plugs. Adjusting your sleep schedule involves falling asleep at the right time, and eliminating distractions will keep you from staying up later than you can afford.
Alter your sleep schedule gradually so that the body does not experience a state of shock. If you normally wake up at 11 A.M. but desire to wake up at 10 A.M., making the change overnight will prove counter-productive. Ease your body into the new sleep schedule by adjusting your sleep time and wake up time by 1 hour every 2 to 3 days, if possible. Too much shock to the system will only increase your stress levels in the long-term.
Try to stay away from bright objects and sources of light before going to bed. Computer monitors, televisions, and bright lamps will cause your body to think it's still day time, which will hinder your efforts to fall asleep as it activates melatonin levels which may keep you in a state of arousal. Approximately an hour before going to sleep, turn off all of your electronic appliances and dim the lights from your phone or computer. Equally do not read a book, write or draw. Practice relaxation exercises that will calm you down. Turn down the lights as well to teach your body to associate relaxation with lower light levels. Listen to the sounds of waves or rain it will help calm your body and help you get a good night’s sleep.
You can try to alter your body temperature right before sleeping. Because the body drops in temperature when it falls asleep, you can trick your body into thinking it's time to sleep by simulating a temperature drop. If it's cold outside, take a warm shower so that when you come out, your body experiences a temperature drop. If it's hot outside, allow your room to heat up and then turn on the air conditioner.
You can buy a melatonin supplement at a pharmacy, but be extremely careful and ensure you always ask your doctor first, always. Melatonin helps you to fall asleep approximately 15-30 minutes after taking it.
If you have trouble falling asleep at the necessary sleeping time, you may want to try exhausting your body beforehand. Approximately 1 to 2 hours before you want to fall asleep, do some heavy exercise like running or lifting weights. Be sure to warm down afterwards and stretch out any remaining tension. The build-up of lactic acid and adrenalin can cause the body to cramp in the night. Be sure your body does not dehydrate during exercises.
Breathing relaxation exercises help you to focus on the body's natural biorhythms. When you slow down and take deeper breaths this sends a message to the limbic region in your brain to regulate your state of arousal, slowing down your heart rate, sending out dopamine to activate a restful state and relaxing the muscles by deactivating the priming of motor neurones.