By Kirsten Beynon MSc. Dip.Nu
Last year I read an amazing book called ‘Why We Sleep’ and I had my mind blown. I always knew that sleep was important, but I re-prioritised it to be THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER. It underpins our entire health, wellbeing and experience of life.
We all know what it feels like to not have enough sleep for one night – cranky, unfocussed, sleepy, forgetful, accident-prone, poor physical performance and reaching for snacks that maybe aren’t our usual choices. It makes for a hard day, especially if you have to parent, work, learn, maintain relationships, drive, think or do anything that isn’t snoozing on the sofa being brought cups of tea.
When I was studying my Masters, the campus had a sleep research centre. We, as MSc students, were strongly discouraged from taking part in sleep studies, under threat of expulsion. The school recognized that sleep deprivation studies were not conducive to academic success (or keeping heads above water!). We occasionally heard tales of participants in sleep studies who were picked up by police for exhibiting strange behaviour and detained or ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act until they had recovered.
Chronic poor sleep is a significant health burden. We’re talking about the big stuff – cancer, diabetes, poor immune health, increased risk of car accidents, weight gain, increased risk of heart disease and stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and other psychiatric disorders, fertility problems and overall poorer quality of life. (1)
How big is the 'sleep problem'?
It’s big, I mean REALLY big.
I would go as far as to say that almost everyone will struggle with sleep at some point in their life.
The NHS and National Sleep Foundation put sleep disorder occurrence at around 1 in 3 people. (2,3) This is ‘diagnosed’ disorders and doesn’t capture people who sleep poorly but don’t seek a diagnosis. Matthew Walker suggests that it is likely to be 2 in 3 people who sleep inadequately. (4)
That is 66% of us who are going around functioning in a sub-optimal way, either in the short, medium or long term. This is a MASSIVE issue to health, productivity and overall happiness.
What is sleep anyway?
I’ll defer to Matthew Walker here – ‘Sleep is not the absence of wakefulness. It is far more than that. Our night time sleep is an exquisitely complex, metabolically active, and deliberately ordered series of unique stages’. (5) There are different stages of sleep that we cycle through, each responsible for different ‘jobs’. Light NREM sleep, deep NREM sleep and REM sleep all have different functions. Disturbance of sleep disrupts the sequence and flow from one type to the next and reduces the effectiveness.
I’m not going to go into detail – just understand that every night’s sleep is a journey, and every disruption prevents you from getting to your well-rested destination.
Can't I just take a sleeping pill?
I mean, you can, but it won’t help you to have a natural and restorative sleep. It isn’t sleep – it’s sedation. The stages of natural sleep that do all the work are inhibited and that impairs brain repair and cleansing.
Sedatives often leave people feeling ‘hungover’ the following day, can be addictive and often become less effective over time.
Removal of sedative medications should be done under the care of a doctor. Don’t just stop taking them!!
Supporting the natural processes of sleep is a healthier way forward.
How do I support restorative sleep?
There is no single magic answer – sorry.
Much of our sleeping problem epidemic is a result of our modern lives. Stress, exercise, electric light, technology, how we work (shifts are a disaster!!), nutrition, how we breathe, how we socialize, alcohol, medications, narcotics, travel across time zones and other factors all have the ability to reduce our sleeping capacity.
A few changes might make all the difference, though.
‘Sleep hygiene’ is a term used to describe activities that help us to achieve good quality sleep. (6) There are lots of ideas about how we can do this, and some work better for some people than others.
Make time to wind down. Give yourself that gift.
Pick 2 or 3 and see how you get on. Then add in another 1 or 2. And another. And so on.
1. Sleep hygiene starts first thing in the morning
3. Regular bedtimes go alongside regular wake up times. Make time for at least 7 hours of sleep as an adult. (7)
4. Cool your bedroom down. A drop in body temperature helps to signal that it’s time to sleep. A bath can help with this, too.
5. Turn down the lights – electric lights (especially LED ones) and backlit devices disrupt sleep patterns. Turn down the intensity at sunset (blue light blocking glasses, F.lux, sunset modes on devices etc. are all useful, but it is best to just turn them off). Think dimmer switches, candles, romance, fairy lights, incandescent instead of LED light bulbs. (7)
6. Keep your bedroom relaxing and set up for sleeping (and sex). Nothing else though. Maybe a paperback, but nothing too gripping. (7)
7. Reduce stimulating reading or TV materials. Keep it gentle.
8. Reduce or eliminate alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, narcotics. These all have the potential to interfere with sleep. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and directly reduce your sleep capacity. Alcohol interferes with sleep quality. Avoid these in large quantities or close to bedtime. Maybe no caffeine after noon. (7)
9. Don’t eat too close to bedtime. 2-3 hours before bed is ideal.
10. Exercise. Moving your body enhances sleep quality and quantity. Some people find that vigorous exercise too late interferes with sleep, so experiment – see what works for you. (7)
11. Praxctice yoga, breathing and meditation. There are countless guided sessions out in the world, all designed around helping with sleep. Have a look and see what works for you.
12. Take magnesium. Magnesium is generally lacking in our diets, and it has the important job of calming our nervous system. Using magnesium before bed can be very helpful. (8) You can take it as a supplement or apply it topically as a cream or oil.
13. Improve your diet overall. Any diet that leads to blood glucose drops in the night is going to interfere with sleep. An evening meal that is based on vegetables, good quality protein and healthy fats will help.
14. Watch fluid intake before bed. If you find yourself waking up for the bathroom in the night, then maybe restrict fluid intake over a couple of hours before bed. But only if you are well hydrated during the day. If you are a gentleman of a certain age and find yourself getting up frequently, then maybe have a chat with your GP.
15. Manage your stress. Again, there are lots of resources out there that can help. Taking 5 deep slow belly breaths through your nose is a great start. Meditation, yin yoga, healthy social connection, gardening, counselling. Whatever floats your boat. Work on that stress resilience.
16. If you find yourself awake in the night, try not to get frustrated. It’s going to be ok. It is ok. ‘Lying down rest’ that isn’t sleeping still has value. Practising breathing exercises or meditation can be really helpful here. You might find you’ve nodded off.
17. Try herbal sleep aids. Reishi mushrooms, passiflora, valerian, sleep drops, hops (not made into beer!), lavender essential oil, tart cherry, chamomile and many more. (9)
18. Try cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia. (10)
Kirsten Beynon is a registered clinical nutritionist. She has a Master’s degree in science (toxicology) and a diploma in nutrition. Kirsten specializes in environmental and nutritional medicine with a focus on challenging cases.
To find out more, head to: https://kirstenbeynon.co.nz/
Research and popular science articles by the members and faculty of the Holistic Performance Institute.