Sleep Secrets Revealed
Health and mindfulness coach Louise Murray shares some of the lesser-known secrets when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.
by Louise Murray
If your peaceful slumbers are interrupted, or if you can’t get to sleep in the first place, it’s probably due to one of the typical things that keep people awake at night: money, relationships and health. At the moment of writing, these areas are all heightened due to the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic is causing increased anxiety and stress and these worries are harassing us – particularly at night when it is time to get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps we are unsure about our income or worried about contracting an illness, and many of us are also spending much more time with family members, which can put strains on our relationships.
On the whole we have a lot to worry about, and even if people aren’t outwardly showing signs of stress this can manifest when our head hits the pillow and our brains start to subconsciously process our thoughts.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your quality of sleep and give yourself the rest you need (and deserve) in order to function. You’re probably already aware of the need to switch off your electronic devices, to be in a cool room and to avoid stimulants such as caffeine during the afternoon, so here are some sleep aid secrets you might not have known about.
Routine is probably the single most important factor in getting good night’s sleep. With ruptures in our routines, it’s unsurprising that people find it hard to sleep. Routine is the guardian of good sleep. It protects our sleep, so try to preserve your sleeping pattern if you want a good night’s kip. Get up and go to bed at a similar time each day. And those daytime naps you might be tempted to take? I’ve got bad news. It’s best to save your sleepiness for bedtime.
Treat being sleepy as a precious resource, and don’t waste it on a short daytime nap. If you really do need a nap, take a micro-nap – make sure they’re short and not too late, ie. no longer than 20 or 30 minutes, and taking place early in the day. A short snooze before 4pm can be refreshing and revitalising, whereas longer and later naps have the opposite effect.
Our eyes need exposure to outdoor light because of a hormone in our body called melatonin, which regulates our sleep and waking patterns and acts on receptors in our bodies to encourage sleep. Staying indoors means a lack of exposure to natural light, which reduces melatonin levels. You should try to get outside every day. To improve the results even more, go outside at the same time each day so it becomes part of your daily routine.
Park your stress
Try not to take those worries to bed. Tell yourself you’ve done all you can for that day and there’s nothing more to do right now. Anything still on your mind can be picked up again the next day, after a good night’s sleep. Now is time for rest. Noting things down can help. You can help to reduce a busy brain at night by keeping a journal and pen near your bed. If anxious thoughts are preventing you from getting some shut-eye and you can’t stop going over your to-do list or worries in bed, try writing it all down. Sometimes it can be trying to remember everything that actually keeps us from switching off properly. While you’re at it, you can jot down the things you need to do the next day, which will help you to ‘release’ them from your memory while keeping you prepared.
Use breathing techniques to de-stress
Sleep is needed to maintain emotional balance, and you can lose this balance when the emotional part of your brain becomes hyperactive, with stress levels increasing. Take a few moments in the day to stop and concentrate on breathing slowly, deeply and purposefully. This will help you to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – your ‘rest and digest’ system – which helps ease your body into a state of relaxation. I love the 4-7-8 breath. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 7, then breathe out for 8. Repeat this three to four times and feel a wave of calmness through your body.
Don’t work from your bed
For a restful night’s sleep, you want your brain to associate your bed with sleep, intimacy, and nothing else. If you start to merge the boundaries between work and rest, one will intrude into the other. When it comes to switching off the light at night, if you’ve been in your bed all day working on your laptop, thoughts about work are more likely to persist. As tempting as it might be, if you are working from home, don’t work from your bed.
Avoid sleep-stealing snacks
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, cut yourself off from refined sugar and processed carbohydrates by early afternoon. Refined grains and sugars disrupt your steady-state down-time metabolism, creating blood sugar and insulin fluctuations that may well wake you up at odd times. If you need to snack, make it a high-protein snack which should avoid the blood sugar/insulin rollercoaster and may provide a helpful dose of L-tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce sleep-aiding melatonin.
Don’t ignore your sleep wave
So, you stayed up a little too late watching Netflix? Now, you’re in bed and wide awake. If you’ve been there for 30-45 minutes waiting for sleep to come, odds are, it won’t – not for at least another hour, and maybe longer. You’ve missed catching the sleep wave or what some researchers call the ‘sleep gate’, the period of time that your body will let you fall asleep. Researchers have found that the body cycles through different sleep phases in the course of a night. At the beginning of each phase, which lasts from 90 minutes to two hours, the sleep gate opens, and if you miss it, you’re out of luck.
So, if it’s been 45 minutes and nothing’s happening, sleep-wise, there’s no point in fighting it. That will only stress you out more as the anxiety that surrounds insomnia makes the insomnia that much worse: a classic vicious circle. So break it! Get out of bed and do something calming for the next hour or hour and a half – read a book (in low light) or do some other relaxation technique (i.e. meditation, restorative yoga or breathing exercises). Time will pass, pleasantly, and you’ll be ready to ride the next sleep wave when it hits.
About the author:
Louise Murray is an Integrated Health Coach with a qualification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, and a Mindfulness Coach. She looks at nourishing people on and off the plate by coaching them with nutrition advice as well as coaching around 12 different aspects of one’s life to take a truly holistic approach to wellness. Through her work Louise has discovered that busy working women, who often put their own needs last after their family and career, benefit from her support the most. She helps them fill their lifestyles with healthy balanced choices and live truly well, being the best version of themselves.