How is your sleep these days? When did you last leap out of bed in the morning feeling totally refreshed and raring to go? OK, some people never leap out of bed! But feeling refreshed—when was that? If it’s a distant memory, then you are definitely not alone. So many people have low levels exhaustion as a constant companion. This is, in part, is down to a lack of deep and refreshing sleep. Improve your sleep—and who knows, then maybe you too will feel like leaping out of bed.
Why we need to sleep and what happens during slumber
A serious lack of sleep can lead to physical and emotional problems, but even a few nights of disrupted sleep can leave you feeling lack-lustre and perhaps even grumpy. Although our body maintains and repairs our body whilst we sleep, more than this, sleep is required to rewrite the neural pathways in the brain. This process includes the filing, sorting and sifting of our memories and learnt behaviours from the information gathered during the day—consciously and subconsciously.
During our slumber, we go through four different stages of sleep. The first stage is the actual falling asleep part. This is followed by light sleep that allows the body to rest. Then we drop into deep sleep, which gives the body time to do its rewrite and repair work. Finally we go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when we dream. Light, deep and REM sleep stages cycle through the night, with usually 4 or 5 repetitions during 7 to 9 hours of sleep.
Stuff that impacts on your ability to sleep well
There are many different reasons why you may not be sleeping very well or not getting enough sleep. It could be that you are out of synch with your body clock; that your bed or bedroom is not conducive to sleep; or it could be your caffeine and/or alcohol consumption, or that you are too tired. And the thing that probably accounts for most poor sleep is stress.
Your body clock
When your body clock is working as it should, the body goes through various biological changes that prepares the body for sleep. It clearly signals it’s time to sleep with feelings of sleepiness, heavy eyelids and yawns. Your body clock is controlled by circadian rhythms that respond to light, temperature, the season and hormones.
When you experience Jet Lag, it is your circadian rhythms that are out of synch with the new time zone, making you feeling sleepy during the day and wide-awake in the middle of the night. After a few days in the new time zone, your circadian rhythms adjust to the new daylight hours, resetting your body clock.
For some people, their circadian rhythms get out of synch when the seasons change – typically during autumn and winter. As a consequence their sleep suffers and the resulting constant tiredness can lead to depression. This condition is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I believe many people in the UK suffer with a mild form of SAD during winter due to working the same hours throughout the year despite having less daylight hours. This is even more likely if you go to work and return home in the dark, without a chance to spend some time in natural daylight. There is a circadian rhythm test on the Philips website which checks to see whether your sleeping patterns are out of synch with your body clock. If the results show you are seriously out-of-synch, please seek professional advice before investing any of the SAD therapy light boxes or treatments.
Is your bedroom a sanctuary for sleeping?
How old is your mattress? The ‘good-sleep’ life-span of a mattress is between 5–9 years. How long it actually lasts is dependent on many factors including the original quality of your mattress, whether you sleep alone or with a partner, and if with someone, whether you are of a similar weight.
As well as not supporting you in an optimum way, an old mattress can also be home to up to 10 million dust-mites. Dust mites thrive in warm, moist environments where there is an ample supply of food (you typically shed 6 grams of skin cells a week: ideal food for dust mites). Dust mites live only for a few weeks but reproduce at a rapid rate in ideal conditions. Their faecal waste and decaying dead bodies can cause some people to have an allergic reaction (usually respiratory or skin rashes). However, sleeping on an old mattress full of dust mites, will, with every movement, stir up microscopic dust mite detritus which can impact on the quality of your sleep. To help counter a dust mite problems, air your bed before you make it, vacuum your mattress regularly, turn it over every few months and fit it with a dust mite proof cover.
Is your bedroom cluttered? Do you like the décor? Is it a calm place? Or are there clothes strewn everywhere? Do you have a TV, radio, or other electronic entertainment in there? Electrical appliances create a magnetic field that can also disrupt your sleep. If you wish to keep these items in your bedroom, make sure they are away from your bed. Are there work related papers or magazines beside your bed? You may think it doesn’t matter, but your subconscious mind will be distracted by all of these things. If some of this describes your bedroom, put sorting it out high on your agenda. A bedroom should be a peaceful sanctuary for sleeping and for making love – nothing more. If you tackle a cluttered bedroom, you will be amazed how much more peaceful it becomes when it’s clean and tidy.
The ideal temperature for sleep for most people is 18°C – slightly cooler perhaps your other rooms. You will also sleep better if there is fresh air. If you can’t bear the idea of sleeping with your window slightly open in winter, make sure you open the windows each day so stale air is replaced.
The positioning of your bed within your bedroom can also impact on your sleep. If you can’t see your door when you are lying in bed, or if you have fitted cupboards above your bed head, this may negatively affect your sleep. Feng Shui, the art of positioning furniture to create a good flow of energy, prioritises the bedroom, as you spend one-third of your life there. In the book, ‘The Feng Shui Handbook’ by Master Lam Kam Chuen there are lots of illustrations on how to position furniture taking into account the position of the door(s) and window(s). Alternatively you may wish to find a personal Feng Shui consultant. See www.fengshuisociety.org.uk
How does caffeine and alcohol disrupt your sleep
As your body clock prepares for you to go to sleep, your brain produces melatonin to help you relax and at the same time decreases your adrenalin levels (this helps keeps you alert). Caffeine is a stimulant and has the exact opposite effect to this: it suppresses melatonin (for up to 10 hours) and increases adrenalin. If you drink coffee, cola or energy drinks late in the day, this can seriously impact on your ability to fall asleep and it also affects the quality of your deep sleep. Caffeine is highly addictive so it’s easy to create a cycle that begins with not sleeping well, then using caffeine to keep you alert, which then affects your ability to sleep, leading to using more caffeine and so on.
If you drink alcohol just before going to bed, it can help you fall asleep more quickly, however, alcohol is rapidly metabolized and the quality of sleep in the second half of the night is more likely to be broken, with less deep sleep time and more vivid dreams. Insomniacs often use alcohol to try and get to sleep – which sometimes works. But a lack of deep sleep can make you tired and miserable during the day, to the point of being too tired to sleep well.
For different reasons, both caffeine and alcohol are widely used (and abused) to help us deal with deal with stress. If you suspect one or both are getting in your way of a good night’s sleep, try a 2 week detox of both and see whether you are sleeping better than before. Note: It takes at least 1 week before any noticeable change.
How stress stops you sleeping
There are very few people who have found a way to live without any stress. Money, relationships and jobs are often at the top of people’s list. If you lie in bed worrying and feel so anxious that you are unable to sleep, please don’t dismiss it. Stress plays a role in virtually all illnesses and diseases: if your stress levels are high, do find someone (friend or professional) to talk too. Following are a few simple steps to help decrease your stress levels so you can sleep more quickly and deeply.
Stop watching the late night news programs – instead switch to watching the news earlier in the day. News programs are full of terror, shock and grief, which the mind will dwell on: it’s not good to digest this just before sleep. Many people are photosensitive and the blue light transmitted from a TV or a computer screen may stop our melatonin levels from rising – which helps you relax into sleep. Try to have some ‘wind-down’ time before going to bed.
If you have lots of things to remember, try doing a ‘brain-dump’ in the evening. Without any order, just write down everything you are concerned that might forget by tomorrow. Then when you lie down, if you mind starts spinning, you can reassure yourself that you have everything written down.
Just before going to bed, do this simple breathing exercise. Sit somewhere quietly (it can even be in bed before you lie down), place your hand on your lower belly, now breathe so you can see your hand rising. Try breathing in for a count of 4, holding your breath for 4 and then breathing out for a count of 4. Even done for just a few minutes, this very simple exercise is deeply relaxing.
When you are stressed, your body’s level of adrenaline is higher than it needs to be. Adrenaline draws blood to the core (away from the limbs) sends signals for increased blood sugar (fight or flee) and makes us hyper alert. People who live with high stress can easily exhaust their adrenal glands (they produce adrenalin). In Reflexology, the energy point for the adrenal glands is in the arch of the foot. A way to stimulate the meridian point for the adrenal glands is to place a tennis ball underneath your foot. Now use your weight and your toes to move the ball around under your toes and into the arch area of your foot. Doing this just before going to bed, will help you relax.
Many yoga positions help you relax and they can easily be done for a few minutes before you sleep. Two that are really easy to do even if you have never done Yoga before are:
Simply lie on the floor with arms by your side, hands palm face up and feet point outwards. Now breathe and consciously check your body for tight muscles and aches. When you notice an area that is tight, ‘let’ it go.
Also known as, “Legs up the wall”. Place a rolled-up blanket or cushion a few inches away from an uncluttered bit wall. Lie down on your side, with your bottom on the blanket and your feet sideways on the wall. Now roll from your side, onto your back, with your knees bend and your feet a few inches up the wall. Bring your arms above your head and lie them flat on the floor, so it is a stretch, but not uncomfortable. Now straighten your legs up the wall. Stay in the position for 5–10 minutes. It’s a powerful sleep inducing posture. However, note this position is not advised during menstruation or pregnancy.