• Vicky

Sweet dreams

And so to bed.....

At some point, most of us experience problems with sleep. In fact, it's thought that a third of Brits will have episodes of insomnia at some point in their life (NHS UK). The causes are varied and individual, from physical conditions (eg. pain or discomfort); psychological (eg. anxiety); life circumstances (eg. having a new baby, jet lag, shift work); the result of certain medications (eg. some that are used to treat allergies, colds, depression, high blood pressure, and asthma) or a combination of some of these factors.

Sleep problems usually sort themselves out within about a month, but longer stretches of bad sleep can really start to affect our lives. And as we know, extreme tiredness makes everyday tasks so much harder. That feeling of being desperate for bedtime all through the working day, and then when it comes, not being able to drop off, can be soul-destroying.

So what are the potential effects of poor sleep?:

· Not feeling refreshed or restored;

· Daytime sleepiness;

· General lack of energy;

· Difficulty concentrating;

· Mood and behaviour disturbances such as irritability, aggression, and impulsiveness;

· Forgetfulness;

· Decreased performance at work;

· Troubles in personal and professional relationships;

· Having accidents at work or while driving;

· Decreased quality of life;

· Depression.

Having trouble dropping off?

Well with children, we’re pretty good at linking plenty fresh air and exercise with sound asleep. We also avoid letting them have too much sugar or processed foods and of course, no alcohol or caffeine is a given. But how well do we take that advice for ourselves?

If you tend to have difficulty dropping off, try and keep a regular bedtime routine and regular sleeping hours. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day will encourage your body to sleep better. I know this is easier said than done, particularly if your daily routine isn’t consistent. Working late at night, or getting up in the night with young children also mean that we are often craving a lie-in by the weekend. However, it is important to try and get up at the same time every day as sleeping-in late to try and catch up can disrupt your sleep routine.

Having trouble staying asleep?

If you are often wakeful during the night, working out a routine that lulls you into a deeper sleep is crucial. We are all so different in this respect. With the same wind-down routine, my partner is much better at dropping off once the lights are out compared to me!

According to the NHS, sleeping at regular times programmes the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine. Most adults need somewhere between 6 and 9 hours of sleep every night. Where do you fit along that continuum and what is a realistic bedtime schedule for you, when you work backwards from the time you need to wake up?

Take time to relax before bedtime. There are lots of things that can help you wind-down and de-stress after a hectic day in order to better prepare you for sleep:

· A warm bath will help your body reach a temperature that's ideal for rest. I find this works much better when there aren’t the sounds of Fortnite and FIFA blaring from the next room!

· If you tend to lie in bed thinking about everything you have to do tomorrow, set aside time before you turn off the light to make plans for the next day. Writing "to do" lists for the next day can organise your thoughts and clear your mind of any distractions. Keep a pad next to the bed for notes. I have a list-writing and 'post-its' obsession!

· Relaxation exercises, such as yoga (Our 5 Benefits Of Daily Yoga Practice) and meditation (Our Mediation Article) help to relax the muscles. Progressive muscular relaxation techniques, where you methodically tense and release all of the body's major muscle groups may also help. It increases your awareness of the sensations associated with tension and in turn, relaxation.

· Moderate exercise on a regular basis, such as walking (Have a look at our various Walking Routes for inspiration) can help relieve some of the tension built up over the day. Vigorous exercise has the opposite effect so be careful with gym sessions if you get the urge late on in the day. This may not cause you a problem, but it’s worth being aware. I definitely find that the adrenaline and endorphin rush of cardio in the evening is counterproductive to falling asleep.

· Reading a book or listening to a podcast or audiobook relaxes the mind by distracting it. Avoid using smartphones, tablets or other electronic devices for an hour or so before you go to bed as the light from the screen on these devices may have a negative effect on sleep. Beeps, buzzes and standby lights can affect the body’s circadian rhythm, so try switching everything off at the mains, or even ban them from the bedroom completely!

· There are many apps designed to help with sleep, by using a soothing narrated script, gentle hypnotic music and sound effects to relax you. We love the Calm app in my house and can highly recommend it, but there are many others to choose from.

Is your bedroom sleep-friendly?

Your bedroom should be a tranquil and relaxing environment. TVs and other electronic gadgets, light and noise can all prevent your mind from associating the bedroom with sleep. Make sure your bed is comfortable. Yes, it’s a big investment to buy a new bed or mattress but it’s really difficult to get restful sleep on a mattress that's too soft or too hard, or a bed that's too small or old.

Your bedroom ideally needs to be dark, quiet, and at a temperature of 18-24C. Thick curtains will help, or an eye mask, and earplugs! I invested in some blackout blinds a few years ago and they really help prevent waking too early in summer when the sun is streaming in through light curtains.

There is some evidence to suggest that weighted blankets can provide a pressure which relaxes the nervous system (obviously do not use with children) and so assists sleep. I’ve never tried one myself but I do find the addition of a blanket during the relaxation section of a yoga class really helpful in reminding your body that it’s time to be still and rest. I guess it’s the same effect as an eye pillow, which is really useful for stopping your eyelids from flickering when you’re trying to relax. Eye pillows are often filled with lavender, which contains an oil that seems to have sedating effects. Personally I find a lavender pillow spray a great addition to my sleep toolkit.

According to the Sleep Council, a messy, cluttered bedroom can affect you more than you might think, especially when it comes to bedtime. A bedroom is designed as a place to rest and relax. So, if it’s crammed with junk, tidy it or reorganise. Sort the laundry, clear the piles of books and hide toys away. This is the last thing you look at before you fall asleep, and a study conducted by New York’s St. Lawrence University revealed that a messy bedroom can lead to a poor night’s sleep and increased anxiety.

And finally, if you have a pet that sleeps in the room with you, consider moving it somewhere else if it often disturbs you in the night!

Keep a sleep diary

Researchers at the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre recommend keeping a sleep diary, which may uncover lifestyle habits or daily activities, stresses or medicines that contribute to your sleeplessness.

Make a note of:

· The time you went to bed, and after settling down, how long it took you to fall asleep;

· After falling asleep, the number of times you woke up in the night, and for how long you were awake during the night;

· The time you finally woke up, and got up;

· And on a scale of 1-5, rate the quality of your sleep the previous night.

Food and drink

Cut down on caffeine in tea, coffee, energy drinks or colas, especially in the evening. Caffeine interferes with the process of falling asleep, and also prevents deep sleep.

Too much food or alcohol, especially late at night, can interrupt your sleep patterns. Alcohol may help you to fall asleep initially, but it will disrupt your sleep later on in the night.

Instead, have a warm, milky drink or herbal tea. We like We Are Tea Sleep Teabags

and Pukka Night Time Tea.

And finally, if you still can’t sleep...

If you still can’t sleep, don’t lie there worrying about it. Get up and do something you find relaxing until you feel sleepy again, then go back to bed. Sleep problems usually sort themselves out, and pinpointing the cause or trying some of these suggestions should help.

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