In our last article, we looked at the importance of sleep for our health. If you missed it, or need a refresher you can read the article here. However, despite knowing how critical it is, sleep is elusive for many people. Furthermore, trying to sleep and struggling can be a significant cause of anxiety for some people and can worsen many existing health conditions.
In this article, we’ll look at how to help your body wind down in the evening; starting with things you can do much earlier in the day. For those of us who are parents, I like to use children as an analogy. We almost always give them a fairly consistent routine in the evening - dinner, bath, book, cuddles then bedtime. But, for some reason, as adults, we often try to go from full-on activity to sleep with little preparation in between.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that.
Here are some factors to consider...
Food and sleep
Recent research shows that what we eat - as well as when we eat - affects the quality of our sleep.
It probably goes without saying that a double shot espresso after dinner might disrupt your sleep that night — same goes a greasy bowl of hot chips at midnight. However, what we eat for breakfast and lunchtime plays a role as well. Dr. Ana Krieger the Medical Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine says “eating an overall healthy and nutrient-rich diet affects our brain health and activity — and in turn, our sleep,”
A nutrient-rich diet allows the body to absorb proper nutrients and “provides the brain with the chemical environment that it needs to produce the neurotransmitters that it needs to maintain adequate sleep,” Krieger says.
The nutrients we get from food serve as the building blocks for other minerals and proteins that are needed to create the amino acids that are involved in sleep, such as tryptophan. Protein is particularly important as amino acids found in proteins form the basis for key neurotransmitters for mood and healthy sleep.
While you can get enough protein from a plant-based diet, it does require knowledge and protein combining to get all the essential amino acids our bodies need but cannot produce on their own. Animal products such as meat and eggs are complete sources of protein, meaning these essential amino acids occur naturally in these foods. Eating a quality source of protein at breakfast will help to produce tryptophan; a precursor for melatonin, later in the day.
In one study, researchers tracked diet and sleep for a group of healthy adults over the course of five nights and found, food choices during the day did affect sleep. Participants with diets containing less fibre, more trans fats from processed foods and more sugar throughout the day experienced lighter, less restorative sleep with more awakenings throughout the night.
Slowing down as the day goes on
Sleep, like most habits that contribute to our health, requires a consistent routine or loose set of triggers to help signal to your body it's time for rest. Treat yourself like the child in the analogy at the beginning of this blog. Far too often we hear the following story; "I got home late after the gym so ate dinner at 9, watched my favourite tv show, surfed the net and went to sleep at 11.30 but couldn't sleep."
Instead, we try to help clients cultivate a series of rituals around bedtime that don't feel like a chore but are deeply nourishing. Maybe you have a warm mug of tea. Chamomile or Passionflower are known to support sleep. Maybe you take a long hot bath or shower to wash away the day's stressors. Scientifically, raising your bodies core body temperature right before it drops for sleep can help signal it's time to sleep.
Set yourself up for success.
We need to create environments that make it easier - not harder - for us to sleep.
We all have natural shifts in hormones and body temperature throughout or day. These are critical as they help signal the correct hormones we need at the correct times for our bodies natural movements. Cortisol is high in the morning to wake us up, while melatonin begins to increase as it gets darker to help you fall asleep. When we struggle to sleep, sometimes it's because our work or rest time habits don't support relaxation and the production of melatonin - instead of this, they produce cortisol. Maybe you have coffee later in the day? Maybe you participate in high intensity exercise after work? Maybe you watch a particularly violent or emotionally distressing television programme in the evening? Game of Thrones anyone?
To get back in sync, at Recal we recommend spending 20 minutes per day outside. This is beneficial for a couple of reasons. If you can get this dose of Vitamin D before 10 am it helps your body synthesize protein to produce the necessary amino acids for sleep-supporting hormones. It also helps keep cortisol high in the morning to wake you up (without coffee) Research has also found that spending time outdoors in nature daily can have profound effects on your mental health. If you can, consider walking or cycling for your morning commute.
At nighttime try to limit electronic use after dusk. If you choose to use a device you can also wear blue-light blocking sunglasses to stop electronic use interfering with your sleep signals. They don't look pretty, but they do the job!
Quick fixes - no counting of sheep!
Try to avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime. Ideally, limit caffeine to 1 or 2 per day before midday.
- Choose to exercise earlier in the day when your body most expects elevated cortisol levels. Opt for yin yoga or walking later in the day. Alternatively, you can help activate your "rest and digest" nervous system by putting your legs up the wall or using a shakti mat right before bed.
- Try eating earlier to allow time for digestion, but also to have more time for a wind-down routine.
- Lastly, if you often wake up at night and can't get back to sleep try this 4 -7 -8 breathing technique. It's actually helpful for anytime you're stressed, but particularly good at night.
Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7. Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8.
If those timings seem too long, you can try for shorter times. The main objective is to have your outward breath much longer than your inhalation. Try it for 5 minutes and notice how much calmer you feel.