Are you struggling to get a good night’s sleep? At the end of a long day, most of us look forward to curling up in bed and getting a restful night’s sleep. But for people who have trouble sleeping, bedtime can be a waking nightmare. Insomnia is defined as a prolonged inability to get adequate sleep, it can vary from difficulty falling asleep despite being tired, to waking up in the middle of the night or waking too early. It can be a temporary, occasional, or chronic problem. But whatever form it takes, a lack of good quality sleep can wreak havoc on your health. There are many reasons why sleep patterns get out of kilter. The most common causes are stress and anxiety, depression and physical pain. Women tend to suffer from insomnia more than men, particularly as they get older. Although older women may have less pressure from work and childcare, factors like the ageing process, the menopause, and changes in domestic relationships such as divorce and widowhood can all have detrimental effects on sleep.
If you’re having trouble sleeping it’s always best to consult your GP
to ascertain the cause. In many cases, diet and lifestyle changes can
help resolve the problem and your doctor should be able to advise you
on these. Insomnia can be overcome without the use of sleeping pills.
- An average night’s sleep is 7.04 hours
- 36 per cent of people have trouble getting to sleep
- 20 per cent have trouble getting up on time
- 5 per cent sleep less than five hours
- 6 per cent sleep more than nine hours
1. Cut the caffeine
Caffeine, present in coffee, black tea, green tea, chocolate, some soft drinks and many over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, is a stimulant and it’s effects can last up to 20 hours in the body. Some people will have disturbed sleep patterns even when their last cup of coffee was in the morning. So the sensible option is to avoid caffeine completely.
2. Say yes to carbs
Nutritional therapists often recommend a high-carbohydrate snack before bed, such as a banana, slice of bread or bowl of cereal. Eating complex carbohydrates can increase levels of a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) called serotonin, which is known to reduce anxiety and promote sleep.
3. Be careful what you eat
Avoid protein-rich foods before going to bed, as these can be hard to digest. Spicy or fatty foods can also cause heartburn, while tyramine containing foods increase the release of noradrenaline, a brain stimulant. Tyramine is found in red wine, bacon, cheese, ham, soya sauce and nuts.
4. Get out and about
The natural sleep and wake cycle, commonly referred to as the biological clock, is influenced by melatonin, a hormone that responds to light. Melatonin is made by the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland located in the brain. During the day the pineal is inactive. As darkness falls it is “turned on” and begins to produce melatonin, which is released into the blood. As a result, melatonin levels rise and you begin to feel sleepy. Melatonin levels remain elevated through the night and start to decline again when the sun rises. To help keep your biological clock in balance it’s important to get sufficient daylight exposure. A brisk 20–30 minute walk every day is sufficient to do this. As the sun begins to set, use a dimmer switch indoors for lower level lighting. Also, draw your curtains before going to bed to keep out bright street lighting.
Getting out during the day will not only help reset your biological clock but will provide regular exercise, which is a great stress-buster. But avoid vigorous exercise up to three hours before retiring, as this can stimulate your mind and body.
5. Soak it up
To aid sleep, add six to eight drops of pure lavender oil to a bath and soak in it for 20 minutes. The aroma of the oil is known to be calming and contains many medicinal components including linalool, geraniol and perillyl alcohol. One trial of elderly people with sleeping troubles found that inhaling lavender oil was as effective as tranquillisers.
6. Have a nightcap
Some people reach for alcohol, and a nightcap means a dash of brandy, a whisky or a glass of wine. Although it may induce drowsiness initially, alcohol is not the answer for deep, continuous sleep. Opt for warm, soothing drinks like hot milk (use soya if dairy intolerant) with honey, or herbal tea like camomile or limeflower. Camomile has been shown in studies to contain a substance that has calming and pain-relieving effects.
7. Create the right setting
Bedrooms are for sleeping, not for electronic entertainment, so keep computers and TVs confined to other areas. Also, the room should be decorated in pastel colours, as bright shades or bold patterns can be over-stimulating.
Make sure your bedroom is quiet, well ventilated and is at a comfortable temperature. A good quality bed and pillow are essential. Generally, it’s recommended that you change your mattress every 10 years or so.
8. Switch off!
One of the biggest obstacles in getting to sleep is an over-active mind, so developing a winding down routine can be beneficial. Stop any intense mental and physical activity at least one hour before bedtime. Put those office files away and leave unfinished housework until the morning. Avoid late night films and listen to relaxing music instead. It’s also a good idea to go to bed at the same time every night to establish a regular routine.
Once in bed, a tactic that works for many people is whole body relaxation. Lie flat on your back and starting with your toes and feet, stretch and tense each muscle, holding and letting go. Tense your calf muscles, let go, tense your buttocks, let go, tense your stomach, let go, hunch your shoulders, let go… The chances are that by the time you’ve reached your face area you’ll feel more relaxed.
If you can’t go to sleep after 30 minutes of trying, don’t stay in bed hoping you’ll nod off. Get up and involve yourself in a relaxing activity, such as reading or meditation, until you feel sleepy.
9. Mineral magic
Muscle cramps, back and neck pain, eye twitches and insomnia can be a direct result of a magnesium and/or calcium deficiency. As these minerals have a relaxing effect on the body, try taking a magnesium supplement on its own or magnesium and calcium in a 2:1 ratio.
10. Try a natural remedy
Besides camomile, there are many other herbs that aid sleep. Probably the most popular is valerian, which makes getting to sleep easier and increases deep sleep and dreaming. In a double-blind trial, valerian extract (600 mg 30 minutes before bedtime for 28 days) was found to be on a par with a common prescription drug for insomnia. However, valerian does not cause a morning “hangover”, a side effect common to prescription sleep drugs. Other herbs that may be helpful include passiflora, hops, lemon balm and skullcap.
Information Source: Autumn 2005 issue of Optimum Nutrition Magazine.