Manage your days to reclaim your nights.
My sleep troubles began in my early thirties. Nothing significant had happened beyond life’s normal trials and tribulations, so I ignored the newly developed habit and hoped it would pass. I was living in Spain when the sleep deprivation got out of hand, and I explored a range of local ‘treatments’. Whether with an extra glass of wine at night, a puff of my flatmate’s cannabis ‘nightcap’ or a mild sedative, I got through my 30s with sleep in the red.
In my 40s, I started traveling more for work and moved to London. It was during these next years I realised the severity of my sleep disorder. Not only were the ‘mild sedatives’ not available, but I was getting older, and the fatigue was taking its toll. I could see it in my concentration or lack thereof, my moods, my lack of energy and the unavoidable dark circles around my eyes.
I tried every home remedy I came across. One involved boiling bananas with their skin on and drinking the juice (mainly for its magnesium). Another was a spoonful of apple cider vinegar and honey; other than triggering a severe gagging reflex, this one had no effect. Herbal teas, whisky, meditation, prayer. All offered glimmers of respite, but eventually I hit rock bottom. I needed to find a sustainable solution.
Here is what I learned:
- Sleep is crucial: We need it for our overall health and well-being, longevity and downright sanity!
- The best doctor is the patient themselves: My partner cannot take an antihistamine without being knocked out for the day. My friend, Laura, ends her evenings with a shot of espresso before retreating to her bed and enjoying a blissful eight-hour night’s sleep. What works for one person does not work for someone else. Learn about yourself and what works, or doesn’t, and what creates triggers. This takes me to my next point.
- Keep a well-being diary: My mother suggested this to me for years, but annoyingly, I did not take heed until I reached the breaking point. It is amazing what can influence your sleep health: food, alcohol, caffeine, unresolved issues, room temperature, work deadline, exercise (the type, the time or whether you’re doing any of it), sugar intake (and the timing of it), to name but a few. You can help yourself enormously by keeping a tab on things.
I also learned so much about myself generally by making sleep a priority. I’d been mismanaging my stress. My eating habits were bad, though I’d always thought were quite good. I was an out-of-control people-pleaser with a lack of boundaries. My exercise regime lacked discipline. Worst, I was mentally bored and unstimulated. Although I described myself as someone with a lot of self-awareness, it took my sleep investigation to make all this clear!
I have not evolved into the world’s greatest sleeper, but I have improved enormously, and I am having the best sleep I have had in 15 years (though still clutching tightly with one hand to the wooden desk as I type this).
Over the course of five years, this is what I took away from doctors (mainstream and alternative), therapy sessions, yoga courses and reading many books on sleep, and what I applied to my own life:
- Getting a good night’s sleep is a priority for me and is, therefore, front-of-mind when considering meals, exercise, my relationships and work. Through trial and error, I have learnt what foods, exercises and stress relievers work best for me, and at what times. As examples, I do not have caffeine after midday; I have reduced my sugar intake significantly and eat more foods rich in magnesium and sleep nutrients.
- I do a lot more exercise now. The recommended ‘150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise a week’ is a good rule of thumb. Doing exercise and maintaining this discipline has as many emotional as physical benefits. Exercise not only offers the feel-good factor from the endorphin release, there is a psychological sense of achievement, no matter how big or small the exercise is.
- Doing more of what I love helps keep my brain stimulated. After years of doing the same thing, I had, unbeknownst to me, become bored and uninspired. This showed itself when I signed up to study and became very engaged. I slept so much better when applying my brain for hours in the daytime.
- I read before going to sleep. Thirty minutes before bedtime, I switch off electronics: no Instagram, TV, or WhatsApp, and I read. This has had a far bigger impact on stilling my mind than the back-to-back box sets that I previously binged on.
- Journaling is not something I do every night, but certainly when I feel I have a lot going on. It is not only a meditative time for me, but also a time to purge all my woes and remind myself of my dreams and aspirations. And I end it with three tricks taught to me by Dr Rachel Remen, who believes this simple task is more powerful than Prozac. Sit quietly and reflect backwards on your day. Then write the answer to these three questions:
1. What surprised me today?
2.What moved me or touched my heart today?
3. What inspired me today?
It is enlightening to look back each day at how many kind and uplifting things have happened to you.
And I do one last thing. If I get the ‘3am wake up’, I listen with calm and self-compassion to my inner voice. It’s pretty insightful. I’ve gotten to the root cause of some troubling issues I had never considered listening to before.
Have a little listen yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much wisdom that sleepless voice contains.