Drifting Off

Drifting Off

I count myself fortunate to not have problems sleeping most of the time, but the recent shift into Spring sent my normal routine into disarray. I began to wake up an hour or two earlier with the sunrise, while my go-to-bed time was slipping back to be later. Usually, I find it easy to stick to a regular sleeping pattern, but it was being hijacked by a busy period at work, plus lots of socialising on Bank Holidays and evenings out which meant all my good intentions to have early nights were not possible. I noticed, the sleepier I was, the more I reached for carbs (toasted sourdough and butter), chocolate (the Easter eggs didn’t last long) and caffeine (flat white at my new favourite cafe). Pretty soon, I was stuck in a ‘tired and wired’ circle of crashing energy, fuzzy mind and wavering moods – I looked and felt exhausted.

You might very well say ‘join the club’ as most of us, it seems, are not resting well. According to a recent report published by The Sleep Council, the majority of us in the UK (70%) sleep for seven hours or less [1]. No doubt our frantic paced, smart phone dominated lives contribute to this. But my sneaking suspicion is that it’s also a mind set. On the one hand, we don’t want to ‘waste’ time sleeping – for fear of missing out maybe, or not wanting to appear lazy. Think of all the uber productive people you know who often boast about needing very few hours of sleep. On the other, we’re obsessed with getting sleep, which can have the opposite effect – to the point where there is a psychological condition known as Sleep Onset Insomnia (SOI) where worrying about not getting enough sleep causes insomnia.

The fact is, we do need our rest. Earlier this year the National Sleep Foundation in the US issued new recommendations for the amount of sleep we need during different stages of our lives, based on latest expert opinion [2]. For adults it turned out to be 7-9 hours per night – so that magic average of 8 hours still stands. Science has repeatedly shown sleep to a great healer for both body and mind. When we go into the deep ‘slow wave’ sleep phase in particular, where our breathing quietens, body temperature drops and our muscles relax. During this regenerative stage, cell production goes up, breakdown of proteins goes down, signs that damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays from the day are going on – hence the term ‘beauty sleep’. Also, the parts of the brain which control emotions, social interactions and decision making are less active – giving our weary heads a break too. No wonder we crave a good night’s rest.

So clearly, it’s not a waste of time. Quite the reverse – I know I am at my brightest, most productive best when I’m sleeping well. But getting that 7-9 hours can seem painfully elusive sometimes. Even with all the advances in neuroscience, the white coats are baffled by trying to understand the complex mechanisms in the brain which trigger sleep. It’s not black and white – a simple flick of a switch – because the mind goes through a gradual process to get from a state of wakefulness to unconscious sleep. This was a light bulb moment for me, it’s a subtle shift of thinking to realise sleep, like meditation or even happiness are states which arise within us. We can’t just magically make it happen, quite the reverse. The more our intellectual minds get involved, the less likely we are to fall asleep (think SOI!). Of course, we can resort to sleeping pills and all their downsides, but far better to explore other options and at least try to set up the conditions which allow us to drift off naturally.

So, how did I extricate myself from my own sleep slump? Well, it’s an ongoing project, but now I’ve accepted it’s not something that can be sorted out overnight, I’m simply sticking to these common sense, but often neglected steps to a good night:

Follow the light: our body clock responds to light, and can not only help regulate our sleep pattern, it can make us feel better. Try to get out into the sunlight first thing to raise energy levels and again at sunset. It’s thought that we react to the colour of light – which has blue tone in the morning is more orange toned at sunset. You want as much light as possible in the mornings and during the day, least possible after sunset. Remember, our eyes are particularly sensitive to the dim blue light of the smart phone/computer screen.

Go with small changes: rather than suddenly going to bed at 10pm instead of midnight, adjust your wake/sleep times by small amounts – 10 or 15 minutes at a time to allow yourself to get used to it.

Don’t snooze rather than having that extra snooze, get up as soon as the alarm goes off – the quality of sleep you get in that time would not be great in any case. Better still, as you establish your sleep routine, you should be able to wake up without the rude awakening of the alarm – practice at the weekends.

Avoid weekend jet lag keep your sleep routine the same all week including any days off or the weekends. That way you establish your good sleep patten far more quickly, and you can begin to rely on your own body clock and not use the alarm (see above).

Adjust what you eat/drink it’s obvious that a heavy meal with wine before bed will affect how we sleep. Try to eat dinner 2-3 hours before bed, or have a small carbohydrate and protein snack such as yoghurt with banana, cheese and oatcakes, or toast with nut butter. It goes without saying – avoid caffeine, too much sugar and alcohol as much as possible.

Slow down discipline yourself to switch off your phone/computer/TV an hour before bed at least. Dedicate that hour to something for you – a lovely hot bath with relaxing aromatherapy oils, a meditation and/or yoga routine, or reading something which is not going to over-tax your brain. Sleep tight!