Sleep is crucial to good health. Unfortunately at least 1 in 3 adults experience some significant sleep problems. Health experts recommend that people should aim for at least 8 hours of sleep per night, but a large proportion of UK adults average nowhere near that.
Insomnia, or sleep difficulties, is categorised into one of three areas:
- Sleep onset - difficulty getting to sleep
- Sleep disruption - frequent waking, with trouble getting back to sleep
- Early awakening - waking very early with inability to return to sleep
If you suffer from one or a combination of these, it can be very debilitating.
Sleep deprivation has many negative health effects. It can lead to….
- Increased stress, irritability and mood swings
- Impaired cognition - eg. attention, memory problems
- Weight gain - sleep deprivation causes food cravings which in turn means you put on weight
- Weakened immunity - greater likelihood of viral infection
- Increased risk of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression
- And of course fatigue and lack of energy during the day
Ways to improve your sleep
One common way to address sleep difficulties is to take medication (ie sleeping pills). The dual problem with sleeping pills is they often don’t work very well and they have side effects. What happens with sleeping pills is your brain becomes desensitised to them and you need stronger doses - which increases the severity of side effects.
In my view a natural, non-medicated approach to fixing sleep difficulties is preferable. There are four such options:
Addressing Sleep Problems
Therapy: If your sleep problems are quite severe, then some specialised attention (via something like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) may be required.
Let’s take a more detailed look at the other three approaches - Nutrition, Lifestyle and Environment.
The most important nutrients to help sleep quality are Magnesium, Zinc, Vitamin D, and Omega 3.
The good news is these nutrients are present in lots of common foods:
- Magnesium - increases your melatonin and reduces your cortisol. Primary food sources include leafy green vegetables (spinach, chard, parsley), nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds), avocados, chickpeas
- Zinc - main sources include seafood, poultry, chickpeas, eggs, almonds & cashew nuts
- Vitamin D – whilst the primary source of Vitamin D is the sun, some good food sources are mushrooms, eggs, cheese, salmon
- Omega 3 fats – main sources include oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout), avocados, nuts
Everyone is different. Which of these nutrients you need most will depend on your individual circumstances.
You’re probably eating a number of these things already, so just increase the amount/frequency a bit.
- Have more green salads and add avocados to them; add chickpeas to your stews and curries
- If you’re currently eating salmon once a week, bump it up to twice; same with eggs
- Sprinkle some nuts and pumpkin seeds on your breakfast cereal or porridge
You can also take some food supplements that provide the nutrients that help you sleep, but generally I feel it is better to get your nutrients directly via food than through supplement pills.
One exception is tryptophan. Tryptohan is an amino acid that is necessary for the production of the hormone serotonin, which in turn converts into melatonin (the hormone that controls your sleep). Tryptophan is present in some foods (turkey is a particularly good source) but only in very small quantities - you’d have to eat a lot of turkey to notice an impact on your sleep ! Thus you might want to consider taking a tryptophan supplement.
Chronic stress is, not surprisingly, an antidote to good sleep (as well as being a major contributor to other health problems). Two good ways to control stress are to develop relaxation techniques that work for you, and to maintain an adequate amount of physical activity and exercise.
- Listen to music or read a book before bedtime, spend time on your hobby – find some good ways to reduce day-to-day stress and chill out before bedtime.
- Spending time outdoors interacting with nature is a great way to chill. Getting fresh air during the day helps with sleep. Natural sunlight helps to keep your circadian rhythm in balance – improving energy during the day and supporting sleep at night.
- Take up yoga, meditation, tai chi – more and more guys are doing it these days.
Exercise / activity:
- Getting some aerobic exercise during the day can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep duration.
- It can be any type of exercise (walking, jogging, cycling, gym class) but aim for 30 min per day - and don’t do it too close to bedtime !
Here I’m talking about the ambient environment of your sleep space (ie your bedroom).
Absence of light:
- Melatonin (the ‘sleep hormone’) is a hormone that your body produces in response to darkness. It helps with your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock)
- Good sleep depends on your body releasing enough melatonin. Light blocks melatonin production so make sure your bedroom is light-free
- Invest in black-out blinds if needed
- If some light is required, make it orange light (which is more melatonin-friendly)
- Ensure good ventilation in the room
- Use a humidifier if the air is dry
- Ensure bedroom is not too hot - optimal room temperature for sleep is 16-19 deg
- Blue light from screens suppresses the release of melatonin
- If you are having sleep difficulties, then you should remove phones, tablets, laptops, TVs from the bedroom. If you use your phone as an alarm, get an alternative alarm clock with no screen
Establish a bedtime routine:
- Take a warm bath before bed
- Have a cup of herbal tea an hour before bedtime
- Read a book in bed (rather than check emails !)
If you integrate even a few of these tips into your life, your sleep quality should improve and with it your overall health and quality of life…..
Ready to find out more?
If you’d like to discuss ways to improve your sleep or your overall health, book a free introductory call with me. There is no obligation - just a chat about your health priorities and how I might be able to help