Sleep is an essential part of our wellbeing. It helps our bodies to recover and regenerate and keeps us sharp and productive. Sleep deprivation is so detrimental to wellbeing that it was utilised in the 1600’s by self styled Witch Hunter General Matthew Hopkins as a means of eliciting confessions from accused witches. Its says something for the pain and torment of sleep that a confession to witchcraft would be seen as a preferable option!
According to the NHS, the average adult human needs around 7-9 hours of sleep per night. According to one survey however, an astonishing 30% of us have had insomnia at some point. There are a myriad of potential causes that lead to insomnia such as shift work, mental health conditions, pain etc.
Acknowledging that the underlying causes can be difficult to control, a common contributor to poor sleep is sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is not (as was once suggested to me) how often we clean our nightclothes. Its the routines and habits leading into our bedtime that can influence how we sleep. Addressing these, even if you think that sleeping is not a big problem for you, could ring in the benefits to your mental wellness.
I spend a lot of time talking these things through with my patients so to make things easier I have created a simple mnemonic of sleep habits that could help you to streamline your bedtime. If you are struggling with sleep, or have poor energy that might be linked to quality of sleep, I recommend you try CALM SLEEP, a few simple rules and ideas that could tidy up your sleep hygiene and send you into a more blissful land of nod to help your body and mind recover from the rigours of life!
C – Comfort.
Going to bed should be a pleasure and making it comfortable is going to help this no end. To give a balanced view, some researcher in the 1950’s concluded that theres little difference in the amount of sleep time we get between sleeping on a board or sleeping on a sprung mattress. I’m going to be honest, I haven’t read the whole study because I am never going to recommend sleeping on a board. Perhaps the difference between a sprung mattress and a board wasn’t so great in the 1950’s. Whatever this study says, most of us would agree that being comfortable at night enhances our sleep. A decent mattress, bedding and pillows makes our bed a place we want to go to. I know it can run expensive but if we are getting the recommended amount of sleep most nights then we are spending a third of our lives in bed. This has to be worth the investment.
A – Avoid.
There are many avoids before bedtime to aid good sleep but the highlights are caffeine, alcohol and eating too late.
Theres a lot of conflicting advice about the effects of caffeine and alcohol on our general health. Barely a week goes by when I’m not picking up a news article that bestows the benefits or calamities of moderate to heavy consumption. One area of agreement however is the effect on sleep that even moderate consumption can have. With caffeine, as we know, it keeps us awake. The advice I give to maximise sleep is avoid caffeine in the afternoon completely and keep overall consumption moderate. beware also that we aren’t just talking coffee and tea. Unfortunately caffeine can also be found in other places like chocolate so be aware that your evening treat could be having an effect too.
With regard to eating, a full stomach before bed leaves our bodies with a world of work to do when we should be sleeping. You may recall from my last blog on diet the old proverb, “Eat breakfast like an emperor, lunch like a King and dinner like a pauper”. Supporting good sleep is another reason to look at this model of eating. If you can’t face switching your habits, at least make sure you give yourself a few hours between the last mouthfuls and counting the sheep!
L – Light Control.
This is a subject we are becoming moderately aware of but which I feel has a much greater part to play in our overall health. Our bodies respond to light by releasing or suppressing the release of a hormone called melatonin that aids sleep. Studies have found that blue light in particular mimicked daylight (something to do with the wavelength) and guess what? Blue light is emitted by phone, tablets and laptops. How many of us are sitting in bed on devices? This works at both ends of the day. Getting a bit of sunlight in the morning can help to switch off the melatonin and get the body moving.
One of the issues in the western world is that we don’t adapt top our natural environment. Work and school starts at 9 winter summer or fall yet the seasons change and our bodies want to change with it. I believe its a major reason behind Seasonal Affective Disorder as I detailed in an article on the subject some years ago. Regrettably the world is unlikely to change anytime soon so the best we can do in the meantime is to try an mould ourselves around it. Small investments like a natural light clock to wake up to in the morning could help as well as paying attention to getting things switched off at the other end of the day
M – Mellow.
I contemplated making this one meditate but I accept that not everyone has or is going to start this journey. What we can all do however is look at how we slow down in the evenings.
When I ask the question – “How do you relax” to my patients, the most popular answer by a country mile is watching TV. I always challenge this. When was the last time you watched something truly relaxing on TV? Its not designed for that. TV is meant to get its audience engaged, whatever your choice of programme. Documentaries get us thinking, soap operas draw us into the drama and don’t even get me started on the news. The only truly disengaging thing i can ever remember seeing on TV in the last 46 years was the test card and even that had an annoying high pitched noise accompanying it.
Our minds have got enough to do at night filing away a days worth of memories. Calming things down before we go to sleep is going to help avoid that tumultuous brain working overtime when we are trying to drop off. Try listening to relaxing music or reading if meditations not your thing but do try to avoid the Uber excitement at least an hour before lights out.
S – Schedule.
Following a routine is the first thing to look at with sleep. The body has a natural clock called the circadian rhythm which adapts according to our habits. Following a routine at night, especially with regard to the time we go to bed and the time we rise helps our body to take care of the natural functions that aid this such as releasing the sleep hormone melatonin.
L – Leave.
This really belongs further down but then the mnemonic wouldn’t work! Leave is for those struggling to sleep and what it means is get up, remove yourself for the bedroom and go somewhere else if you cant sleep. The rationale behind this is that we start to develop negative associations with our bedroom and the insomnia cycle becomes self perpetuating. Experts advise going somewhere quiet, reading a book for a few minutes and then returning to your bed to try again.
E – Exercise.
The relationship between exercise and sleep is well made with the advice being that even moderate activity improves duration and quality of sleep. it also helps us to wake and get going.
I always understood there was a caveat to when you exercise because too vigorous too close to bed had an opposite effect. According to the sleep foundation however, recent studies suggest that this doesn’t apply to everyone so I guess its a case of what works for you.
E – Environment.
This is something I feel very strongly about. Now I’m not a Feng Shui expert by any manner or means but it makes complete sense to me that our bedrooms should reflect the peace and tranquility we would hope to associate with a good nights sleep. Lots of clutter cannot allow for a free flowing energy.
Remember, our bedrooms are places to sleep. They are not for watching TV, or evoking memories or anything else. I recommend tidying up, Marie Kondo the drawers and leave only a few calming objects or pictures out.
I’d also like to discuss the issue of mirrors. According to some traditional belief, our ethereal soul leaves the body at night to wander (it is further believed that if you dream about someone your ethereal souls have met!). If it sees a reflection in the mirror it becomes startled which in can cause us to have nightmares. I recommend draping something over the mirror at night or better still, just don’t have one in there.
P – Professionals.
If you’ve done all of this and you are still struggling it might be time to speak to the professionals. Sleep deprivation is linked to a number of physical and mental health disorders and we should suffer in silence.
So there you have it. A summary of sleep in a neat little mnemonic. Please bear in mind that as with everything, if we spend a lifetime developing bad habits, transforming to new ones and seeing the benefit won’t happen over night. With tenacity however you will ring in the changes.
Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.
If you are interested in learning more about how Tony could help you to achieve your well being goals please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.