Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Struggling to get to sleep? Feeling anxious about what the new 'normal' will look like? This posts discusses how to get some quality shut-eye for overall health and mental balance.
The last year has been turbulent to say the least. You may have found yourself in a position where you have had more opportunity to sleep. You may have felt anxious and have struggled to get quality shut eye; or you may have found yourself staying up later and later watching box sets or streaming videos because there’s less need to maintain a strict routine.
Research shows that those that have less than the recommended 7 hours are 3 times more likely to develop an infection compared to those who have 8 or more.
For our body to function optimally we need adequate sleep. Research shows that those that have less than the recommended 7 hours are 3 times more likely to develop an infection compared to those who have 8 or more. This is because our immune system does most of its work when we are asleep.
But does it matter when you sleep? Our body has a natural sleep-wake cycle known as the circadian rhythm. This means going to bed when our sleep hormone melatonin is released (after sunset) and waking when its levels dip and are taken over by cortisol (after sunrise). Furthermore, research shows that melatonin has an anti-inflammatory action and exhibits immune-modulatory effects. This means it’s not only key to keeping us well but fundamental to growth and recovery.
During Lockdown, there has been a lot of uncertainty. Even now, with the world planning to ease back restrictions, nobody knows what the new 'normal' will be. It is only natural to feel anxious or stressed, making is difficult to drop off or stay asleep. This creates a yo-yo effect as insufficient sleep only adds to levels of stress and the effectiveness of the immune system is partially suppressed by our stress hormones. If we can support a healthy stress response, we can support our immune response and improve our sleep-wake pattern too.
There are lots of things we can do to put sleep back on the agenda and make it the top of priority.
Let’s talk about sleep hygiene.
This doesn’t mean going to bed really clean. It means doing things to improve our sleep.
1. Routine. As much as possible maintain regular sleep hours. Yes, we know how tempting that extra episode of Bridgerton is, but most of us need 7-9 hours especially if we need to fight of infection.
2. Wind down. Avoid the blue light of screens 1 hour before bed. After sunset, it’s a great idea to remove blue light from screens. If it’s not possible to turn these off and pick-up a paperback or run a bath, use a programme to remove the blue from your screen. Some electronics have this built in or programmes such as F.lux do it for you. Remember, darkness releases melatonin and that helps us to sleep.
3. Rest and digest. Your digestive system needs your sleeping hours to do some important work. Giving it a fasting period, allows it time to do this. Support digestion by finishing eating large meals 2 hours before bed. If you are still chomping at the bit before bed, have a small snack of carbohydrate and protein 45 minutes before hitting the sack: Skyr yogurt with a drizzle of honey, a couple of oat cakes with some almond butter or a protein shake made with oat milk are great pre-snooze options.
4. Environment. The bedroom should be a sanctuary. Not a cinema. Ideally not an office…at least not at night. It should be a cool, clean, dark environment, free from noise. Consider blackout blinds or curtains, keep it cool: around 18°C and put electronics on airplane mode or store in another room.
5. Exercise. Good news! Keeping active and maintaining a training regime can dramatically reduce stress as it releases the feel-good hormone serotonin. On top and as a result of this it can improve sleep quality and quantity. Where possible avoid demanding physical activity three hours before bed as too much too late may lead to the release of stress hormone cortisol which will keep you alert and stop melatonin doing its job in helping you fall asleep.
And finally, a few nutritional bio-hacks to promote a good night’s zzzzz and feelings of calm.
Magnesium. This mineral does hundreds of jobs in our body, but it also promotes the relaxation of our muscles. So, if you do a lot of exercise on top of a heavy life load, your likely to find yourself depleted. Foods: spinach and dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, legumes, tuna, almonds and dark chocolate (think upwards of 70% cocoa) all contain high levels of magnesium.
Amino acids: L-tryptophan and L-theonine. L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid present in protein that is used by the body to make our happy hormone serotonin, the neurotransmitter essential for healthy sleep. Making sure you include quality protein in your diet, especially the last meal of the day will support healthy sleep and relaxation. L-theonine or L-tea-onine as we like to call it is an amino acid that is especially high in tea. It’s what gives that feeling of a big hug when you have a cuppa. Green tea has the highest amounts although opt for caffeine free versions to avoid the stimulating effect later in the afternoon/evening.