• Lottie Williams

Sick of not sleeping? 4 things to try today to get some shut-eye

In my family, we famously don’t sleep. The first conversation we have in the morning is a detailed analysis of how many hours we slept (or, most commonly, didn’t sleep), how long it took to drop off, how many times we woke up, and when we finally gave up and went to the kitchen to make a coffee and start the day. Lack of sleep is also something that comes up incredibly regularly in clinic, most people I speak to are simply not getting enough of it, so it’s not just my family of insomniacs.

Not getting enough sleep simply makes us feel lousy. More than that, it’s associated with an increased long-term risk of chronic health problems such as type 2 diabetes. In the short-term, even one night of bad sleep can mess up the body’s work to balance blood sugar and stress hormones. This, in turn, can play havoc with our sex hormones (hello, PMS) and other bodily systems. We’ve probably all had that experience where the day after a bad night we feel a bit more anxious than normal and find ourselves eyeing up the glazed doughnuts someone has bought into the office at 10 am. And then we end up relying on gallons of coffee to get through the afternoon, only to find ourselves wide awake as soon as we get into bed. It can feel like a vicious cycle.

We all need different amounts of sleep. I need 8 hours, one of my good friends seems to happily function on 5 hours, my husband definitely needs 10. Not sure how much you need? Tomorrow morning about 10 minutes after waking ask yourself – how refreshed do I feel? If you feel tired, you probably didn’t get enough sleep. The aim is to naturally wake before your alarm goes off and to wake feeling refreshed and ready to go.

Sleep is always one of the first things we look at in clinic as without it there’s only so much a good diet will do for someone. My approach with my clients is completely personalised, but here are some of the things we often discuss to help get a bit more good quality sleep.*

  1. Establish a bedtime routine. Treat yourself like a child, work out a regular bedtime and waking time and stick to it. Create a routine that tells your body that it’s time to down tools and get ready for sleep. That might include dimming the lights, putting on PJs, reading quietly for 20 minutes etc. Having a warm bath with a good handful of Epsom salts added can be really relaxing – try it and see if you sleep better.

  2. Empty your head before bed. Racing thoughts are often responsible for keeping us up. Spending 5 minutes noting down any recurring thoughts or worries can be a good way of clearing space in your head before you get into bed. Having a pen and paper near your bed can also be useful if you wake in the middle of the night with a busy head. Write it down and leave it on the paper.

  3. Ditch your devices Constant notifications on our phones tell our brains we need to be awake and alert, pretty much the opposite of what you want at bedtime. Phones, laptops and tablets also emit blue light which sends a signal to the pineal gland that it’s daytime and consequently our bodies stop producing melatonin, the sleep hormone. Keep devices out of the bedroom – you can pick up a cheap old-fashioned alarm clock, you don’t need to use your phone for this! – and see if you can switch everything off for at least an hour before bed.

  4. Careful with caffeine. Yes, we all know that person that can sink a double espresso before bed and sleep like a baby. Most of us can’t manage this. Experiment with having your last caffeinated drink by 12pm and try and limit yourself to 1-2 caffeinated drinks in total, or consider cutting it out completely if you’re really struggling.

Sleep is a funny thing, though. The harder we try, the further it runs away from us. That’s why I think the best thing we can do is try and create a lifestyle that welcomes sleep and seek support if we’re still struggling. On a personal note, I know sleep is always going to be a bit of an issue for me, but I know that when I follow my own advice I tend to sleep longer and feel better for it, so do give it a try and see how you get on.

*Obviously there are times in your life where sleep is a bit of a luxury. See: parents of new babies. I think in those cases it’s about optimising the shut-eye you can get: avoiding caffeine as it may take you longer to nod off and you’re likely to have poor quality sleep, and being really strict about not having devices in the bedroom.