TO SLEEP - perchance to dream...
By Kevin Witham, BSc(Hons), MDipFTST, DipIIST, NLP(Prac)
The subject of sleep is a very emotive one for many people. Most of us take for granted that when we lie down in our bed at night and close our eyes, sleep will follow swiftly. That is not the case for many people however and, increasingly, there are people whose sleep is disturbed night after night. Around half the population say that on a regular basis they have trouble sleeping.
We are not referring here to external causes for interrupted sleep, although they certainly can be a nuisance on occasion, but to physiological imbalances that mean poor quality of sleep or even insomnia.
Some people boast that they need very little sleep and rarely this is true. There are exceptional people who appear to manage on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night whilst having a challenging career, family commitments and busy social life. It is not possible to know exactly whether these people are creating problems for themselves later on or whether they, for some reason, really do need far less sleep than the rest of us.
We do know that sleep is essential for everyone. It is during sleep that the body repairs damage and we sort out mentally the happenings of the day. If we lack sleep we will probably suffer from a range of symptoms: confusion, poor recall, apathy, lethargy, low mood, increased susceptibility to stress and infection. This is known from many studies that have been done.
So, if you are a poor sleeper and you wish to do something about that, the following guidelines may provide some real help.
Vitamins and minerals for sleep
It is known that a deficiency of certain vitamins and minerals results in poor dream recall. Vitamin B6 and zinc are key nutrients that influence dream recall. Other B vitamins help in the fight against stress; they are supporting for the health of the nervous system. It is a good idea to add a B vitamin complex to your daily supplement profile. Avoid taking B vitamins late in the day however because they tend to be uplifting - take early say with breakfast or lunch.
Vitamin C is essential for the healthy function of the adrenal glands. We do not store vitamin C so must ensure plenty in our diet. Eating citrus fruits or drinking their pressed juices together with adequate intake of brightly coloured vegetables can help. If you are under stress, try supplementing 500-1000mg three times per day.
Calcium and magnesium together with zinc are important for relaxation. They are involved in muscle function. You can take a supplement but increasing mineral rich foods in the diet can also be of help. Try including some of the following: wholegrain cereals especially oats, quinoa and millet, green vegetables especially sea vegetables, seeds and nuts, dairy products, fish such as salmon, pulses, even salad vegetables such as tomatoes and fruits such as prunes and figs are a good source of calcium and/or magnesium. A varied and colourful intake will ensure that you are getting a broad range of vitamins and minerals. Eat fresh foods and include some raw foods each day.
Balance Blood Sugar
This is important for overall health not just sleep. Erratic variations in sugar from processed starches and sweets can lead to changes in levels of stress hormones. This will prevent repair of tissues that normally takes place overnight. Without this, we are vulnerable to chronic illness and fatigue. Reducing sugary and processed foods such as white bread, cakes, biscuits and chocolate bars can really make a difference……….an added advantage is that substituting whole grains whenever possible and eliminating sweets and sugary snacks can also positively influence body weight. Alcohol needs to be moderate too - there is hidden sugar in alcoholic drinks and in large quantities alcohol is a depressant.
Eat smaller more regular meals including plenty of fruit and vegetables, include sufficient protein by having a source of protein with each meal. This means adding nuts and seeds to cereals or yogurt in the morning, using soya or almond milk for drinks or at breakfast if you don't like dairy or are allergic to it, having a portion of pulses (such as lentils or chick peas), fish, poultry or meat with lunch and evening meals. We don't need large quantities of protein but it really helps to level out blood sugar and therefore improve energy levels and brain function.
Hormones for sleep
We need to balance our stress hormones with other mood and regulating hormones such as serotonin and melatonin to allow a decent night's sleep. Many people, especially as they get older, and particularly women during and after the menopause, are deficient in serotonin. This leads to reduced levels of melatonin - the hormone that regulates the sleep cycles.
This is where foods that contain good levels of tryptophan can help. Foods for aiding sleep include: eggs, cheese, milk products generally, nuts, seeds, fish, chicken, bananas
There are specialised supplements that can help. One is 5HTP…..as with most supplements it is best to get the advice of a qualified nutritional practitioner.
There are several herbs that have a reputation of helping with sleep and anxiety problems. If you are already taking prescribed medication check with your GP or pharmacist first or ask a herbalist for advice to avoid any possible interactions. Try any of the following either singly or in combination:
- Hops - beneficial for nervous system
- St John's Wort - also good for depression
- Passion flower - calming and sedative
- Kava kava
- Chamomile - gently soothing can be taken as a tea in the evening
- Licorice - helps regulate adrenal function
These products can be purchased through specialist supplement providers, health food shops or your nutrition practitioner. Advice on dosage is usually available from the source of purchase and may vary from person to person.
Create the right environment and other tips for sleep
Although this article really addresses physiological influences on sleep, it is worth evaluating your sleep environment because the right environment will permit deep and relaxing sleep.
- Ensure the room is adequately dark - buy dark, lined curtains or blinds
- Avoid having the bedroom or living rooms brightly lit late at night as this can prevent release of melatonin and disrupt the sleep-wake cycle.
- Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable and you are not overheated. Leave a window open to ensure fresh air during the night.
- Whenever possible avoid using a computer or watching television in the hour before bedtime as sources of bright light they impair the hormones that regulate sleep.
Other tips for restful sleep
- Avoid drinking tea, coffee and chocolate in the later part of the day as caffeine kick starts the adrenal glands and raises stress levels. Some people may even find any caffeine in the afternoon affects sleep. Try reducing caffeine intake if you have trouble sleeping.
- Progressively move your bedtime forward. The body repairs physically from around 10.30pm. If we are awake then stress hormones prevent physical repair.
- Avoid sugary foods in the evening. The sudden fluctuation in blood sugar levels can stress the adrenal glands which become exhauster over time and lead to chronic fatigue.
- Take regular exercise - this has really beneficial impact on overall health especially hormonal health. Bear in mind that intense exercise will raise stress hormone levels if performed in the evening. Try to fit in exercise sessions during the day or at least before your evening meal.
- Set aside special time to relax, maybe a weekend when you can take gentle exercise and eat fresh, healthful, varied array of foods to help detoxification. Ensure you drink enough water - aim for 1.5 to 2 litres per day including any herbal teas.
- Take a bath and use calming aromatherapy oils such as lavender and neroli.