I love the summer but find that with the lighter mornings I wake up much earlier. Lack of sleep is something we have all experienced at one time or another so this got me thinking about what might be keeping us awake.
I should say before I start, that this is a huge topic and I could have expanded on many of the aspects covered. My hope is that if anything here interests you, you can explore it further.
When you think about it sleeping is a strange thing, we get into our pyjamas and spend six or seven hours unconscious before waking up to a new day. Researchers are not entirely sure why we sleep but they do know it is vital to our survival. Amongst other activities, during sleep cycles we transfer memories from short-term to long-term, learn to associate words and it is a time of peak growth hormone, when cell reproduction and repair is carried out. What we all know from experience is that if we have had a good night’s sleep we feel great and if we have had a poor night’s sleep we feel awful.
Lack of sleep impairs our ability to regulate our emotions and we lose our neutrality. Cue drama! So babies and young children apart, what might be preventing us from sleeping well? Some things to consider;
Comfort– It may sound obvious but is your bed comfortable?!
Temperature– A cool well-ventilated room is ideal. Sleep occurs when the core temperature of the body is dropping and when temperature change and heat loss is at its maximum. This is why our body cooling down after having a warm bath can make us feel sleepy.
Light– Melatonin is a hormone made by our pineal gland. When it is dark after sunset, usually around 9pm, the pineal gland begins to actively produce melatonin. This is released into our blood and as the melatonin level rises we begin to feel less alert and more sleepy. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for around 12 hours and then fall back to daytime levels, which are very low by 9am. Bright light inhibits the release of melatonin so even after 9pm being in a brightly lit room may be enough to prevent the release of melatonin. This is also true of the light that comes from phones, laptops and electronic reading devices.
Physical exercise– Research has shown that exercise improves the quality of sleep. We appear to enjoy a more sound and restful sleep after taking moderate aerobic exercise during the day. The amount and type of exercise will vary depending on our age and level of fitness but as a rough guide 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise should be enough to make a difference. Vigorous exercise during the evening may be too stimulating for some people and even prevent sleep, so it is really a question of trial and error and listening to your body to see what works best for you.
Blood sugar– If our blood sugar drops too low, we may wake up during the night. The cells in our body require sugar to function properly and when this falls too low feelings of restlessness and anxiousness will result. Obviously it is not a good idea to eat a heavy meal too soon before sleeping but snacks that keep blood sugar levels steady can be helpful. Food types with a low glycaemic index such as oatmeal and whole grains will help maintain steady blood sugar. Ideally a daily diet containing complex carbohydrates will keep blood sugar levels even throughout the day and into the night.
Hormones– For females the balance of hormones oestrogen and progesterone influence sleep. It appears that a drop in progesterone or an abrupt change in the balance between the two hormones can cause sleeplessness. This is true for women of all ages. As hormonal balance fluctuates on a daily basis this may pass but if not we may choose to influence what is happening by using synthetic hormones or natural alternatives.
The Mind– Our beautiful busy, busy minds; both a blessing and curse! If we are worried or anxious we will find it difficult to sleep. What is occupying our thoughts may be serious or trivial but either way our preoccupation with them is preventing us from sleeping. So how can we find ways to switch off that constant chatter that is keeping us awake?
Reading– This is pure escapism. It helps us switch off, takes us to another place and keeps our mind busy by giving it a job to do. You might like to know that studies have shown that brain activity during sleep is better regulated after reading a book compared with a screen. Just passing on the information!
Visualisation– Harnessing the power of your imagination. This is a proven technique that is now used in sports psychology to train athletes and sportsmen to improve their performance. It works because our brains show the same activity whether we are visualising lying in our hammock on the beach or actually physically there. As our bodies respond to our brain activity, imagining yourself in the happy place of your choice will help your body relax.
Progressive muscle relaxation or body scan– A slow and thorough journey around your body starting from the feet, tensing then relaxing all the muscles one by one. This helps reduce muscle tension. A certain amount of muscle tone is normal but excess muscle tension creates a feeling of alertness. Our bodies interpret the tension in our muscles to mean there is a threat nearby and we need to be vigilant, so our system is not allowed to relax enough to drop into sleep mode while the threat is present. Doing a body scan helps our muscles, body and mind relax which is much more conducive to falling asleep.
Breathing– Breathing, like muscle tension, is inextricably linked to our nervous system. By consciously affecting our breath we can affect how our bodies feel and calm an activated nervous system. There are many types of breathing exercises, Pranayama or breath control used in Hatha yoga is one form. There are many pranayama breathing ‘exercises’ that can be practised depending on your requirements. In this case one to quieten the mind and relax the body would be suitable. Hatha yoga itself is very effective for calming the nervous system and helping promote sleep. It works on both physical and mental levels, by balancing body chemistry, releasing muscle tension and bringing the attention of the mind to our breath and body sensation.
Mindfulness meditation– The benefits of practicing this form of meditation regularly is that we start to notice when our minds begin to wander and are then able to choose to change our train of thought. As one needs to be alert to meditate it is not recommended you do it in bed but if you suffer from insomnia it may be something to try rather than doing the ironing!
CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy– This works in a similar way, bringing an awareness of our thoughts and how helpful or otherwise they might be. Once we are aware of what we are thinking about we are able to ask the question, ‘how does this thought serve me?’ and act appropriately. Both Mindfulness and CBT need to be practiced regularly for us to enjoy the benefits but both are very effective.
It should be possible, even when under moderate stress, to find ways to drop into a more relaxed state and get some sleep. However sometimes the stress is too great or we are just not able to 'switch off'. This requires a rounded approach taking into consideration all aspects of our life style. If this is the case complementary therapies like massage, reflexology and craniosacral therapy are valuable resources to draw on to help us relax and in our quest for a good night’s sleep.