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I can remember the first time I lay awake all night. It was eight hours before my first exam at university – French politics, FYI – and my brain just wouldn’t switch off. In the seven years since, not sleeping became my status quo. At first it reared its head only for exam season but by the time I’d moved to London, with all its inescapable noise, stress and light pollution, insomnia had become my norm.
In that time I’ve tried all manner of potions and pills, from herbal remedies to the real deal, prescribed from the doctor. Nowadays, I rely on an over-the-counter antihistamine, This Works pillow spray, and as good a sleep hygiene as I can manage. Coffee is banned after lunch, alcohol is not allowed on a weeknight, and screen time is a no-no after 10pm. Yes, I have to treat myself like a hyperactive child, enforcing a strict regime of set bedtimes and wind-down time. But, for me, it’s the only thing that works – and sometimes it just doesn’t. There are still nights where I lie awake, heart and head racing a million miles an hour.
It’s a picture that many people are familiar with: 20 million British people don’t get enough sleep, and the average Briton only sleeps for six hours and 19 minutes, far below the recommended seven to nine hours a night. Our terrible quality of sleep has been dubbed a ‘public health crisis’, and lack of sleep costs the UK economy £40.3 billion every year due to the fall in productivity.
My strict bedtime routine comes from the fact that I’ve partly decoded what fuels my sleepless nights. For people still unsure, I spoke to Jane Bozier, a mental health nurse and sleep expert, on the main triggers for insomnia, and how they can be tackled. Because knowledge is power – and it might be just what you need to tackle your toxic sleep cycle head on.
‘Your bedroom should only be for sleep and sex. Create an optimum sleep environment by decluttering, removing technology and investing in blackout curtains, which will support your body’s natural circadian rhythm.’
‘Just like children, adults should set a time to go to bed a stick to it. Varying your bed times and creating a lack of routine can confuse the body. Develop a routine which tells your mind and body it is time to sleep can be a big help. This could including switching off technology, dimming the lights and settling down with a book.’
‘Caffeine is one of the biggest sleep saboteurs. Try to reduce your overall caffeine intake throughout the day, but it’s a good idea to cut caffeine out altogether long before you go to bed.’
‘Turn off your devices about an hour before you go to bed. The blue light emitted by your phone tricks your mind into thinking that it’s daylight, which interrupts your circadian rhythm.’
‘When you’re lying in bed take a few slow deep breaths, and repeat this exercise for as long as you like. Breathing is really effective for quieting your chattering mind, and it also reduces your heart rate, which in turn relaxes your body.’
‘The stress of not being able to sleep can become the very thing that stops you from sleeping. If you find yourself lying in bed worrying about not sleeping, get up, go into another room and do something to distract your mind. Perhaps try a breathing exercise, maybe a few light stretches, reading, gentle meditation or breathing exercises. When you feel tired, go back to bed.’
‘Depression affects your mood, and this can cause disturbed sleep in a range of ways. Some people may stay in bed as they are unable to get up, so they feel they are sleeping all of the time. Others are unable to sleep, and may wake up several times throughout the night or fall asleep quickly but wake early. If you feel that you may be suffering with depression, seek medical advice. Sometimes improving the quality of sleep has a positive effect on the your overall quality of life.’
‘What you eat before you go to bed has a serious effect on the quality of your sleep. Pick foods high in tryptophan, like almonds, which releases the serotonin hormone that regulates sleep, mood and appetite. Foods high in melatonin, like honey, bananas and raspberries, regulate your sleep-wake cycle, while slow-release carbohydrates like oats and wholemeal bread help to regulate blood sugar throughout the night. Food harmful to sleep includes alcohol, which prevents you from falling into a deep sleep, spicy food, which can give you heartburn and stops your body regulating temperature, and fatty foods, which are hard to digest.’
‘If you have something on your mind, write them down before bed and put ‘dealing with it’ next to them. This may help you to let go and drift into sleep. Reminding yourself of three things that happened today that you are grateful for can also be a useful exercise.’
‘Both heart and breathing problems can lead to poor sleep. This may be due to the lack of oxygen being pumped around the body, the fact that you’re in pain or worried about ill health. Also, if you have to make several trips to the bathroom every night, it might be because of an enlarged prostate. If any of the above ring true, go and have a chat with your GP.’