Over the last few weeks, I’ve started to notice the nights are drawing in. For some this is a welcome change and leaving behind the hot, light nights of summer means their sleep naturally improves. For others, however, it may emphasise the problems they are experiencing with their sleep.
Insomnia can mean difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, early morning waking or non-restorative sleep. People with insomnia may feel dissatisfied with their sleep and it often results in daytime symptoms such as fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating and mood disturbances. It is common and can affect up to one third of the general population, becoming more common with increasing age.
Insomnia may start in response to stress or another factor but then develop into a conditioned response. If you begin to associate going to bed with insomnia it can become a habit, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Insomnia can also be secondary to an underlying condition for example, depression, stress, medications, alcohol, chronic pain, sleep apnoea or restless legs syndrome.
The good news is that whatever the duration and cause of the insomnia, there are often approaches which can really help to improve sleep and quality of life. Sleep is one on the Lifestyle Medicine “Six Pillars”, an essential key element to keep in balance to ensure overall health. See here for more information on Lifestyle Medicine. We can also use this holistic framework to identify areas which may not be in balance and may be contributing to your sleep difficulties. Below are some simple tips based around this approach to support healthy sleep:
Diet and nutrition:
Adjust your eating pattern to ensure a regular routine. Keep salt intake at your evening meal low and avoid meals in the two hours before bedtime. Some people also find a Magnesium supplement helpful, this can be taken orally or absorbed through the skin e.g. as bath salts or an oil based preparation.
Regular daytime physical activity, preferably taken outdoors in the early part of the day, will set your body clock and improve evening melatonin release.
Spend time connecting with friends and family and focus on positive relationships. Avoid any difficult conversations or use of social media in the few hours before bedtime.
Alcohol disturbs sleep patterns, avoid for at least 2-3 hours before bedtime. Caffeine can also take many hours to get out of your system (unless you are one of the lucky few “fast metabolisers”), restrict any caffeinated beverages to the morning. Blue light, multi-tasking and too much mental stimulation are also toxins when it comes to sleep – avoid for at least one hour before bedtime.
Stress reduction and mental well-being:
Practicing a breathing exercise or meditation daily can help to relieve stress, re-set the body’s alert system, and improve sleep. Some people find apps e.g. Headspace and Calm useful for this. Or you can use my simple sleep self-hypnosis podcast session here.
As well as the above approaches keeping to a regular routine (even on weekends or after a bad night) and ensuring the bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet can help to improve your sleep. There is also evidence that certain essential oils (e.g. lavender) may aid sleep, you may choose to experiment with a pillow spray or scented bath oil.
Where these simple tips don’t improve your sleep, or you feel an underlying medical condition is contributing to your insomnia, then an assessment with your GP or with one of our practitioners may help to address the root cause(s) and improve your sleep. If you feel stress or negative expectation about your sleep may be key, then you may find an app such as Sleepio helpful or you can access NHS psychological services (see further resources below).
Sometimes we are aware of what would be helpful to improve our sleep but struggle to put recommendations into practice. Or perhaps you are unsure of what is causing your sleep difficulty and don’t know where to start. If this is the case for you then you may find it helpful to book an appointment to discuss a personalised lifestyle medicine approach. Through this process we can look at what are the most important factors for you and use supportive, evidenced-based, health coaching to enable you to make positive changes to improve your sleep and overall health.