It’s 3am and you’re staring at the ceiling. Again.
Your mind is racing. It can’t and won’t stop, no matter how much you wish it would.
You know you’ll be exhausted in the morning, but you’ve learned to run on adrenaline (and coffee, and chocolate). Feeling tired and living in a fog is the new norm.
It’s not fun. There’s no joy here. Just survival.
You wish you could fall asleep and stay asleep like you used to.
Here are some tips and ideas for that good nights’ sleep you’re craving.
(Disclaimer: the following ideas are general in nature. Should you experience any adverse reactions stop immediately and consult a medical professional).
#1. Be your own detective
You are the best advocate for your own health. No one else knows your body like you do. There are so many reasons why sleep issues arise, so think back and write down what was going on when sleep became a problem.
Was it moving house, a new-born baby, horrible boss, shift work, divorce, menopausal, pain, medication, diet change, binge watching, barking dog, partner started snoring, you started snoring?
Ask family and friends what they remember, perhaps there’s a family history of sleep problems like insomnia and sleep-apnoea that you weren’t aware of.
Keep a sleep diary for a month or so to help provide further insight to what is going on. Templates and apps are available online to get you started or use a watch or sleep device to record some the times for you.
Basically record the times you went to bed, woke up, what disturbed you, sleep quality, naps taken, exercise, number of coffees, what and when did you eat, mood throughout the day... Pretty much anything that could be a trigger for a sleepless night.
Use this information to identify recurring themes or events, and provide a basis for you to implement positive changes such as those outlined in this blog.
#2. Get into the rhythm of the night
Circadian rhythms are our natural internal process that tells us when to wake up and when to go to sleep. When in balance, your body produces two primary hormones that govern this rhythm — Cortisol and Melatonin.
Cortisol is the stimulating hormone — starts producing at sunrise, peaks midmorning and drops off as the heads into evening.
Melatonin is the sleep-promoting hormone — produced in response to the sun setting and darkness falling. Levels should be highest at night, and drops off as cortisol starts rising in the morning.
Unfortunately, modern life, stress, kids, 24/7 work availability has altered this rhythm for many of us, and this 24-hour body clock gets out of whack and requires a reset.
- Routine is important — Set an alarm to wake up, to get ready for bed at night, and then for bedtime. Stick to it as much as possible.
- Reduce stress as much as possible. (Easier said than done, I know!) Stress evokes the sympathetic nervous system aka ‘fight or flight’. This system produces the stress hormone adrenaline and further increases cortisol production, which in turn impacts melatonin production — leaving you tired and wired.
- Get out into the sunlight during the day, work near windows with natural light if possible. Sunlight helps increase our serotonin levels (our happy hormone). This hormone impacts our entire body — our appetite, bowel movements, muscles, how we think, our moods, libido, as well as our sleep.
- Use blue light filters at night on any devices (or don’t use the devices at all) and adjust screen brightness.
- Use pink Himalayan salt lamps as night lights through your house so you don’t have to turn on bright overhead lights should you need to get up. They have a lovely pink glow and have added health benefits too. I leave mine on all day and night.
- Check out the rest of the ideas in this blog. They’ll all help you get your rhythm back.
#3. Follow the 5 golden rules
These rules are the bare minimum that everyone should follow whether you have sleep issues or not.
Rule 1: Schedule exercise 1 hour after waking to 3 hours before bedtime. Exercise has been shown to decrease sleep complaints, however exercising too close to bedtime may make it worse as adrenaline levels and brain activity is high, making it difficult to wind down to go to sleep.
Rule 2: No caffeine 9 hours before bedtime and less than 3mg caffeine/kg body mass. This includes coffee, black and green teas, energy drinks, dark chocolate, as well as certain soft drinks, supplements, and meal replacements.
Rule 3: No alcohol 4 hours before bedtime and 2 drinks at most. Alcohol can affect REM sleep and cause sleep disruptions.
Rule 4: No food or drink for the 2 hours before bedtime. This gives your body a chance to digest the meal, also if you eat a sugary, high carb or high fat meal, this could cause silent reflux, indigestion or heartburn, causing you to wake up through the night.
Rule 5: Don’t go to bed worked up. Calm and relaxed is the plan. And no smoking either! Nicotine is a stimulant and can actually mask your exhaustion, so best to give it a miss altogether.
#4. Make food your friend
Food can affect each of us in different ways — think of the sugar high kids have after a party, or the energy slump we feel after a greasy burger or pizza, the chocolate or coffee we crave mid afternoon to get the energy boost to keep going.
Take note of what you eat and how you feel throughout the day for a week or so. Foods affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally, and then ultimately how well we sleep.
Generally, the “healthier” we eat (less processed and fast food) the better we feel and the better we sleep.
The goal is to find the foods that work for you, that don’t fire you up and keep you sleepless.
#5. Keep calm and drink healthy herbs
There are a number of herbs that can be used to calm you down and promote sleep. Brew as a tea (1 bag/scoop per cup boiling water), or add to your hot bath (but don’t drink the bath water!).
Try a few to find the ones that you like and work best for you. There are many ready-made ‘bedtime’ tea blends available. Here are a few that I like to use:
- Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Note: Best to drink these teas 1–2 hours before bed to avoid night time bathroom trips. Also if you suffer from hay-fever, watch for any reactions when consuming teas you haven’t tried before as many of these teas are made from the flowers.
#6. Magnesium is the bomb!
Bath bombs that is. Magnesium is that all important mineral that many of us are lacking. It is required in serotonin production (a key hormone that helps regulate sleep), as well as easing muscle and nervous tension.
Studies have shown that magnesium supplementation can improve sleep disturbance symptoms, but another way to increase your magnesium levels is through your skin —the technical term is ‘transdermal absorption’.
A lovely, relaxing way is with Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate) in a warm bath. 2 cups with some lovely bubbles, 1 litre of brewed relaxing herbal tea as mentioned in #5, or a few drops of essential oils and you’re set.
If you don’t have a bath then soaking your feet in a big container would do the trick (0.5–1 cup of Epsom salt).
Magnesium oils, lotions and sprays applied after a shower and/or before sleep are other ways to increase your magnesium levels. Not only are they useful for sleep, but also for sore joints and muscles.
#7. Have a comfy, cozy bedroom
You’ve most likely seen the statistics — we spend one-third of our life either sleeping or attempting to. So it makes sense to have our bedrooms comfy and cozy, don’t you think?
- Comfortable bed/mattress — try lots and save up if necessary.
- Comfortable pillow — try different types, and make sure you replace them regularly.
- Block-out curtains or an eye-mask— that street lamp outside your house always seems brighter at 3am don’t you think?
- Make your bedroom for sleep and relaxation only — No working from home in here!
- Remove any tech devices such as your phone, laptop, tablet as well as the TV. These gadgets emit blue light which can affect your brain’s sleep signals.
#8. Relax, rinse, repeat
We are creatures of habit and bedtime routines are essential. Remember your bedtime routine when you were a child or what you set up for your own kids? Dinner, bath, brush teeth, bedtime story and sleep.
Adults are not different — we go to bed later, and have a few more options to fill in that time between dinner and sleep. Here are some ideas to help you to wind down from your busy day:
- Enjoy a cup of herbal tea (as mentioned in #5 Keep calm and drink healthy herbs)
- Run a hot bath with Epsom salts (full of Magnesium as mentioned in #6. Magnesium is the bomb!), bubbles, and/or essential oils. Use scented candles, relaxing music or a guided meditation.
- Listen to relaxing music while colouring in, journaling, or meditating.
- Diffuse a few drops of calming essential oils 20mins before going to bed, in your bedroom.
- Read a book.
- When you first lie in bed, ready to go to sleep, do a progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercise starting at your toes and working up to your head. Scrunch up your toes for 5 seconds, relax, tense up your feet, relax, tighten your calves, relax, work your way up your body to your face, scrunch up your face, stick out your tongue and relax.
- Think of 5 things that you are grateful for today.
- Close your eyes and and take deep breaths.
#9. Separate bedrooms anyone?
Noisy bed-fellows in the forms of snoring partners or pets that insist on sleeping on your bed/feet/chest (or anyone/anything else in the room keeping you awake) is no fun. It may be time to look for alternative sleeping areas if you have the space.
The pets should be reasonably easy to move, the partner perhaps not so! Perhaps you could negotiate alternate nights together and apart, or take this as an opportunity for them to have a sleep check done on themselves if necessary.
If separate rooms is not a possibility, invest in some really good ear plugs (the higher the decibel protection, the better), use white-noise, and have the spare bed/lounge/sofa made up just in case (speaking from experience!).
#10. Look into my eyes…
Hypnosis and self-hypnosis may be a little “out there” for some, but it certainly can help to relax both mind and body. Sleep hypnosis is a technique that involves guided thinking (same as guided meditation) to lead a person to a state of relaxation with the intention that you will fall asleep. There are many apps and recordings that you can purchase and download.
The effects are different for everyone, and it took a little while to work for me, however on the nights that I wake up at 2am completely awake, I use the techniques I’ve learned through mediation and self-hypnosis to relax and calm my mind so I can go back to sleep faster than I used to.
#11. Ask an expert
If you’ve tried everything on this list or it just seems all too much, it’s time to seek help from a professional — your naturopath, GP, sleep specialist, and/or counsellor.
There may be a medical reason why you can’t get to or stay asleep, or a different perspective or specific dosage that only a trained professional can provide.
You need to remember that we are all unique — our symptoms may be similar, but the treatment required for you needs to be for you.
Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight
Sleepless nights can leave you exhausted, frustrated and feeling just plain blah!
But you’re not alone. There are many ways to overcome sleep problems.
Use the tips above to create your own personal action plan for a Good Night’s Sleep.
It may take weeks or months, and you may need professional help. But the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be sleeping through the night and waking refreshed.
You’ll have all the energy you need, the fog will have lifted, and won’t need the caffeine or sugar hit to make it through the day.
You’ll be happier, healthier and energized. And sleepless nights will be a thing of the past.